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Last Updated: Friday, 30 January, 2004, 23:36 GMT
Analysis: Inquiry dilemma for Bush
Adam Brookes, BBC correspondent in Washington
By Adam Brookes
BBC correspondent in Washington

US President George W. Bush (R)
Bush faces risks in supporting or opposing an inquiry
In the Bush administration's monolithic insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, little chinks of daylight have recently been appearing.

When questioned about Iraq's WMD, President Bush on Friday declared that he "wants the facts."

He says he wants to "be able to compare what the Iraq Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq".

His comments open up an avenue of possibility: that what the Iraq Survey Group - America's own WMD hunters, now scouring Iraq - finds, and what the administration thought was there are two different things.

And Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday, "we're going to need to go back and compare what we thought we would find with what we found."

Linguistic retreat

Slowly, slowly, the administration is reworking its language, readying for the moment when it must acknowledge that Iraq, in fact, had no weapons of mass destruction, and one of the chief rationales that took the US and Britain to war was flawed.

This linguistic retreat from certainty has been going on for a while.

Last year's State of the Union address, pre-war, stressed that Iraq possessed actual stockpiles of WMD.

This year's - post-war - referred to "weapons of mass destruction programme-related activities."

But the pace of the retreat has been forced by a number of factors this week.
US Senator John McCain
Senator John McCain is just one of those demanding a probe

First, David Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, said he thought it was "highly unlikely" that stockpiles of WMD would be found in Iraq.

On the intelligence that portrayed Iraq as chemically and biologically armed and dangerous, Mr Kay said that, worldwide, intelligence agencies were "almost all wrong".

Second, John McCain, the silver haired, sometimes maverick, Republican senator from Arizona, has broken ranks with his party, and called for an independent inquiry into intelligence, how it's gathered, and how it's being used.

And not just on Iraq, either, but on other potential areas of crisis - Libya, Iran and North Korea.

His call echoes one from Mr Kay, and a chorus of demands from House Democrats.

"I am absolutely convinced that one is necessary," Mr McCain told the Associated Press, "because this is a very serious issue and we need to not only know what happened, but know what steps are necessary to prevent the United States from ever being misinformed again."

Risky business

But allowing such an inquiry to go ahead would put President Bush in a risky place.

It might turn up unpalatable revelations about the state of America's intelligence agencies right in the middle of an election campaign, right in the middle of a war on terrorism.

It might also exacerbate festering resentments between the CIA and Bush administration - notably over who in the White House was responsible for outing the CIA officer, Valerie Plame.

But not allowing such an independent inquiry has its thorny bits too.

By deflecting calls for a real examination of America's intelligence failures, the president looks like he has something to hide.

The questions about those elusive Iraqi weapons will bubble on into the election campaign.

And if the Democrats are deft, they can use those questions to probe and twist on what is supposed to be President Bush's strongest suit - national security.

For now, the Republican strategy is to urge everybody to wait for the Iraq Survey Group to finish its work and report before we draw conclusions on Iraqi WMD.

And, ultimately, to blame the intelligence services for providing wrong information.

The Bush administration does indeed "want the facts" on what happened to those weapons of mass destruction.

But not just yet, thanks.

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