Like Blair, Bush Should Welcome Outside Intel Probe

Posted January 30, 2004 at 4:13pm

Under pressure, President Bush has agreed to an independent inquiry into intelligence failures prior to the Iraq war. That’s good — if the probe is comprehensive.

The need for an independent panel is clear. [IMGCAP(1)]

Bush faces a massive credibility crisis because of the apparent failure into his evidently false assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Just as British Prime Minister Tony Blair assisted — and was exonerated by — an independent inquiry into his weapons claims, Bush may be vindication from suspicions about his assertions.

Former weapons inspector David Kay’s report last week that Iraq almost certainly had no WMD stockpiles raises all sorts of grave questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence and the uses put to it by the Bush administration in arguing for the war.

Kay testified — and I believe — that Saddam Hussein presented “a grave and gathering threat” and intended to rebuild his WMD when international sanctions were lifted. Still, Bush’s case for war has been badly undermined and his conduct needs serious examination.

The panel Bush appoints needs to look into not only failures at the CIA, but his own use of the intelligence.

Democrats put a bevy of nefarious interpretations on the evidence: (a) Bush and his aides flatly lied about the threat to get the United States into war, possibly for partisan political reasons; (b) to make their case, they exaggerated what the intelligence community told them; (c) they “cherry-picked” evidence, ignoring contrary facts and dissents; or (d) they muscled the intelligence community into reporting what they wanted to hear.

There is another option and it’s a grave possibility, too: (e) a massive intelligence failure occurred and Bush was innocently relying on misinformation when he claimed that Hussein had chemical and biological arsenals and an active nuclear program.

Various Bush aides maintain that (f) Saddam did have WMD and either they will be found in Iraq or were moved to Syria. But Kay’s findings — which the administration itself declared would be definitive — make this highly unlikely.

Whatever the truth is, the nation needs to know it. And if Bush didn’t cook the intelligence books — as Kay testified last week he did not — then the new commission’s mandate should include Bush’s role.

Bush should face the fact that, unless clear action is taken, no one will trust any assertion he makes about potential threats from North Korea, Iran, Syria, China or any other potential adversary.

It’s no excuse to say that British, French and German intelligence and the Clinton administration got things wrong. The United States needs an intelligence service that gets things right.

The fact that Bush only reluctantly agreed to an independent panel raises questions about the thoroughness of the study to come.

According to Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, there’s no evidence that Bush or the intelligence community itself is taking steps to avoid systemic errors.

“They’re in denial,” she said in an interview, referring to the top echelon of the CIA. “They don’t admit there’s a problem. They don’t think there’s anything wrong.

“They’re in a tough situation because the culture above them includes policy makers who continue to say things that aren’t supported by the intelligence.”

The most recent example is Vice President Cheney’s assertion in January that mobile biological weapons factories had been discovered in Iraq since the war, proving “conclusively” that WMD existed.

Kay said the consensus of inspectors is that the vehicles involved weren’t bio-labs. Cheney’s office maintains that there’s still a dispute on the point. And there certainly is an internal dispute over whether there was a connection between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda.

The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes has published compelling articles on repeated contacts over two decades between al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi intelligence, but Harman said her committee’s examination of CIA documents indicates that there was “no operational relationship” between the two.

One of the fairest-minded of all Democrats, Harman concludes from examining 17 volumes of CIA data that “the intelligence products were flawed, based on inadequate sources and ‘groupthink’ analysis.”

“We over-relied on circumstantial evidence, defectors and old stories and the analysts accepted a tautology — the failure to prove that something [WMD] was destroyed was proof that it existed.”

She thinks that Bush & Co. “cherry-picked” the data given them and that the intelligence community failed to insist that policy makers state the intelligence accurately.

Did top officials push intelligence officials to report what they wanted and/or deceive Congress and the public? Harman said, “That charge is out there. I would love to believe it not to be true. My view is that the president should want to get to the bottom of this.”

She believes that investigating and reforming the intelligence community is the constitutional responsibility of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

That’s emphatically true. But lately they have proved themselves so riven by partisanship that an outside panel needed to be appointed. It probably won’t finish its work before the 2004 election, but that’s OK. If Bush willfully lied — which I doubt — articles of impeachment could be filed. The real purpose here is to make sure U.S. intelligence is the best in the world.