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WMD panel harshly critical of intelligence

David Jackson Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – A presidential commission, working quietly for a year, goes public today with its conclusions that intelligence on Iraq’s weapons was deeply flawed and that the U.S. spy apparatus remains hobbled despite its post-Sept. 11 makeover.

The findings could have major policy and political ramifications for President Bush and bear directly on the nation’s ability to track terrorists and block another attack. The report also could affect policies toward Iraq, Iran and North Korea, analysts say, and cast doubt on the administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive military action.

The panel has worked behind closed doors – in stark contrast to the Sept. 11 commission, which held public hearings and issued interim reports. Where the Sept. 11 commission drew its clout from public support, the presidential panel’s recommendations – made by people Bush appointed – have already been embraced by the White House.

While White House officials declined to discuss details of the report, press secretary Scott McClellan said, “making sure we have the best possible intelligence is critical to protecting the American people.”

The report, which will be released at the White House, is the latest in a line of critiques of U.S. intelligence that indicated Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The commission is expected to be sharply critical of the ongoing failure to share information among the 15 intelligence agencies and propose new reforms to shatter longstanding barriers on the sharing of intelligence.

The report plunges the White House back into the dispute over missing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq – claims that played a major role in Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq.

The president acted under what analysts describe as the doctrine of pre-emption. It says the United States has the right to take military action to meet a potential threat, as opposed to an actual attack.

“My attitude is you take pre-emptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure,” Bush said during his successful re-election campaign last year.

But if U.S. policy-makers are not confident about the quality of intelligence they are receiving, future pre-emptive action could be problematic, analysts say. Some cite the two most prominent potential problems on the horizon: Suspected nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.

“It really raises questions about what we know,” said Thomas Mann, senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Administration officials insist the Iraq invasion remains justified, noting that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein once used chemical weapons, and failed to comply with United Nations demands that he prove his weapons programs had been dismantled.

As for Iran and North Korea, officials stress they are pursuing diplomatic solutions.

The answer to bad intelligence, they say, is better intelligence.

Bush in December signed a sweeping intelligence overhaul bill based in large part on the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. Among the law’s chief measures: Creation of an intelligence czar to oversee all 15 spy agencies and a national counterterrorism center to analyze intelligence from multiple sources.

And before that intelligence overhaul, the administration was already moving to revamp the FBI into the nation’s domestic counterterrorism agency.

The congressionally created Sept. 11 commission and congressional committees have also analyzed intelligence failures, both before the 2001 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war.

As with the prior investigations, the presidential commission is expected to blast agencies for failing to share information and to take possible dissenting views into account.

Bush and aides resisted some of those previous inquiries, but appointed this commission and cooperated with it. Its official name: The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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