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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Senate stunt juiced up intelligence probe

WASHINGTON
AS RECENTLY as a week ago, the chances that there would be a successful Senate investigation of the most significant intelligence failure in American history since Pearl Harbor were essentially zero.

Today, it's not as if the situation has completely turned around (far from it), but you could get odds.

And as recently as a week ago, the supervision being given the Senate Intelligence Committee's alleged work on the ''intelligence" information and its misuse before and immediately following the invasion of Iraq was essentially zero.

Today, there are six senators on that committee, three from each party, charged with determining the status of the latest phase of the probe and reporting back to their colleagues by Nov. 14.

Sometimes political stunts work, and the one Senate Democrats pulled this week worked spectacularly. Simply by invoking a rule with roots back to the Revolution, they managed to put some gas in what was a nearly empty tank. What President Bush and Vice President Cheney should fear is a dogged look at how intelligence information that was not entirely definitive about Iraq's unconventional weapons efforts came to be portrayed as such in the months preceding the war it was misused to help launch.

For some, it may have seemed weird to observe Senate Republicans howling like hyenas this week over what was misleadingly described as a maneuver that closed the Senate's doors to the public for a couple of hours.

That is only technically accurate. What really happened was that the Democratic leadership, acting like leaders for a change, used procedure to force a secret, senators-only discussion of the intelligence issue. When the minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, made his move (no debate or vote allowed), the assumption behind it was that this was the only way to force the discussion.

Had Reid complained, or had a chorus of Democrats complained about the probe, there would have been nothing but sound-bite bromides on all sides, and no one would have paid the slightest attention. But by reminding the majority leader, Bill Frist, that he does not control every aspect of the Senate's procedures and by surprising and embarrassing him in front of his colleagues, the Democrats got the attention they deserved.

Frist's hilariously righteous explosion -- along with the tantrums of others like the endangered Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and the embattled Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas -- were entertaining but not truly newsworthy.

What really counted was what happened while the doors were closed. For all the yelling and screaming, there was an agreement to push the Intelligence Committee and to have a status report soon. This stunt worked wonders.

For those not condemned to follow such things, Pat Roberts reluctantly agreed more than two years ago to investigate intelligence failure -- after invading troops had failed to find the biological and chemical weapons caches so many analysts expected and also failed to find any evidence of a resumed nuclear weapons project.

Just for the record, the probing began in response to a push by the panel's ranking Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who wanted facts about the suggestion that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger in 1999. The FBI is still investigating the origin of forged documents that first surfaced via Italy, but there is evidence that the Bush team passed them along to the United Nations as it was making its ''case" for war.

Early in last year's presidential campaign, Roberts was able to divide the investigation into two parts -- first an examination of the intelligence, and then of its use by senior administration officials. The second phase was conveniently put off until after the election.

But it has not gone forward very quickly since then. The real problem is White House and Pentagon stonewalling as virtually everyone involved in the fiasco lawyers up. Roberts exposed himself to criticism by not pushing harder and faster against this stone wall.

Obviously the indictment of I. Lewis Libby in the CIA leak case is part of what got the Democrats to do something their critics often flog them for not doing -- standing up and fighting back. There are no guarantees, but in halting the Senate for part of an afternoon they did more than hit a Republican nerve.

My own sense is that what happened with intelligence information is not something top administration officials want to talk about in public. And for good reason.

Politics may pollute everything around here, but sometimes it serves a larger purpose. It sure did this week.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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