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Lott: Intelligence justifies Iraq strike

Senate Democrats skeptical

Senate Minority Leader Lott, R-Mississippi
Senate Minority Leader Lott, R-Mississippi  

From Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A classified briefing unveiled more intelligence information for lawmakers that justifies giving the president approval to attack Iraq, said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, but some colleagues continued to expressed skepticism about sanctioning any such move.

"I don't want us to be in a position weeks or months from now saying, 'How come you didn't connect the dots? What did you know and when did you know it?' We know plenty right now," Lott, R-Mississippi, said, following a Tuesday briefing with .

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA officials.

Talking to reporters Tuesday, Lott said he wants the White House to send Congress language on an Iraq resolution by the week of September 23 so lawmakers can work out the wording and have ample time for debate on the Senate floor before the pre-election recesses.

But some leading Democratic senators expressed skepticism about how new the information from the briefing is, and whether the resolution will or should happen before the election.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Delaware, said he heard no new information at Tuesday morning's intelligence briefing on the threat Iraq poses.

When asked if he thinks the administration is justified in ratcheting up the pressure and rhetoric against Iraq at this point, he smiled and said, "I'm going to lunch." Asked if that was a "no," he gave another smile and repeated, "I'm going to lunch."

Biden said that despite all the talk of Congress passing a resolution authorizing Bush to use force, he does not believe it will happen because he predicted that Bush will likely move forward diplomatically with the United Nations rather than seek immediate military action.

"There is no certainty about a resolution," Biden said.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, said believes Iraq is a real threat, but added that the White House has more convincing to do on Capitol Hill and to the American people before asking Congress to approve a use-of-force resolution against Iraq.

"If the president wants to have a vote before the election, he needs to give the military threat, or he risks looking political. With that timing, he will run the risk of looking brazenly political," Bayh.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, a potential 2004 presidential candidate, said it may be best to delay a vote until after the election because Iraq should be a non-partisan issue.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who also has his eye on the White House, agrees the case has not yet been made for Congress to give Bush approval for military action.

"I don't think we're at that point yet," Kerry said, adding that although there was an "increased compilation" of information, there was a "sameness" in much of what he heard Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it is impossible for lawmakers and other government officials to adequately answer the questions about Iraq because the Bush administration has not yet produced a comprehensive threat assessment and may be "missing key intelligence information."

Durbin wrote CIA Director George Tenet Tuesday, as well as Senate Intelligence Chairman Bob Graham, D-Florida, and ranking Republican Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, asking that a the CIA put together a so-called "National Intelligence Estimate," an authoritative written judgment on national security regarding Iraq.

But some senators said they are becoming more convinced as they get new information about Iraq's threat.

Senate Minority Whip Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma., said he was skeptical last week of U.S. action against Iraq because he was not convinced there was an immediate threat.

But he said the briefing has "further convinced me that Saddam Hussein has a lot of weapons and is a serious threat to the U.S. and the world community, certainly his neighbors."

Lott said Hussein may have been able to reverse some of the disarmament that weapons inspectors were able to achieve in Iraq.

"He's gone back and put (up) some of the plants that were destroyed or jammed up one way or another by inspectors," Lott said. "Well, I've got to be careful what I say, how much I say here. But we have reason to believe he has gone back and reactivated them. Some of them he could still argue they have dual use. But the fact of the matter is they can be used for very dangerous purposes."

Biden, along with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, wrote President Bush Tuesday suggesting that he seek a diplomatic route at the United Nations when he speaks there Thursday.

The two senators asked the president to call on the Security Council to "mandate requiring Iraq to accept an unconditional weapons inspections regime that gives inspectors the power to (go) anywhere, anytime" and setting a deadline for Iraq to comply.

"Although we recognize that it will require difficult diplomacy, we believe your administration can succeed in gaining support for a mandate -- much as President George H.W. Bush did before the Gulf War. Such a resolution would have the merit of putting the focus where it belongs: on Iraq's dangerous and illegal weapons programs," wrote Biden and Lugar.

Biden and Lugar expressed concern that while they agree Saddam poses a significant threat, there is still no consensus on answers to critical questions such as: What is the likelihood he will use weapons of mass destruction; would attacking Iraq precipitate its use of those weapons, and will an attack on Iraq threaten the U.S. war on terrorism?

On the House side, one leading Republican continued to express his doubts about the merits of a strike against Iraq.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Tuesday he wants to see a "plan" for military action before he would commit to supporting the use of force against Iraq.

"This is a big deal," Armey said. "My wife and I sat in our home and we watched those young men get slaughtered on the streets of Mogadishu in the absence of a plan. It broke our heart."

--CNN Correspondent Kate Snow and Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.




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