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Rockefeller: Cheney applied 'constant' pressure to stall investigation on flawed Iraq intelligence

McClatchy Newspapers | January 26, 2007
Jonathan S. Landay

WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney exerted "constant" pressure on the Republican former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to stall an investigation into the Bush administration's use of flawed intelligence on Iraq, the panel's Democratic chairman charged Thursday.

In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia also accused President Bush of running an illegal program by ordering eavesdropping on Americans' international e-mails and telephone communications without court-issued warrants.

In the 45-minute interview, Rockefeller said that it was "not hearsay" that Cheney, a leading proponent of invading Iraq, pushed Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to drag out the probe of the administration's use of prewar intelligence.

"It was just constant," Rockefeller said of Cheney's alleged interference. He added that he knew that the vice president attended regular policy meetings in which he conveyed White House directions to Republican staffers.

Republicans "just had to go along with the administration," he said.

In an e-mail response to Rockefeller's comments, Cheney's spokeswoman, Lea McBride, said: "The vice president believes Senator Roberts was a good chairman of the Intelligence Committee."

Roberts' chief of staff, Jackie Cottrell, blamed the Democrats for the investigation remaining incomplete more than two years after it began.

"Senator Rockefeller's allegations are patently untrue," she said in an e-mail statement. "The delays came from the Democrats' insistence that they expand the scope of the inquiry to make it a more political document going into the 2006 elections. Chairman Roberts did everything he could to accommodate their requests for further information without allowing them to distort the facts."

"I'm not aware of any effort by the vice president, his staff or anyone in the administration to influence the speed at which the committee did its work," said Bill Duhnke, who was Roberts' staff director.

Rockefeller's comments were among the most forceful he's made about why the committee failed to complete the inquiry under Roberts. Roberts chaired the intelligence committee from January 2003 until the Democrats took over Congress this month.

The panel released a report in July 2004 that lambasted the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies for erroneously concluding that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was concealing biological, chemical and nuclear warfare programs. It then began examining how senior Bush administration officials used faulty intelligence to justify the March 2003 invasion.

Robert promised to quickly complete what became known as the Phase II investigation. After more than two years, however, the panel published only two of five Phase II reports amid serious rifts between Republican and Democratic members and their staffs.

Rockefeller recalled that in November 2005, the then-minority Democrats employed a rarely used parliamentary procedure to force the Senate into a closed session to pressure Roberts to complete Phase II.

"That was the reason we closed the session. To force him" to complete the investigation, he said.

The most potentially controversial of the three Phase II reports being worked on will compare what Bush and his top lieutenants said publicly about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to terrorists with what was contained in top-secret intelligence reports.

In the two reports released in September, the panel said that the administration's claims of ties between Saddam and al-Qaida were false and found that administration officials distributed exaggerated and bogus claims provided by an Iraqi exile group with close ties to some senior administration officials.

Rockefeller said it was important to complete the Phase II inquiry.

"The looking backward creates tension, but it's necessary tension because the administration needs to be held accountable and the country . . . needs to know," he said.

Rockefeller said that he and the senior Republican member of the committee, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., have put the frictions behind them and agree that the committee should press the administration for documents it's withholding on its domestic eavesdropping program and detainee programs.

Under the eavesdropping program, the National Security Agency monitored Americans' international telephone calls and e-mails without court warrants if one party was a suspected member or supporter of al-Qaida or another terrorist group.

Rockefeller charged that Bush had violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to obtain permission to eavesdrop on Americans from a secret national security court.

"For five years he's (Bush) has been operating an illegal program," he said, adding that the committee wants the administration to provide the classified documents that set out its legal argument that Bush has the power to wiretap Americans without warrants.

Rockefeller is among a handful of lawmakers who were kept briefed on the program after it started following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he told Cheney in a handwritten note in July 2003 that he was deeply concerned about its legality.

In the interview, Rockefeller said the committee needs more details about how the program worked before it considers amending the eavesdropping act to give the administration the flexibility it says it requires to be able to track terrorists.

"How do we draw something up if we have no idea about what the president sent out in the way of orders to the NSA? What about the interpretation of the Department of Justice?" he asked. "Americans . . . should want us to discern what the facts are, what the truth is."

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