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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Bush shrugs off WMD worries

by Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

George W Bush
Mr Bush is seen as having led well
The US Congress is set to investigate the intelligence claims over weapons of mass destruction, but politics will limit their inquiry.

The claim that Iraq had concealed weapons of mass destruction that could eventually threaten the United States was at the heart of the justification for war against Iraq.

And the failure to find those weapons has been a growing embarrassment to the Bush administration.

More than a month after fighting ended, officials still appear divided on whether they will eventually find WMDs in Iraq, or whether they were destroyed before the war started, or whether Iraq only developed the capability to produce them on demand.

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, faces growing pressure from his backbenchers over the claim - which he strongly denies - that false intelligence over WMD misled Parliament into voting for war.

Now the US Congress will hold open hearings on the issue, and call witnesses, presumably including the head of the intelligence services.

In theory, the Congress has much stronger powers to investigate the issue, and can force witnesses to testify and produce documents.

Bush's good war

But in practice, there is far less political pressure over the issue in the United States.

This reflects the fact that the war - and President Bush's conduct of it - is far more popular here.

This has led Democrats - including many of those on the intelligence committee - from shying away from "unpatriotic" criticism of national security.

Republican Senator John Warner, the head of the Armed Services committee, said that the existence of an investigation should not be taken to suggest an indictment of the administration.

President Bush's conduct of the war as commander-in-chief is seen as a great success by the public, and therefore he is being given the benefit of the doubt on this issue.

In the most recent polling evidence, Americans said by a 67% to 31% majority that they were not deliberately misled on the question of weapons of mass destruction.

As a consequence, the Democratic opposition for the most part is focusing on domestic issues, such as jobs and health care, and is reluctant to take on the president on his strong suit of national security.

Only Senator Bob Graham, a former head of the intelligence committee, has charged that the government's obsession with Iraq had weakened its ability to pursue the broader war on terror.

Bob Graham
Graham has criticised Bush over the Iraq war
Now that the war is over, many Americans are also focusing much more on the domestic agenda, and questions of the legal justification for war are no longer seen as so important.

And finally, both in the media and in the policy community, there are strong voices which argue that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a worthwhile objective in itself.

Columnists like the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer argue that the evil that was found in Iraq was so overwhelming as to justify regime change.

Such viewpoints are echoed on many radio talk shows and cable television channels like Fox News.

Growing questions

However, some voices of dissent are being heard.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman argued that "much of justification for the war turns out to have been fictional".

A US soldier stands guard in front of a store during a search for automatic weapons in a residential building
US forces in Iraq have not found banned weapons
And more detailed investigative journalism , notably by Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker magazine, have claimed that intelligence officials are concerned that the raw data had been misinterpreted.

Senator Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on US television at the weekend that the Bush administration had "hyped" both the threat that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons and their links to al-Qaeda.

Strong defence

In the last week, the US administration has sought to downplay its claims over weapons of mass destruction.

Colin Powell
Colin Powell: illegal weapons "no figment of the imagination"
The existence of only a "weapons programme" would be a significant lowering of expectations from the claims made at the United Nations in the run-up to the war.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell continues to maintain that the intelligence over WMD was correct.

He says he spent four days and nights going through the evidence with the CIA before he went to the UN, in order to convince himself that it was solid information.

It was Mr Powell's presentation to the United Nations in February that convinced many of the doubters about Iraq's weapons programmes.

And for many American policy makers, the issue of weapons of mass destruction was always more important for the international audience rather than the domestic one.

It is still possible that the issue will gain domestic political momentum, if the Congressional investigations produce a "smoking gun".

But for now, the Bush administration must be grateful that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction has had such limited political consequences.

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