The issue of an independent commission has blossomed into an election-year problem for the president, with Democrats and Republicans alike supporting the idea. Former chief weapons inspector David Kay has concluded that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, which Mr. Bush had cited as a rationale for going to war against Iraq.
Mr. Bush said he wants to be able to compare the administration's prewar intelligence with what will be learned by inspectors who are now searching for weapons in Iraq. There is no deadline for those inspectors, the Iraq Survey Group, to complete their work.
"One thing is for certain, one thing we do know … that Saddam Hussein was a danger, he was growing danger," the president told reporters during a brief question and answer session after a meeting with economists.
Parting company with many of his fellow Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Thursday he wants an independent commission to take a sweeping look at recent intelligence failures.
In an interview with The Associated Press, McCain said he believes the public needs an assessment that won't be clouded by partisan division. McCain said he is seeking a full-scale look not only at apparently botched intelligence on Iraq's weapons capabilities, but also flawed estimations of Iraq, North Korea and Libya and the faulty assessments from other Western intelligence services.
"I am absolutely convinced that one is necessary," McCain said, "because this is a very serious issue and we need to not only know what happened, but know what steps are necessary to prevent the United States from ever being misinformed again."
Some of the Democratic candidates for president said they support an independent commission.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean criticized Vice President Dick Cheney, saying that he berated CIA operatives because he did not like their intelligence reports.
"It seems to me that the vice president of the United States therefore influenced the very reports that the president then used to decide to go to war and to ask Congress for permission to go to war," Dean said during a campaign debate Thursday night.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his support for the Iraq war was based on years of intelligence briefings and evidence of Saddam Hussein's atrocities against his own people. He supports an independent commission "that will have credibility and that the American people will trust, about why there is this discrepancy about what we were told and what's actually been found there."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said that whether Cheney berated CIA officials to shape the intelligence that he wanted is "a very legitimate question. … There's an enormous question about the exaggeration by this administration."
But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has expressed frustration with those who suggest an outside investigation is needed before his committee has a chance to complete an inquiry now underway. Senate Armed Service Chairman John Warner, R-Va., supports letting the committee finish its work.
The House and Senate intelligence committees that have been looking into the issue for the past seven months have unearthed failures in prewar intelligence similar to those identified by Kay, The Washington Post reported Friday.
The newspaper quoted unidentified congressional officials as saying the committees believe CIA analysts never seriously considered the possibility that Saddam no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction.
But Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees disagree over whether the fault lies with the analysts or with the policymakers that used murky intelligence as a basis for war.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Thursday said that existing efforts to learn the extent of Saddam's weapons arsenal are sufficient while downplaying the discrepancy between prewar intelligence and what has (or hasn't) been found in Iraq.
"I think that what we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground. That's not surprising," Rice said on the CBS News Early Show.
"In a country that was as closed and secretive as Iraq, a country that was doing everything that it could to deceive the United Nations, to deceive the world," Rice said.
"I would remind people that in Libya and Iran, we have found we probably significantly underestimated the significance of those weapons of mass destruction programs. So in part, this is a problem of dealing with very closed societies that are doing everything that they can to hide the extent and nature of their programs."
In a speech in Merrimack, N.H. on Thursday, Mr. Bush called the invasion of Iraq a "war for our security" and said he welcomed a debate over his reasons for launching the war, in which at least 519 Americans have died.
"We'll debate about the decision, and I look forward to those discussions with the American people," Mr. Bush said. "I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. And I look forward to explaining it clearly to the American people."
Kay and some Democrats, including Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., have also stated the need for an outside investigation into the intelligence community. Along with the Senate inquiry, several retired intelligence officers have delivered a review to CIA Director George Tenet on the performance of the CIA and other agencies.
McCain, who was one of the loudest voices in a successful campaign to form a commission on the Sept. 11 attacks, said he spoke to administration officials, but doesn't know what — if any — action the White House will take. McCain believes the investigation would take over a year, removing the findings from election-year politics.
McCain said the commission should consider a series of questions: Were the estimates wrong? If so, why? Who is responsible? What steps need to be taken to ensure that the president has accurate intelligence information?