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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 February, 2004, 00:05 GMT
Bush 'defuses election liability'

By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Washington

By appointing an independent commission to examine the intelligence on Iraq, President Bush hopes to neutralise the issue in this year's election.

President George Bush
Mr Bush named the commission in the face of mounting political pressure
In recent days it has been damaging him politically. For the first time since the war, there's no longer a clear majority of Americans who believe it was the right thing to do.

The members of the panel have been carefully chosen. This will make a difficult target for attack, if the Democrats want to keep the issue alive, as they surely do.

This time the president has avoided the political misstep he took when he attempted to appoint Henry Kissinger to chair the panel looking into the events leading up to 11 September.

The members of this commission are less well known, less controversial.

Mr Bush has dodged the difficult question of finding an independent chairman by appointing two co-chairs, a Democrat, former Virginia governor Charles Robb, and a republican, former federal judge Laurence Silberman.

Laurence Silberman, former judge (chair)
Senator John McCain
Chuck Robb, former Democratic senator (chair)
Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel
Richard Levin, President Yale university
William Studeman, former CIA deputy director
Pat Wald, former US Appeals Court judge

The choice of Senator John McCain to join the panel is also clearly intended to blunt criticism.

Senator McCain may be a Republican, but he ran against Mr Bush at the last election, and is known for being independent-minded and outspoken.

The rest of the panel include the President of Yale University, a former deputy director of the CIA and two other senior figures from the legal profession.

The roll-call is so distinguished that their problem may be that there are simply too many brilliant brains in the room to come to agreement.

Targets for the opposition

But the Democrats are unlikely to give up this avenue of attack in an election year. They will criticise the timescale.

The commission has been given till the end of March next year to report. It sounds suspiciously like an election-avoidance timetable.

The remit of the commission is so broad, even that schedule may be ambitious.

They are looking, not only at Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but also intelligence relating to Iran, North Korea, Libya and Afghanistan.

John McCain
John McCain has said the inquiry must look into the role of politicians
Then there is the thorny question of political interference. Is it their job to examine just the intelligence, or can they look at what the politicians did with it?

President Bush appeared to suggest that only the intelligence gathering process would be examined.

Senator McCain has already said he believes it should look at the role of the politicians.

The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said earlier this week that he believed the inquiry would examine the whole "food chain" from the intelligence producers, to the policymakers, the consumers.

So beneath the facade of consensus, there is plenty of room for dispute. There are likely to be plenty more arguments about access to documents and the secrecy of the deliberations.

But when the Democratic candidate in the Presidential debate launches his attack this autumn, Mr Bush now has a pre-scripted reply: Wait for the commission, wait for their answers, only then will we know the truth.

The BBC's Adam Brookes
"President Bush is feeling some pressure now"

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