WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital is still reeling from the firestorm set off by retired weapons inspector David A. Kay after he fingered faulty U.S. intelligence for the now-discredited White House claim that Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
His targeted culprit, the CIA, is outraged over the Kay attack.
President Bush told reporters that he wants to know "the facts" about intelligence failures concerning Saddam's alleged arsenal but he's not curious enough to endorse an independent commission inquiry that Kay recommended. Instead, Bush said he wants the weapons hunters to keep looking.
Condoleeza Rice, the president's national security adviser, wants us to move on. It doesn't matter if there were no weapons, she says.
Kay, who quit last week as the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq after the nine-month hunt came up empty, said the search showed that pre-war Iraq had no nukes or biological or chemical weapons in its arsenal.
He told Congress an independent panel was needed to find out why U.S. intelligence was so far off the mark.
A CIA spokesman -- barely concealing the spy agency's fury over Kay's blunt remarks -- said the agency "was not ready to declare yet that there are no unconventional weapons in Iraq."
Kay's assessment was "premature," the CIA spokesman said.
He sniffed that Kay was "talking to every journalist on the planet" since resigning his post.
Indeed, Kay has grabbed the headlines and blanketed the airwaves with his damaging conclusions that Iraq simply didn't have the weapons.
Surprise, surprise. Isn't that what the U. N. inspectors had told the United States? Bush simply refused to accept that conclusion and repeatedly cited Saddam Hussein's weapons stockpiles as justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq last March.
In a string of interviews and an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kay let the president off the hook. As he was on his way to Iraq last August, Kay said, the president told him to uncover "the truth" in his weapons search.
In other words, Kay was making the point that he felt no pressure from the president to find the weapons to bolster Bush's case for a "regime change" by force in Iraq.
In the blame game over faulty intelligence, Kay chose to hang it all on the CIA, a convenient scapegoat because of its inherent secrecy.
It now looks like the buck will stop with CIA director George Tenet, the apparent designated fall guy, who had picked Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, to head the weapons hunt in Iraq.
Kay told the Senate panel that the intelligence community had fallen down on the job because it lacked "the capabilities" and was too dependent on data drawn from high tech satellites, intercepted communications, defectors and exiles.
Kay's devastation of the administration's much-ballyhooed claims about Iraq's weapons sent White House officials scrambling to come up with new rationales for the war.
In a damage-control move, national security affairs adviser Rice made the rounds of the television networks in an effort to blunt Kay's electrifying charges. Rice has invented a way to push the missing WMD aside. She says it doesn't matter whether Saddam Hussein had those weapons.
Instead, she argues that Bush "had no choice but to deal with that gathering threat to American interests and to the interests of our friends abroad."
Bush is test-driving a similar argument. Saddam represented a "grave and gathering threat" and had to be removed, the president contends. The "world is safer" as a result of his war moves.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who warned the United Nations last February that Iraq posed a "real and present danger," has changed his tune too.
He now speaks of Saddam's "intention" to produce tons of weapons. Earlier administration revisions had deleted "weapons" and substituted "weapon programs" Now we're down to mere "intention."
Vice President Cheney, the administration's top hawk -- who warned last March that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program -- said, hopefully, that "the jury is still out."
Last week, Cheney made an official trip to Europe and seemed to be softening his image. In one of his stops he presented a crystal peace dove to Pope John Paul II, a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.
I hope the vice president kept a duplicate for himself.
Copyright 2004 by Hearst Newspapers