The Washington Times

It wasn’t clear to me exactly how long the Bush administration here and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in Britain were going to have to contend with the charge they somehow cooked up a phony intelligence case that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction [WMD]. But with former chief WMD-hunter David Kay’s congressional testimony this week and the release of the exculpatory report of an independent inquiry into 10 Downing’s handling of Iraq intelligence, the scurrilous season seems to have come to an end.

Oh, to be sure, people will say anything in chat rooms, and the hard left and far right bogs where conspiracy theories flourish will have little difficulty discounting known facts for the good of the cause. But the question was really the mainstream respectability of the charge. The New York Times editorial page still has questions and calls for the independent inquiry that President Bush has decided to go along with. In this election season, Democrats obviously weren’t going to cut the Bush administration any slack, and they, too, have been demanding an investigation. But in both cases [and indeed, need one distinguish?], this is actually something of a retreat from the rhetorical position each has toyed with and would certainly prefer to be making: Namely, that there was no real case about Iraq’s WMD until the Bush administration, bent on war, ordered one up.

On this retreat to reason, much depended. There are two choices here: We can do the reckoning on our Iraq intervention on the basis of known facts, reasonable inferences and informed speculation about the unknown. Or we can start with our conclusions about culpability and work backward. Again, I am under no illusion that those who have predetermined the wickedness of Mr. Bush, and the perfidious neoconservatives supposedly manipulating him, will abandon the views they so cherish. But there is a lot at stake here for serious people to grapple with, and to the extent that a meta-narrative based on the supposedly hidden motives of murky characters would have taken hold, to that same extent we have been distracted from the real national security issues at hand.

What we seem to know now is that the U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies had reached an unambiguous consensus from the 1990s onward that Saddam continued to possess WMD and had ongoing WMD programs. It also seems clear that after September 11, the Bush administration settled on a more confrontational strategy for dealing with him and began to think seriously about going to war to remove him.

In their public presentations, it also seems clear, administration officials selected what they considered to be the most damning evidence about the supposed weapons and activities. And, of course, the intelligence community’s assessment of the information available has by and large been proven to have been wrong.

The high-level internal administration interest in the particulars of the intelligence, as well as the selectively inflammatory public presentations, are now the cause of much controversy. One may find this damning, as has the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a recent report. But, on the other hand, exactly how is this surprising? We are, after all, talking about a number of policy-makers who have decided that they are prepared under certain circumstances to go to war to topple Saddam, such is the danger he poses now and over time.

If you are advancing a case, internally or externally, don’t you usually pick from the supposed facts available to you the ones that buttress your case most strongly? Wouldn’t one expect a more particular emphasis on the dangers posed by Iraq from an administration that was seriously considering and preparing for a war than from one that had decided to bide its time?

I think the premise underlying the Carnegie report is that one must not change what one says based on what one plans to do. This is utopian, a pseudo-Kantian ethical precept entirely foreign to the world of politics. No, one may not make up the facts one needs in pursuit of whatever one wishes. But, one may weigh things differently in different circumstances and one should muster the best argument one can once one has decided – who doubts this?

But the facts were wrong. Yes, they were. But I do not think they were, any one of them, the invention of some Bush administration official with a rich imagination. They were believed not merely because Bush officials wanted them to be true. They each had pedigrees that, collectively, led to certain convictions about the shape of the whole. And that’s what an inquiry seems likely to determine.

For those with a taste for irony, let me add that we know what we know now only because we acted on what we thought we knew then. If we hadn’t gone to war to topple Saddam and face down his WMD, we would in all likelihood be certain he still had them. This was the ultimate fact-finding mission.