The protracted partisan maneuvering in Washington cannot be allowed to conceal a lingering, fundamental question about Iraq: Where are the weapons of mass destruction that Bush administration officials insisted the United States needed to destroy because they so urgently threatened this nation?
Before the March invasion, there was little evidence that Iraq was trying to develop nuclear weapons but there were hints it possessed biological weapons; many analysts believed Baghdad had chemical weapons or stockpiles that could quickly be assembled into weapons. Yet searches by hundreds of United Nations inspectors before the war and hundreds of U.S. and allied sleuths afterward have turned up nothing.
Was, then, the initial intelligence wrong and did the weapons not exist? Or was the intelligence supporting their existence weak and then massaged for political reasons to support the war?
Carl W. Ford Jr., the recently retired head of the State Department's intelligence-gathering department, said two weeks ago that the entire U.S. intelligence community "badly underperformed" for years in assessing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Ford does not blame administration political pressure for what he terms the failure of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, State Department and others. But Greg Thielmann, a former Ford subordinate, said intelligence lapses were compounded by "senior political leadership" that exaggerated the threat. Ford's characterization also contradicts reports before the war that Vice President Dick Cheney's office demanded evidence to support its theories about Iraq's threat to the U.S.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating the prewar performance of the CIA and other agencies. Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the committee's ranking Democrat, last month said administration officials apparently went around the CIA and other agencies to collect their own intelligence overseas. If true, this bypassing of the process would indicate that officials wanted to support conclusions already made.
Unfortunately, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee staff wrote a memo outlining strategies for "exposing the administration's dubious motives" for going to war. The memo, leaked last week, indicates Democrats have already concluded that the investigation will not provide evidence the party hopes will embarrass the administration. That partisanship is outrageous. Intelligence failures are too important to be used for political gamesmanship. Americans need to know how reliable the information was that sent this nation on a mission in which hundreds of U.S. soldiers have died and which, along with the rebuilding of Iraq, will cost taxpayers well in excess of $100 billion.