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'Open hearings' on Iraq on the cards?

By Sridhar Krishnaswami

WASHINGTON JUNE 16. The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, has held out the possibility of open hearings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as Democrats are trying to find an opening and hold the administration accountable. But the last word on "open hearings" has not been said.

On Sunday, the Republican Senator held out the possibility of open hearings, a key demand of the Democrats, by saying that this was possible "if we think that is warranted." And in a sop to members of the other political party and critics outside the administration, he has said that a classified report and one for the public will be issued at the end of the hearings.

With the Senate Armed Services Committee already having begun this process, lawmakers are expected to further accelerate the hearings and the House Intelligence Panel has scheduled two private sessions this week itself. The basic theme of the hearings during the sessions is the kind of information the President, George W. Bush, had with him when the decision on war with Iraq was made.

General impression

No one is yet talking of any major fiascos by the intelligence agencies with the general impression being that the administration embellished intelligence assessments and findings to suit its line of thinking on Iraq and Saddam Hussein. And with this, the charge in some quarters that senior members of the administration, like the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, tried to pressure intelligence analysts at the CIA to come up with assessments that were more in line with the thinking at the White House.

Top officials of the administration like the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser have rejected these allegations. Democrats are keen on getting to the bottom of it with the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, opposing the stance of the Grand Old Party. "We need a thorough bipartisan investigation," the Democrat from Michigan said. And other Democrats have more or less argued that it was simply "too early" to say if the President manipulated or hyped the intelligence available on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction so as to go in for a pre-emptive military action.

The major assumption of this Republican administration was that Mr. Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. But more than two months into the `liberation' of Iraq, search teams have found just about nothing; and an embarrassed administration is asking for "more time''.According to one poll, 60 per cent of the Americans are saying that it is important for the U.S. to find the proscribed weapons of Iraq; and two-thirds have said that this administration has indeed exaggerated the Iraqi weapons threat.

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