WASHINGTON – The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee says he's concerned that the Bush administration's focus on Iraq is draining resources from the fight against terrorism.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said he believes Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization remains a bigger danger to Americans than Iraq and that he hasn't seen information yet that would justify a war now against Saddam Hussein.
"Is there enough evidence? At this point I don't think it's compelling," though "it certainly is worrisome," he said.
Rockefeller spoke in his Capitol Hill office Monday in his first sit-down interview on intelligence since taking over the top Democratic slot on the committee last month.
Rockefeller said he believes U.S. intelligence agencies have begun to make improvements since the Sept. 11 attacks, but Iraq has slowed changes. He noted, as an example, that a congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks found that agencies had an inadequate number of linguists and analysts. While new people are being recruited, Iraq and North Korea have added to the demands on agencies.
"Everything distracts us from the war on terrorism. I don't know how many wars one can fight," he said. But he added: "I think Americans always traditionally have done what we have to."
Like other top lawmakers, Rockefeller receives regular briefings on classified information gathered by intelligence agencies. Democrats have been divided about the strength of the Bush administration's case against Saddam.
"People can read intelligence, talk intelligence, learn intelligence and come to different points of view," he said. Rockefeller said he doesn't doubt that Saddam has prohibited biological and chemical weapons.
Rockefeller also said he wouldn't be surprised -- or offended -- if Secretary of State Colin Powell presents the U.N. Security Council with evidence against Saddam that has not been shown to lawmakers.
He said, though, he still believes U.N. weapons inspections should be given more time to do their work.
"I want it (inspections) to go forward in the hopes that something will happen in the mind of this singular ruler, absolute ruler, that will cause him to back away from this, but I don't hold out much hope for that," he said.
Rockefeller, 65, a former West Virginia governor who won his fourth Senate term last year, voted for a congressional resolution last year authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq.
He said he doubts war can be avoided, given rhetoric from the Bush administration that's "almost like they're moving toward something which is perhaps decided."
That could prompt Saddam to give his chemical and biological weapons to terrorist groups, he said. He noted that in a letter to lawmakers last year, CIA Director George Tenet warned that Saddam was likelier to help terrorists attack the United States if he believed a U.S. invasion was imminent.
Rockefeller also said though elements of Al Qaeda have been in Iraq, he has not seen evidence of close ties between Saddam and the organization.