WASHINGTON – President Bush's decision to appoint a commission on Iraq intelligence was intended to take pressure off a potentially explosive political issue. But setting up the commission offers its own dangers.
If the commission is truly independent, as the president has promised, it could examine not only the work of intelligence agencies, but how the administration handled intelligence. It could make demands for access to Bush's secret intelligence briefings, as has the congressionally created commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But if the commission members are seen as too close to Bush, the panel's credibility could be questioned. Democratic leaders have already expressed doubts that a commission appointed entirely by the president can be impartial.
Bush is likely to formally announce creation of the commission in an executive order Friday. But the White House already has begun defending it.
"This commission will be bipartisan and independent and they will have full access to the information they need to do their job," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday.
Impetus for the independent investigation developed after the former CIA (search) weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay (search), said last week he doubted that Saddam Hussein (search) had weapons of mass destruction in recent years. Those weapons were one of Bush's main arguments for war.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday he is not ready to conclude that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before U.S. troops invaded to depose him last year.
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. weapons inspectors need more time to reach final conclusions about whether chemical and biological weapons existed in Iraq before the war, as the Bush administration had asserted before sending American troops into battle.
The White House originally had opposed an independent investigation, saying it wanted to give the search for weapons more time. But it reversed course as pressure grew from Republicans and Democrats.
The White House has stressed that the commission's mandate will be wide-ranging, examining not only Iraq but also flawed intelligence on Pakistan, Iran and other nations. But Bush could face criticism if the review is so broad that commissioners can't delve deeply into Iraq intelligence before its work ends early next year.
Finding the right balance on the commission will be difficult. McClellan said commissioners "will be people of experience in the public sector; they will be people with expertise in intelligence."
The White House has not disclosed any names, but among those that lawmakers and others have suggested as qualified candidates are former CIA directors Robert Gates, William Webster and James Woolsey; former Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Gary Hart, D-Colo; former CIA deputy director Richard Kerr and Kay.
But a panel that includes too many former intelligence officials may have difficulty examining work done under their watch. Former Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., said the commission needs the perspective of policy-makers who depend on intelligence. "I think the emphasis needs to be more on the foreign relations/national security side than on the intelligence side," he said.
Bush may also find that some of the most qualified people may not want a high-profile government position. The Sept. 11 commission's original chairman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and vice chairman, former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, resigned shortly after their appointments, citing concerns about potential conflicts of interest with their professional work.
Members of the Sept. 11 commission were required to publicly disclose their business interests, but it is not clear whether Iraq commissioners would have to do the same. That would depend on the commission's structure and the commissioners' pay and work demands.
This offers another problem: Some potential commissioners may be reluctant to serve if they have to reveal financial details. But if public disclosures aren't required, questions could be raised about secret conflicts of interest.
Democrats continue to express skepticism about the president's plans. On Tuesday, presidential candidate Howard Dean called them "a totally inadequate response to a blunder of this magnitude." Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., said he would continue pushing for a congressionally created panel.
"The American people have a right to expect a complete, honest assessment of what went wrong, and the assignment of full accountability," Corzine said.
Republicans backed Bush. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said a congressionally appointed commission would take too long to complete its work.
"We need to make sure our intelligence is good now, as soon as possible, not a year or 18 months or two years from now," he said.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said Bush will "be criticized regardless who's on the panel, but I think the panel will stand or fall on its own merits."
"If it's a good panel, it doesn't matter who chose it," he said.