Remember That Mushroom Cloud?

New York Times

November 2, 2005, New York Times Editorial Board

Remember That Mushroom Cloud?

The indictment of Lewis Libby on charges of lying to a grand jury about the outing of Valerie Wilson has focused attention on the lengths to which the Bush administration went in 2003 to try to distract the public from this central fact: American soldiers found a lot of things in Iraq, including a well-armed insurgency their bosses never anticipated, but they did not find weapons of mass destruction.

It’s clear from the indictment that Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff formed the command bunker for this misdirection campaign. But there is a much larger issue than the question of what administration officials said about Iraq after the invasion – it’s what they said about Iraq before the invasion. Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, may have been grandstanding yesterday when he forced the Senate to hold a closed session on the Iraqi intelligence, but at least he gave the issue a much-needed push.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and George Tenet, to name a few leading figures, built support for the war by telling the world that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical weapons, feverishly developing germ warfare devices and racing to build a nuclear bomb. Some of them, notably Mr. Cheney, the administration’s doomsayer in chief, said Iraq had conspired with Al Qaeda and implied that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11.

Last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee did a good bipartisan job of explaining that the intelligence in general was dubious, old and even faked by foreign sources. The panel said the analysts had suffered from groupthink. At the time, the highest-ranking officials in Washington were demanding evidence against Iraq.

But that left this question: If the intelligence was so bad and so moldy, why was it presented to the world as what Mr. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, famously called “a slam-dunk” case?

Were officials fooled by bad intelligence, or knowingly hyping it? Certainly, the administration erased caveats, dissents and doubts from the intelligence reports before showing them to the public. And there was never credible intelligence about a working relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Under a political deal that Democrats should not have approved, the Intelligence Committee promised to address these questions after the 2004 election. But a year later, there is no sign that this promise is being kept, other than unconvincing assurances from Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican who is chairman of the intelligence panel, that people are working on it.

So far, however, there has been only one uncirculated draft report by one committee staff member on the narrow question of why the analysts didn’t predict the ferocity of the insurgency. The Republicans have not even agreed to do a final report on the conflict between the intelligence and the administration’s public statements.

Mr. Reid wrested a commitment from the Senate to have a bipartisan committee report by Nov. 14 on when the investigation will be done. We hope Mr. Roberts now gives this half of the investigation the same urgency he gave the first half and meets his commitment to examine all aspects of this mess, including how the information was used by the administration. Americans are long overdue for an answer to why they were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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