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Panel Reserves Right to Review Bush’s Claims of Iraqi Weapons

By Douglas Jehl and David E. Sanger

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

White House officials said Monday that the commission being created to investigate intelligence shortcomings will decide for itself if it will examine a highly charged political issue: whether President Bush and other senior administration officials exaggerated the evidence that Iraq possessed large stockpiles of illicit weapons.

A draft of the executive order Bush is preparing to sign this week to create the commission makes no explicit reference to a study of how the intelligence assessments were used. Instead, it only directs the panel to compare intelligence findings about Iraq produced before the war with the paucity of stockpiles and weapons found by American inspection teams on the ground in Iraq.

On Monday, Democratic leaders in Congress sent a letter to Bush urging that the scope of the inquiry include “the collection, analysis, dissemination and use by policy-makers of intelligence on Iraq.” The Democrats, including the minority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also said that members of the commission should be appointed “on a bipartisan basis by the congressional leadership” rather than by the president himself.

Bush, the White House said, plans to appoint the members himself, though Vice President Dick Cheney has been calling around Capitol Hill sounding out ideas.

Among the names being mentioned by members of Congress and administration officials as possible candidates are Robert M. Gates, the director of central intelligence under President Bush’s father; Warren B. Rudman, the former senator from New Hampshire and a longtime intelligence expert; Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of central intelligence who has been leading the CIA’s internal review of Iraq intelligence; and David A. Kay, until recently the chief American weapons inspector in Iraq. William Perry, who has extensive experience in intelligence matters and was defense secretary under President Clinton, has also been mentioned.

Bush had lunch at the White House on Monday with Kay, whose public acknowledgments in the last 10 days that American intelligence agencies overestimated Iraq’s capabilities forced the president to order the bipartisan inquiry, a step he had long resisted. Neither Bush nor Kay spoke publicly after their meeting.

But earlier in the day, speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting, Bush sidestepped a question about whether Americans deserved answers before the presidential election in November to questions about the yawning gap between prewar allegations that Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and the later failure of U.S. inspectors to discover any such weapons.