THE BUSH administration faces a growing credibility gap that may turn into one of the most serious political scandals in our nation's history. Watergate may one day seem minor-league by comparison.
What I'm about to describe is not a conspiracy. It is the story of a group of men determined to implement a long-held vision.
In 1997, years before George W. Bush entered office, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz founded the Project for the New American Century, a neo- conservative think tank. As part of their larger published vision for "Rebuilding America's Defenses," they repeatedly lobbied for "regime change" in Iraq in order to extend America's influence in the Middle East.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, they began to build a case for invading Iraq. Many people, puzzled and confused, asked: What on earth does Iraq have to do with al Qaeda?
Since the CIA didn't provide evidence for any connection, the answers would have to come from a new intelligence agency established by Rumsfeld, now secretary of defense, in the fall of 2001. Called the Office of Special Plans, it would be independent of both the CIA and Pentagon and headed by his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
The selling of the war turned out to be a huge success. The vast majority of Americans believed Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and harbored nests of al Qaeda terrorists. Many Americans also believed that the Sept. 11 terrorists had included Iraqi men.
By now, many Americans probably also believe that U.S. forces have found WMDs in Iraq. President Bush declared as much when he described two trailers that "were probably used as mobile biological weapons labs."
But none of the above is true. So far, no WMDs have been found. No Iraqis were involved in Sept. 11. No outposts of al Qaeda terrorists have been uncovered in Iraq. No traces of chemical or biological weapons have been detected in the two trailers.
In an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair, Wolfowitz now admits that the Bush administration focused on WMDs because it was politically expedient. "The truth," he says, "is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction. . . ." He also discloses another justification that was "almost unnoticed but huge"-- the prospect of withdrawing American forces from Saudi Arabia once Saddam Hussein had been removed.
In other words, WMDs were the one argument that could convince a public traumatized by terrorism that a pre-emptive war would save American lives.
And, it worked. The war in Iraq, therefore, was not the result of some colossal intelligence failure. It happened because our leaders were given tainted evidence to convince a skeptical public that an immediate invasion of Iraq was necessary:
- When he addressed the U.N. Security Council, Sec. of State Colin Powell offered "updated" information on Iraq plagiarized from a 10-year-old paper posted on the Internet.
- In his State of the Union Address, President Bush claimed that Iraq had imported enriched uranium from Nigeria. The document proved to be a clumsy forgery.
- According to intelligence sources cited in the British Sunday Herald, just one Iraqi defector claimed that Iraq had huge stocks of WMDs ready for activation on 45-minutes notice. Tony Blair publicized this information, but not the disclaimer and doubts he also received from British intelligence.
The foreign press has accused the Bush administration of having lied to the world. In the United States, however, people have been reluctant to ask: What did the president and other officials know, and when did they know it?
"Truth has a way of asserting itself despite all attempts to obscure it," Sen. Robert W. Byrd, D-W.V., said in a recent speech. Let's hope so. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committee will conduct a joint re-evaluation of prewar intelligence.
It's a good start. Rep. Jane Harman of Rancho Palos Verdes, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has warned that "This could conceivably be the greatest intelligence hoax of all time. I doubt it, but we have to ask."
We also need to do more. Intelligence cannot always be examined in public. Congress must now hold the kind of public hearings that unmasked the secrets in the Watergate scandal.
At issue is not whether the war was right or wrong. The question Congress must answer is whether our leaders abused their political power and knowingly deceived the American people.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle