The United States’ failure to uncover evidence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq puts its credibility at risk. That judgment comes not from a war critic but from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Warner is rightly calling for hearings on whether intelligence was manipulated or flawed.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has suggested that perhaps Saddam Hussein destroyed weapons before the war. More controversially, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair magazine that “the truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason” for going to war.
At a press conference in Singapore on Friday, Wolfowitz stated that such weapons were only part of the reason, not the core of the administration’s case. In fact, those who counseled caution before going to war noted the administration’s shifting accusations against Iraq: from harboring terrorists, to terrorizing its own populace, to making banned weapons. But the chief external threat was always those forbidden chemical, nuclear or biological warheads.
The U.S. may still find larger evidence of biological or chemical weapons. Maj. Gen Keith Dayton, who is heading the search effort, is shifting emphasis from areas considered to be dangerous before the war to sites that documents or interviews with Iraqis indicate could hold such weapons. So far, only two truck-trailers declared mobile weapons labs by the CIA have been unearthed.
Because of the growing controversy, however, hearings should start soon and, to the greatest extent possible, be public. Closed hearings would only compound doubts about what advice the administration followed.
The hearings should ask whether the Defense Department unduly pushed the CIA to adopt alarmist assessments of the Iraq threat and should examine whether Iraqi-exile informants held too much sway in the Pentagon.
In an unusual statement Friday, CIA Director George J. Tenet dismissed accusations, some by former intelligence officers, that the agency’s Iraq analyses were skewed and politicized. Given the discrepancy between prewar claims -- in October, the CIA reported that key aspects of Iraq’s biological weapons programs “are active and most elements are larger and more active than they were before the Gulf War” -- and the little discovered so far, professions of good faith by Tenet and others are not enough.
The faster Congress exercises oversight, the more confident the public can be that any intelligence agency weakness or misuse will be exposed and corrected.