- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Democrats continue to press for open hearings on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, weighing their parliamentary options and straining to not appear partisan in the pursuit.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, says he has it in his power as vice chairman to push harder for open hearings on the veracity of the intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq.

But Mr. Rockefeller said he doesn’t want to force the issue. He refused to elaborate, but he did say a letter signed by five fellow committee members could mandate a meeting.

The Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, maintains that the high level of classified material under review warrants closed-door hearings on the matter, and has refused to commit to open public hearings in the future.

A Republican aide to the committee, however, said there is a big difference between forcing a meeting, and forcing public hearings.

“We can only authorize an investigation by a vote,” the aide said. “If the majority holds together [against a formal public inquiry], the majority will prevail.”

Mr. Rockefeller said he hopes to rely on his friendship with Mr. Roberts and the tradition of nonpartisanship on the Intelligence Committee to get what he wants.

“I’m not political,” Mr. Rockefeller said.

But other prominent Democrats are, especially those members of Congress running for president.

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, while on the stump in Iowa this week, said the president “lied, in the sense that he didn’t tell the whole truth” about the danger Saddam Hussein posed with his weapons of mass destruction program.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, has called the Bush administration’s foreign policy “fraudulent.”

And former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has raised the specter of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon.

“I never thought I’d hear this question raised in my lifetime again,” Mr. Dean told a crowd of Democrats in Iowa. “But the question really is now going to become, ‘What did the president know and when did he know it.’”

Even Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, who has been booed by what should be friendly partisan crowds on the campaign trail over his pro-war stance on Iraq, has said that he doesn’t “trust [Mr. Bushs] foreign policy.”

Then there’s Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who hasn’t let more than a couple of weeks pass without taking to the Senate floor to decry the Bush administration for what he considers taking the United States to war “under false pretenses.”

With all that noise in the background, how do Democrats push for public hearings without seeming partisan?

“I can’t control the perception,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “But I can control what I do and what questions I ask. You just have to play it straight.”

Some Republicans think it’s already too late to stop the partisanship on Capitol Hill.

“Senator Rockefeller missed that opportunity when he put out his first press release,” said the Republican committee aide.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, a high-ranking member of both the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, also said he wants to avoid partisanship. But he would also relish an opportunity to grill George J. Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in an open forum.

Mr. Levin said he believes that Mr. Tenet was not being entirely truthful in his public testimony when he said the CIA had shared with U.N. weapons inspectors intelligence on all potential hiding places for Iraq’s weapons.

“The classified material that he gave us says something significantly different from that,” Mr. Levin said. “In my book, he embellished. I don’t know the motive; I’m just simply saying I believe that.”

If the United Nations had all the intelligence available, Mr. Levin said, “it would have undermined the policy of going in and attacking Iraq … before the U.N. completed its inspections.”

“That’s why we need an investigation,” Mr. Levin said. “To see if I’m right.”

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