High Noon In Intel Spat

Leaders of a Senate committee complained to three top Bush administration officials Thursday that their agencies were slow in providing information needed for the panel's inquiry into prewar intelligence on Iraq.

The letters to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice set a deadline of Friday to provide documents and schedule interviews. It was signed by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and its top Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

A similar letter was sent Wednesday to CIA Director George Tenet.

"We must take whatever steps are necessary to assure our nation that U.S. intelligence is accurate and unbiased," Thursday's letters said. "The credibility of the government with its people and the nation with the world is at stake."

A White House spokesman said the administration was "surprised by the substance and tone of the letter." The White House has been assisting the committee in its review of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, he said.

"The White House has made NSC (National Security Council) staffers available to meet with committee investigators and has provided committee investigators access to relevant documents even though the committee does not have jurisdiction over the White House," the spokesman said.

"Neither Dr. Rice nor the White House has objected to allowing the committee access to CIA documents sent to the White House. In fact, White House lawyers made copies of these documents available to committee investigators last summer."

A Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon is in the process of answering the letter.

There was no immediate comment from the State Department.

According to The Washington Post, the panel wants documents like certain daily reports President Bush receives from the CIA, and information on Pentagon policy groups that may have shaped the case for war.

The dispute mirrors a similar one between the White House and the panel probing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The head of that board, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, has threatened to subpoena documents if the administration refuses to provide them.

The Sept. 11 panel is also interested in reading particular installments of the president's daily CIA brief. The document is closely held, and the White House historically claims executive privilege in keeping it off limits.

Roberts told reporters Thursday "there's no real serious repercussions" if the deadline cannot be met, but he hopes they would respond by at least Monday or Tuesday.

The committee is examining the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs and its connections to terrorism. Democrats have been pressing for a broader inquiry to examine whether the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence to make the case for war. So far, Roberts has resisted that.

Early reports suggest the committee will sharply criticize U.S. intelligence agencies for using outdated, circumstantial or single-source information for some of its reports. A House committee also probing the prewar intelligence is nearing a similar conclusion.

The CIA has said both committees are rushing to judgment, since the hunt for suspected weapons of mass destruction is continuing in Iraq.

The head of that search, David Kay, told Congress earlier this month that he had seen evidence that Iraq violated Security Council resolutions, hid material from inspectors, planned to build missiles to fly beyond range limits and possessed the capacity to quickly resume biological weapons production.

However, Kay reported no solid evidence of actual biological, chemical or nuclear weapons or active programs to develop them.

The Bush administration's case for war was anchored by the charge that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and ran programs to build more.

Seven months after the war started, the lack of any evidence to back that charge has critics questioning the basis for war.

Some fault the intelligence agencies, citing the use of information from defectors who may have lied or unwittingly passed on false information planted by the Iraqi government.

Others blame the administration for pressuring intelligence analysts to produce data to back White House policies. On several occasions, administration officials made allegations that exceeded evidence in CIA reports, including the now discredited claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger.

The Senate panel's letter this week to the CIA singled out information requested in July on the intelligence behind the Niger allegation, a claim that was part of Mr. Bush's State of the Union address.