The argument goes something like this: We didn't deceive you about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The CIA deceived us. Therefore we will investigate them, but the investigation will be not be finished till after the election. The weapons of mass destruction should not be an issue in the election. Neither should the billions of dollars for Iraq that will be in next year's budget.
Pretty slick. On the basis of past performance, it will probably work. The administration has delayed and stonewalled the commission investigating the World Trade Center attack, and no one seems to question what they're trying to cover up. Now they blame the ''intelligence community'' for failure to provide accurate information about Iraq and ducking responsibility for their own deception of the American people. No one gets the chance to ask whether Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff chewed out CIA analysts because of their failures to find the kind of evidence that the administration wanted.
In fact, it was pretty clear all along that the evidence was weak. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations (which was billed as rerun of Adlai Stevenson's display of photos of Russian missiles in Cuba) was not persuasive. The best he could provide was hints and clues -- hardly enough to start a war in which many young Americans and thousands of Iraqis would die.
As many of us knew all along from reading and hearing the neo-conservative intellectuals who do foreign policy thinking for the administration and as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has confirmed, the administration from the beginning wanted to invade Iraq for a number of possibly good reasons. Bernard Lewis (an Islamic scholar who is a kind of guru to the neo-cons) thought that a democratic state in Iraq would tip the balance toward ''modernization'' in the Arab world. It would take pressure off Israel. Saddam Hussein was a very nasty man who might eventually develop nuclear weapons. Anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal or William Safire's column in the New York Times was familiar with these arguments. Unfortunately, for those who supported such a war, the idea would not have been acceptable to the American people.
The Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center changed the climate of opinion in this country. The American people, it was assumed, would support an invasion of Iraq, if the idea could be developed that Saddam was somehow allied with the attack. Hence, it was important to assemble evidence that an attack from him might be imminent.
The CIA, which is being blamed for the bad intelligence, was reluctant to make too much of its own clues, but it gave the administration the best it could provide, which wasn't very good to begin with and now is perceived as worthless. Perhaps there was ''yellow cake'' uranium being imported from Niger. Perhaps those aluminum cylinders were for shells of nerve gas. Perhaps there was a nuclear weapons program in that suspicious-looking factory. There had to be missile launchers somewhere. President Bush presented this ''intelligence'' in somber tones in his State of the Union speech a year ago. Thereupon the United States invaded Iraq with the solid support of the citizenry, the media and the Congress. (Sen. John Kerry must wish every day that he had been more skeptical.)
Now that the WMD argument has failed, the administration falls back on its original arguments. The men around the president must assume that the American people are too dumb to catch on to this ploy and to their attempt to take WMD off the table for election campaigns. Having fooled most of the people most of the time, they might well be right.
Yet the latest Gallup Poll makes one wonder. Half the people now believe that the Iraq war wasn't worth it; 43 percent believe the president deliberately deceived them about the war, and Kerry has a 53 percent to 46 percent lead over the president in Gallup's election poll. Maybe you can't fool all the people all the time.