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Senate panel raps Bush on Iraq claims

In a long-delayed report, the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday rebuked President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for making prewar claims – particularly that Iraq had close ties to al-Qaida – that weren't backed by available intelligence.

The report, opposed by most Republicans on the panel, accuses Bush and other members of his administration of repeatedly exaggerating evidence of an al-Qaida link to take advantage of the charged climate after Sept. 11. It amounts to the most pointed reproach to date of the administration's use of intelligence to build the case for the Iraq war. But the document stops short of calling for any follow-up investigation or sanction.

“In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent,” said Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the panel's chairman. “Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretenses.”

In a second report, the committee provided new details on a series of clandestine, post-Sept. 11 meetings between Defense Department officials and Iranian dissidents seeking support for a covert plan to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran. In that document, the committee faulted national security adviser Stephen Hadley and others for their roles in an effort that was hidden from the CIA.

The report largely exonerates administration officials for some of their prewar assertions, including claims that Baghdad had stockpiles of illegal chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing a nuclear bomb. Although those claims were subsequently proved to be wildly inaccurate, the report noted, they were largely consistent with U.S. intelligence at the time.

But the report said the Bush administration veered away from its own intelligence community's conclusions in two key areas: on Iraq's relationship with al-Qaida and on whether it would be difficult to pacify Iraq after a U.S. invasion.

Statements made during dozens of speeches and interviews before the war created the impression that Iraqi leaders and al-Qaida had forged a partnership. But the report concluded that such assertions “were not substantiated by the intelligence” being shown to senior officials at the time.

Bush officials strayed even further from the evidence when suggesting that Saddam Hussein was prepared to provide weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida groups – a linchpin in the case for war.

On post-war prospects, the report contrasted the rosy scenarios conjured by Cheney and others with more sober warnings that were being presented to senior officials.

Cheney's prediction that U.S. forces would “be greeted as liberators” was at odds with reports from the CIA as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency, which warned nearly a year earlier that invading U.S. forces would face serious opposition.

The release of the report is likely to touch off renewed debate over the committee's methodology. Senior Republicans accused Democrats of using the report to score political points in an election year and of refusing to subject prewar claims made by congressional Democrats to similar scrutiny.

In dissenting views attached to the main text, Republicans cited quotes from Rockefeller, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and others that often echoed Bush administration language in describing the Iraq threat.

“The report released today was a waste of committee time and resources,” said a conclusion signed by Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the committee, and three of his colleagues. Bond accused Democrats of “a partisan agenda” and said Democrats had “cherry-picked information.”

The document was approved in April on a 10-5 vote, with two of the panel's seven Republicans – Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine – siding with Democrats to endorse its release.