WASHINGTON - Badly wounded by the total collapse of its pre-war contentions that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the administration of President George W. Bush has embarked on a strategy of diversion and delay.
It hopes to divert attention from the role played by senior administration officials in influencing and exaggerating the intelligence assessments of the Iraqi threat in the run-up to the war by focusing debate instead on flaws in the intelligence and how it can be improved in the future.
It hopes to delay until well after the November presidential elections the reporting deadline for a proposed commission that will study the fiasco.
'This is damage control'', said one Congressional aide, who added the president's re-election chances might well hinge on whether he is able to pull off the strategy. ''Bush wants to get this out of the headlines and into a commission that won't say anything until he's re-elected''.
The White House was never searching for the truth; it was searching for arguments to make the case for war. They were searching for evidence to support the conclusions they had already reached.
Greg Thielmann, a retired WMD specialist at the State Department
Bush, who is helped by the fact that Republicans control key committees in Congress, appears able to count as well on David Kay, whose statements after he resigned as the man in charge of the U.S. hunt for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), in Iraq last week set off the White House's latest manoeuvres.
Kay's admission that ''we were almost all wrong'' about Iraq's WMD stockpiles and alleged reconstitution of a nuclear-weapons programme, and his endorsement of the proposal to create a commission to examine the causes of the intelligence failures initially forced the administration on the defensive.
But, in absolving the administration of the charge of pressuring the intelligence community's analysts to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq's alleged WMD programmes, Kay threw Bush a life preserver.
But to veteran intelligence analysts, Kay's life preserver could more accurately be called a lie preserver.
In their view, the professional intelligence community did indeed make serious mistakes. But they charge as well that the administration effectively encouraged it to make those mistakes and, to make matters worse, deliberately exaggerated the assessments to make the Iraqi threat sound more ominous than even the intelligence community's flawed reports said it was.
''Did the intelligence shape policy, or did the policy shape intelligence''? asked Melvin Goodman, a top Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Soviet expert during the Cold War who currently teaches at the National War College.
Like other intelligence veterans who have remained in touch with their former colleagues, Goodman says Kay's assertions the administration did not pressure analysts are simply ''wrong''.
''I've talked with analysts at CIA and DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency), and they all claim there was tremendous pressure put on them'', Goodman told IPS.
The fact, according to Goodman, that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld created an Office of Special Plans (OSP) outside the formal intelligence channels with the specific mandate to re-assess raw intelligence in order to find alleged links between Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group suggests the administration was applying that pressure in unconventional ways.
''When Rumsfeld couldn't get what he wanted, he created his OSP'', Goodman said. ''That really gives away the whole game right there''.
Other retired analysts, such as the CIA's former top counter-terrorist specialist, Vincent Cannistraro, have cited Vice President Dick Cheney's repeated trips to CIA headquarters to personally question analysts as another example of how pressure was exerted on analysts.
Greg Thielmann, a WMD specialist at the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research who worked on Iraq until his retirement in late 2002, also disputes Kay's assertion the administration had nothing to do with the intelligence failure.
''Everyone knew that the White House was deaf to any information that would not substantiate its charges; that is a very unproductive environment for any intellectual inquiry'', he said in a telephone interview.
''The White House was never searching for the truth; it was searching for arguments to make the case for war'', he continued. ''They were searching for evidence to support the conclusions they had already reached''.
''The perfect example is what the White House did not do in February, 2003, after U.N. inspectors had been on the ground in Iraq for three months looking under roofs, examining facilities, interviewing weapons scientists, and giving us a lot better and fresher information base than we had had for the previous four years'', according to Thielmann.
''As far as I know, the White House never asked the intelligence community to update their October (2002) assessment to see whether any of its key judgements about Iraq should be modified in light of what the inspectors were seeing on the ground.”
''And the reason is that the administration did not care what was going on on the ground. It was interested in going to war and convincing the American people and the international community that war was necessary'', he said.
The analysts' views about the way in which the administration's drive to war affected the intelligence assessments are largely shared by Democrats on the two congressional intelligence committees that have been investigating the performance of the intelligence community for months behind closed doors.
The committees, however, have split along partisan lines over the same question. Republicans have insisted that what faults have been uncovered lie exclusively with the intelligence professionals, while Democrats say they have accumulated evidence of constant pressure and interference by senior administration figures, particularly senior Pentagon officials, Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby.
But Republican control of the two intelligence committees means the administration has been able to effectively limit the scope of their investigations, making it far more difficult for Democrats to obtain additional evidence by forcing key officials to testify or to publicise their findings.
Democrats are clearly worried that a Bush-appointed presidential commission will be similarly limited in what it can or cannot investigate.
They are also concerned that the commission's work schedule might be designed to bury the issue of whether the administration deliberately misled the country into going to war until after the elections.
''You don't take national security and say, 'oh, let's just put it on hold for a year, until an election is over','' the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller, told Fox News on Sunday.
The administration is already pressuring the commission established to investigate the Sep 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon to either publish its final report by its May 29 deadline -- six months before the elections -- or to wait until early next year if it needs more time, presumably so as not to influence the elections.
Members of that body, which is headed by former Republican New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean but evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, have complained administration delays have pushed back its work schedule, but that they could finish its report by July or August.
Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service