Syria hearings canceled after White House pressure

Friday, July 18, 2003

The Bush administration has persuaded Congress to scrap a House subcommittee hearing on Syrian weapons of mass destruction.

Congressional sources and government officials said the White House warned the House leadership that a hearing on Syrian WMD would disrupt Middle East peace efforts and endanger U.S. troops in Iraq. The White House, under severe criticism for releasing unconfirmed WMD intelligence on Iraq, also argued that a hearing on Syrian biological, chemical or nuclear programs would provoke alarm.

The result was that the House International Relations subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia agreed to cancel a hearing with Undersecretary of State John Bolton, responsible for administration policy on nonproliferation. Bolton was said to have presented a detailed dossier on Syria's WMD programs, much of which he had planned to discuss in closed session, for Tuesday's hearing.

The House panel was scheduled to discuss legislation to impose additional sanctions on Syria unless it ended WMD programs, expelled groups termed as terrorists and withdrew troops from neighboring Lebanon, Middle East Newsline reported.

The sources said the White House, with the backing of the CIA, pressed House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde to cancel the Bolton's appearance. They said it is doubtful whether another such hearing will be held within the next few months.

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"The message we got from the White House was that this was a bad idea and that the administration had everything under control," a congressional source said. "Then the White House said such a hearing could place American lives at risk. That argument clinched it."

The State Department, with backing from the CIA, has been dismayed by the prospect of additional sanctions, which would have imposed a virtual embargo on Syria. The CIA has quietly designated Syria as having cooperated with the United States in the war against Al Qaida.

Officials said Bolton was not planning to report any breakthroughs in Syria's WMD programs. They said the undersecretary's message was to have been that Damascus has advanced in the development and production of Syrian chemical weapons warheads for its missile arsenal and progressing toward the completion of biological weapons.

Last month, the CIA reviewed Bolton's testimony on Syria's WMD programs and filed numerous objections, officials said. They said the CIA did not dispute Bolton's data on Damascus but disagreed with his assertions over the extent of Syria's advancement of its biological and chemical programs and ambitions regarding nuclear programs.

Officials said the CIA and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research have been dismayed by Bolton's assessments of the WMD programs of a range of so-called rogue states. They said the CIA and the State Department bureau disputed Bolton's assertion in May 2002 that Cuba has a biological weapons program. Earlier this year, Christian Westermann, a senior official in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, disputed Bolton's claim on Cuba in a closed-door briefing to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

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