The Republican-led US Senate on Wednesday night defeated an effort to establish a bipartisan panel to examine the use of intelligence in the prelude to the Iraq war.
The vote also came on a day CIA Director George Tenet was questioned for nearly five hours behind closed doors by the Senate Intelligence Committee about his agency's handling of intelligence and as senior Democrats stepped up their criticism of the administration's Iraq policies.
Lawmakers rejected on a 51-45 vote the proposal by Senator Jon Corzine to create an independent 12-member commission with a broad mandate to examine questions like whether Iraq possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction, had links to al-Qaeda and had tried to buy uranium in Africa. The administration had used such arguments in making its case for war.
At the center of the debate was a statement by US President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa to restart its nuclear weapons program.
Tenet told lawmakers that he had not read Bush's speech when the White House sent it to him to review beforehand, government officials said. Administration officials have acknowledged that the information about Iraq's nuclear efforts was unsubstantiated. Democrats said that despite Tenet's willingness to take the blame for the statement in the speech, Bush is the one ultimately responsible.
"George Tenet has accepted his responsibility," said Senator John Edwards, a member of the intelligence panel and a presidential candidate. "But at the end of the day, the president, when he speaks, has to take responsibility for what he says."
Italian newspaper La Repubblica said on Wednesday that forged documents on which the British and US governments allegedly based their case that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger were so crudely crafted that it is unlikely they would have stood up to more than a few hours' scrutiny by any specialist.
The documents, apparently from senior Niger authorities in Niamey to the country's ambassador in Rome, and a telex, from Niger's embassy in Rome, all relate to alleged negotiations for Iraq to buy 500 tonnes of uranium from Niger. The letters, in French and stamped with the Niger government seal, are scattered with spelling mistakes and contain several glaring inconsistencies.
One letter is dated July 30, 1999, although it talks of negotiations between Niger and Iraq after that date, on June 29, 2000.