The president's commission on intelligence gathering could have saved the country a lot of time, and considerable paper, by not publishing its report yesterday and just e-mailing everyone the Web addresses for the searching studies already done by the 9/11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee. After more than a year's dithering, the panel produced some 600 pages of conventional wisdom about the intelligence failures before the war with Iraq, along with a big dose of political spin that pleased the White House but provided little enlightenment for the public.
We were not optimistic when President Bush was pressured into creating this panel in February 2004. Though bipartisan, its membership lacked stature or independence, and Mr. Bush failed to give the commission a sweeping mandate that would go beyond rehashing the distressing but well-known shortcomings of the intelligence agencies. Still, it seemed worth waiting until after the election for the results because it was hard to imagine that the panel would not ask the vital questions.
Sadly, there is nothing about the central issue - how the Bush administration handled the intelligence reports on Iraq's weapons programs and presented them to the public to win support for the invasion of Iraq. All we get is an excuse: the panel was "not authorized" to look at this question, so it didn't bother. The report says the panel "interviewed a host of current and former policy makers" about the intelligence on Iraq, but did not "review how policy makers subsequently used that information." (We can just see it - an investigator holding up his hand and declaiming: "Stop right there, Mr. Secretary! We're not authorized to know what you did.")
Just compare this job with the work of the 9/11 commission, whose chairman, Thomas Kean, battled the White House over access to documents, fearlessly expanded the inquiry and insisted that policy makers testify in public - and not just about the shortcomings of their subordinates.
The report is right in saying that American claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs were "dead wrong" because the intelligence was old or from highly dubious sources, and because the analysis was driven by a predetermined conclusion that Mr. Hussein was a threat. But we knew that.
The panel said timidly that "it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom." But it utterly ignored the way President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his team, and Condoleezza Rice, as national security adviser, created that environment by deciding what the facts were and saying so, repeatedly.
It does not say that these powerful people knew or should have known that there was no new intelligence on Iraq, and that as the intelligence reports were sanitized for the public, the caveats were stripped out. Instead, it loyally maintains the fiction that Mr. Bush was just given bum information by incompetent intelligence agents.
The way the administration hyped the intelligence on Iraq is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity. It is vital that the public know the answers because Americans are now being asked to accept a new set of claims about nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. A full airing of this issue could help John Negroponte, after his expected confirmation as national intelligence director, ensure that the missteps and misrepresentations are not repeated as the nation grapples with real threats from those and other countries, not imagined threats from Iraq.
As it stands, the report has mainly negative value. It reminds us that the Senate Intelligence Committee has yet to complete and publish its investigation of the handling of the Iraq intelligence. And it shows us what the 9/11 panel's report might have looked like if Mr. Bush had succeeded in making Henry Kissinger chairman.
© 2005 New York Times, Co.