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Bush names panel to review Iraq intelligence

Move comes amid Democratic criticism

President Bush on Friday named members of a commission to assess prewar intelligence on Iraq.
President Bush on Friday named members of a commission to assess prewar intelligence on Iraq.

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Investigating intelligence failures regarding Saddam's WMD capabilities.
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George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Facing lingering questions about the nature of the prewar threat from Iraq, President Bush on Friday appointed a bipartisan commission to "figure out why" apparent intelligence failures regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities occurred.

"We're also determined to make sure that American intelligence is as accurate as possible for every challenge in the future," Bush said during a brief news conference at the White House at which he named seven members -- including three Democrats -- to the commission.

He left the door open to appoint two more members.

The move comes as Democrats step up criticism of the Republican administration, saying the White House exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam -- particularly as it relates to weapons of mass destruction -- to bolster the case for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year. Bush and top administration figures repeatedly said that Saddam possessed such weapons stockpiles as they pressed U.S. lawmakers and allies abroad to support military action against Iraq.

Last month, the former top U.S. weapons inspector, David Kay, told Congress that most officials were probably "all wrong" in their belief that Saddam had WMD stockpiles, and he described a "fundamental fault analysis."

At the same time, Kay strongly rejected suggestions that his team was under any political pressure before the war to color its views to suit a particular agenda.

In naming the commission, Bush said the panel would "examine intelligence on weapons of mass destruction" and other threats, and issue recommendations. The report is due by March 31, 2005 -- after the November presidential election.

"As we move forward in our efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we must stay ahead of constantly changing intelligence challenges," Bush said. "The stakes for our country could not be higher and our standard of intelligence gathering and analysis must be equal to that of the challenge."

He ordered all department and agencies, including intelligence agencies to "assist the commission's work."

The panel will be co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican: Former Sen. and former Gov. Chuck Robb of Virginia, and former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Other members include:

• Lloyd Cutler, who served as White House counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton;

•  Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona;

• Former appellate court judge Pat Wald, a Democrat;

• Rick Levin, president of Yale University, Bush's alma mater; and

• Ret. Adm. Bill Studeman, a former deputy director of the CIA.

Earlier Friday, Bush met at the White House with Charles Duelfer, the new head of the Iraq Survey Group that is searching for weapons and evidence of weapons programs in that country. Bush said the commission would have "full access" to the group's findings.

Just Thursday, Bush delivered a vigorous defense of the administration's actions on Iraq. While acknowledging that no weapons stockpiles had been located in Iraq, the president maintained that Saddam -- who is now in U.S. custody -- posed a threat to the world, noting that the Iraqi leader had used such weapons against his own people in the past, and that he had demonstrated a long interest in developing WMD programs.(Full story)

CIA Director George Tenet also defended the prewar U.S. intelligence estimate of Iraq's suspected weapons programs and said his agency never depicted Iraq as an "imminent threat" to the United States. (Full story)

Bush acknowledged the apparent intelligence flaws in his comments Friday.

"Last week, our former chief weapons inspector David Kay reported that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons programs and activities in violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions and was a gathering threat to the world," Bush said.

"Dr. Kay also stated that some prewar intelligence assessments by America and other nations about Iraq's weapons stockpiles have not been confirmed. We are determined to figure out why."

The question of Iraq and WMD promises to be an election issue, as Democrats have steadily assailed Bush on the campaign trail. They've also questioned whether a commission appointed solely by the president -- as opposed to some members named by Congress -- would be able to get to the bottom of the matter in a fair manner.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, dismissed the commission as "wholly owned by the executive branch."

"To have a commission appointed exclusively by President Bush investigate his administration's intelligence failures in Iraq does not inspire confidence in its independence," Pelosi said in a written statement on Friday.

McCain said he agreed to serve on a commission because he believes it is important to explore how intelligence is being gathered and interpreted, saying there were clearly "failures" on Iraq .

"We need an assessment of the capabilities of the United States of America to gather intelligence in order that the president ... may make the most difficult decisions that a president has to make," said McCain, who was attending a NATO meeting in Munich when his appointment was announced by President Bush. "That process is under severe criticism and scrutiny in some quarters."

He expressed confidence that politics could be kept out of the investigations.

CNN Correspondents John King and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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