CIA report on Iraq opens Congress talks

Agency says unprovoked attack by Iraq unlikely

at odds with Bush position

War resolution debate to begin

Mich. senator to propose the use of force only if U.N. approves such action

October 09, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As Congress began a historic debate yesterday on a resolution authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq, new U.S. intelligence information suggested that Saddam Hussein is unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack on the United States.

That assessment conflicts with Bush's own assertions, expressed in a speech Monday night, that if the United States does not confront Hussein first, it risks an attack from him with chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.

With the House and Senate moving toward likely approval of the resolution, critics seized on the report as evidence that the broad authority Bush wants is not warranted. He is seeking a measure allowing him to invade Iraq - acting alone if necessary - so long as he certified that diplomacy had failed and that such an attack was consistent with the war on terrorism.

In a letter, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, told lawmakers that the CIA believes Hussein is, for now, "drawing a line short of" using weapons of mass destruction to launch terrorist assaults. But, according to the letter, if the Iraqi leader concluded that a U.S.-led attack against Iraq "could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions."

The release of the CIA assessment fueled a lively debate over whether the threat posed by Hussein's regime warrants a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.

"I've reached the conclusion that pursuit of a first-strike war - absent any credible sign that Saddam Hussein is preparing to wage war against our nation or other nations - will leave this nation less secure than before," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

At the same time, administration officials stepped up their pressure on Congress to approve the Bush resolution.

"I believe we're going to get a strong resolution, backed by both Republicans and Democrats," Bush said at a campaign stop in Tennessee.

One day after the president delivered a speech laying out his rationale for confronting Iraq, he sought to reach out to skeptics, in the United States and abroad, who argue that all other options should be exhausted before Bush undertakes any military action.

"Committing our military into harm's way is my last choice," Bush said. "I talk about military options as the last option, not the first option, because I understand the consequences."

Despite the new CIA assessment, both chambers are expected to approve the resolution by wide bipartisan margins, the House tomorrow and the Senate next week. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who is vehemently opposed to the measure, has vowed to delay a Senate vote through parliamentary tactics.

The resolution rests on a bold new approach to national security that the Bush administration has embraced: that in an era of nuclear and terrorist threats, the United States must act pre-emptively to prevent rogue nations from launching devastating strikes.

"Terrorists willing to commit suicide in order to kill large numbers of innocents cannot be stopped by the familiar convention of deterrence," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House International Relations Committee. "Their possession of weapons of mass destruction must be equated with a certainty that these will be used against us."

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans favor authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. But that base dwindles when people are asked whether the United States should act alone and before United Nations weapons inspections have been given more time in Iraq. Many Americans also say they are wary of the prospect of a long-term engagement that might be costly in lives and money.

Many of the lawmakers who back Bush's resolution are working to show they are sensitive to those concerns, while portraying inaction as a perilous and ultimately unthinkable option.

"We must pass this resolution, support the president of the United States as he works to disarm Saddam Hussein and win the war against terrorism," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

The dark shadow of the Sept. 11 attacks hangs heavily over the debate, with many proponents of Bush's requested war measure warning that the nation can ill afford to risk another such catastrophe.

"We must learn the terrible lesson from the tragedy of Sept. 11," said Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat who is a chief co-sponsor of the resolution. "If we had acted sooner perhaps - just perhaps - we could have saved 3,000 innocent lives - men, women, children. We waited too long to act. Let us not make that mistake again."

Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, said: "No senator wants to be placed in the position where we will have to call an investigation and ask why a tragedy has occurred at the hands of Saddam Hussein - and why it was not prevented when we knew it could happen, and had the opportunity to do something about it."

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