THE RESPECTED and nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington released on Jan. 8 a long-awaited study whose major conclusion is that the Bush administration "systematically misrepresented" the threat from Iraq's weapons programs.
Three leading nonproliferation experts -- Jessica T. Mathews, Joseph Cirincione and George Perkovich -- authored the study, which is based on comparisons of declassified U.S intelligence documents with U.N. weapons inspections reports and Bush administration statements.
Although the authors agree that Iraq's weapons programs potentially constituted a long-term threat, they argue that they did not "pose an immediate threat to the United States, to the region or to global security."
The U.N. inspections, they also conclude, worked far better than realized and proved to be more reliable than American intelligence.
The Carnegie report says that Bush administration officials misrepresented Iraq's threat in three specific ways. First, they lumped together the threat posed by nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, even though there was no serious evidence of nuclear weapons.
Second, they told the American public that Saddam Hussein would give WMD to terrorists, for which there was no evidence.
Third, administration officials omitted "caveats, probabilities and expressions of uncertainty present in intelligence assessments" from their public statements.
In other words, officials used a "worse case" scenario that was not based on actual intelligence.
In early 2002, according to the Carnegie report, the U.S. intelligence community possessed an accurate assessment of Iraq's weapons programs. Soon afterward, a "dramatic shift" occurred as "the intelligence community began to be unduly influenced by policy-makers' views." This change coincided with the creation of a separate intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, in the Pentagon.
The Carnegie report -- a serious indictment of the Bush administration's credibility -- instantly became the lead story on the British Broadcasting Corporation report and front-page news in newspapers around the world.
Not so in the United States.
On the same day, at a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conceded that he had no "smoking gun, concrete evidence" that Saddam Hussein ever had any ties to al Qaeda, the terrorist network responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Powell's admission contradicts Vice President Dick Cheney's frequent statements that have sought to link Hussein with al Qaeda terrorists.
Also last week, the Bush administration quietly withdrew a military team whose 400 members have scoured Iraq for the biological and chemical weapons cited by the White House as the immediate reason for going to war last March.
This group is part of the larger Iraq Survey Team, whose 1,400 members have spent the last seven months (and hundreds of millions of dollars) trying -- but failing -- to uncover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
To many military observers, the withdrawal of this team reflects the administration's tacit acknowledgment that no WMD are likely to be found.
So now we know that the U.S. government misled Congress and the American public.
What will it take for the American people to realize they've been betrayed?
Have we grown so jaded that we no longer expect the truth from our country's leaders?
War is a serious matter, perhaps the most consequential decision ever made by elected leaders. Yet the Bush administration manipulated intelligence and then sent tens of thousands of young people off to war for reasons that have yet to be revealed. As a result, hundreds of soldiers have died and thousands more have been injured, and for what purpose?
Some will greet all this news with a yawn. "Haven't we heard all this before?" they will ask. "We know there weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We know there never was an imminent threat. So get over it."
But I won't. And neither should you.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle