The Central Intelligence Agency is investigating the accuracy of the Bush administration's conclusions that Iraq represented an imminent and direct threat to the United States.
The administration cited U.S. intelligence assessments that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al-Qaida terrorists as reasons to attack Iraq.
Now, after seven weeks of U.S. occupation of Iraq, the failure to find evidence supporting those accusations raises the prospect that President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other administration officials either exaggerated the danger to justify the invasion of Iraq or were misled by flawed intelligence.
There's also another possible outcome: U.S. searchers will eventually find that evidence. While asking tough questions about administration credibility, we should keep an open mind.
We know with certitude that Saddam Hussein didn't use those monstrous weapons during the war, despite pre-war U.S. claims that front-line units of the Iraqi army had been delegated authority to do so. Either the weapons are buried deep or were destroyed — or they didn't exist.
Four retired CIA officials with access to the classified reports of 12 separate intelligence agencies are conducting the U.S. intelligence review. A CIA spokesman said it would be months before the study is completed.
Rumsfeld, who suggested last fall that the looming Iraq war would provide a perfect case study to compare pre-war intelligence assessments with post-war evidence, requested the study. At the time, Rumsfeld had been frustrated over the conflicting intelligence reports he was getting on Iraq.
Faced with a credibility gap, administration officials have been gradually rolling back some of their pre-war assertions — always made with great confidence and convincing detail — about Iraq's store of tons of biological and chemical weapons.
In a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations in New York May 27, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the weapons were destroyed before the start of the war.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Washington Post that Iraqi concealment has been clever.
"No one should expect this kind of deception effort to get penetrated overnight," he said. Stay tuned.
According to the next issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Wolfowitz cited "bureaucratic reasons" for focusing on Saddam's alleged arsenal and said a "huge" reason for the war was to enable Washington to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia.
"For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on," Wolfowitz was quoted as saying.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the discovery last month of two tractor-trailers — fitted for high tech laboratory work — proved they could be used to produce illicit weapons for germ warfare. No such products were found in the trucks.
Nevertheless, Fleischer said, "they have been caught red handed."
Of course that attitude conveniently overlooks the fact that no one doubts that Saddam owned weapons of mass destruction in the early 1990s. The question is: Did he still possess such weapons more recently? Rumsfeld said last week, "We don't know what happened."
Some CIA analysts have quietly complained of Bush administration pressure to cook the intelligence reports to bolster its militant position on Iraq.
One point of friction is a special intelligence unit created at the Pentagon last year when Defense Department officials thought the CIA was not giving enough attention to the Iraqi exiles.
CIA officers, in turn, began to complain that the Pentagon unit was staffed by conservative ideologues who put a political spin on the information at hand.
Bush apparently based his war decisions on the intelligence advice of his close coterie of conservative aides who had been itching to invade Iraq since they came into office.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a presidential candidate and the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wonders whether there was an intelligence failure and whether the statements made by Powell before the United Nations on Feb. 5 concerning Iraq's arsenal might prove to be untrue.
It is up to Bush to clear up the confusion. Some might say, "So what? We got rid of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein and liberated the Iraqis."
But that would ignore the duty of our elected leaders to level with the American people. And it would ignore the public's duty to demand that accountability.
Helen Thomas is a Washington columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Copyright 2003 Hearst Newspapers