The latest line from Secretary of State Colin Powell and others is that the Iraq war was such a just cause that we would have invaded even if we had known beforehand that no weapons of mass destruction existed.
To some, that might sound like a feeble effort to downplay a massive intelligence failure. I think it's more than that. I think it's the truth.
In effect, the Bush administration is now admitting that WMD were never the reason for the war. They chose to invade Iraq not to protect us from anthrax or nuclear attack, but because they hoped that an invasion would inspire new respect for U.S. power and would allow us to use Iraq as a base from which to transform the entire Arab world.
In the fall of 2002, however, administration officials recognized that honesty was not the best policy. Americans would never support an unprovoked war based on some grandiose ambition and dubious strategic benefit. If Bush officials wanted war, they needed to terrorize the American public into supporting it, and they seized upon the CIA's assessment of Iraqi WMD as the perfect tool for achieving that goal.
But first, the intelligence agencies had to be whipped into playing along.
While the CIA believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, it had also concluded that his stockpiles posed little danger to us or the rest of the world. That widely held view was captured perfectly in remarks by Powell on Feb. 24, 2001:
"Frankly, [sanctions] have worked," Powell told an Egyptian press conference. "[Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."
To get its war, the administration had to transform what it knew to be a minor, contained annoyance into a threat big enough to scare the American people. The solution it hit upon was ingenious: They fabricated a link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden.
Once again, though, the "realists" at the CIA posed a problem. They knew that no such link existed, and they naively thought their job was to be honest about what they knew. So, CIA Director George Tenet told Congress that it was highly unlikely that Saddam would ever give WMD to terrorists, and CIA analysts confirmed that Saddam and bin Laden were far from allies and, in fact, hated and distrusted each other.
That was true, but back then, the administration was more interested in fear than truth. It began a campaign to force the CIA to toe the company line, a campaign focused in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. Pressure was exerted in private, including visits by Cheney to cross-examine analysts at CIA headquarters. It took place in public, as well, as mouthpieces in the conservative press attacked the CIA as Saddam-loving apologists. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even created a whole new intelligence office to reinterpret evidence "overlooked" by the fools at CIA.
Inevitably, the agency gave in, with surrender coming in the form of a letter from Tenet that grudgingly allowed for the possibility of a bin Laden-Saddam link. That was all the administration needed. "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam," President Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address. "It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."
A similar sequence of events can be traced involving Iraq's nuclear program. The CIA's honest assessment was that "Iraq has probably continued at least low-level theoretical R&D associated with its nuclear program," but little more.
Again, postwar analysis has confirmed the accuracy of that claim, but again, the administration didn't want accuracy. It wanted scary. It cowed the CIA and other agencies into silence, allowing Cheney, Bush and others to warn that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program, had sought to buy uranium, had tried to acquire ways to enrich that uranium. None of that was true, but it served its purpose.
Looking back, then, the real scandal is not what the CIA got wrong. The real outrage is how much it got right, but was muzzled from telling us.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution