WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's former chief weapons inspector in Iraq has handed Democrats a presidential campaign issue with his declaration that Saddam Hussein's feared stockpiles of banned weapons probably don't exist.
The conclusion by David Kay, the former inspector, prompted the White House yesterday to acknowledge possible flaws in intelligence-gathering and fueled debate over whether President Bush was justified in sending Americans to war to disarm Iraq.
If the controversy continues to build, it could embolden Democrats to chip away at Bush's stewardship of national security by charging that he presided over an intelligence failure that led to war, analysts say.
"I don't think it will turn Bush supporters against the president, but Democrats may be able to use the intelligence failure [by contending] that a critical national security function was short-handed, and Bush is to blame for that," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst who edits the Rothenberg Political Report.
Several Democratic presidential aspirants, at a debate last night in South Carolina, seized on Kay's findings to join party leaders in Congress in demanding an independent inquiry. Democrats want an investigation into whether the intelligence was wrong or whether the Bush administration might have manipulated and exaggerated what the spy agencies reported.
"A key question is, was the intelligence flawed or were the books cooked," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and member of the intelligence committee, told The Sun's editorial board yesterday.
Bush said yesterday that he knows he will be challenged during the fall campaign to explain his decision to invade Iraq and is eager to respond.
"We'll debate about the decision," said Bush in Merrimack, N.H. "I look forward to those discussions with the American people. I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, and I look forward to explaining it to the American people."
The White House may have compounded any political damage by resisting an outside inquiry, said Wendy Sherman, a longtime Maryland Democratic strategist and later a high-ranking State Department official under President Bill Clinton.
"Sooner or later, there will be an inquiry," she said.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, told NBC's Today program that U.S. weapons inspectors were still pursuing their search and that the intelligence community had opened its own investigation.
"A lot is going on," Rice said. "But let me be clear that no one will want to know more than the president, a comparison between what we found when we got there and what we thought was there going in."
She added: "The president's judgment to go to war was based on the fact that Saddam Hussein for 12 years had defied U.N. resolutions."
Hussein "had been considered a danger for a long time and it was time to take care of that danger," Rice said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, critics complained about a shortage of specialists on the Arab world and the failure of the intelligence community to penetrate militant organizations.
The alleged misjudgment over Iraq has highlighted what Rice acknowledged yesterday was the intelligence community's difficulty in finding out what is going on inside closed, dictatorial regimes.
If recent polls are accurate, Bush hasn't been politically damaged so far by the purported intelligence failure. If Democrats want to use it as a political weapon, "they've got their work cut out," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for Politics and the Press.
"There's a rising belief that [the administration] was either out and out lying or stretching the truth about WMD [weapons of mass destruction], but that still hasn't changed the notion that the war was the right thing to do," Kohut said. "The public thinks we've done this [gone to war], we haven't found weapons, but we're still safer without Saddam."
This month, 53 percent of Maryland voters said they believed that the president misled the country about the situation in Iraq before the war, according to The Maryland Poll, a telephone survey of 1,200 randomly selected likely voters conducted by Bethesda-based Potomac Inc. for The Sun and its Web site, Sunspot.net.
Only 37 percent believed the administration was truthful, while 9 percent were not sure. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points and was conducted Jan. 2 through Jan. 5.
Nationwide, a November survey by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes found that a majority of Americans believed the administration went to war on the basis of incorrect assumptions, without evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat.
But the American public judges the Iraq war "in a much broader context," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. She noted that through the 1990s, a majority said Hussein should have been removed from power after the first Persian Gulf war.