Bush, Blair, and WMD intelligence

Official reports don't lay blame on British and US leaders, but also don't quell critics.

Washington - Revelations on both sides of the Atlantic this week show that the political fallout from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is as tough to gauge as the threat itself.

On Capitol Hill, former US chief weapons inspector David Kay told lawmakers that "we were almost all wrong" on the Iraqi threat prior to the US-led invasion, but blamed US intelligence agencies - not President Bush - for the errors.

In Britain, a judicial inquiry exonerated Prime Minister Tony Blair from charges in the media that he had lied about the Iraqi threat to "sex up" the case for war.

But the pronouncements in both nations haven't put to rest questions about whether the case for invading Iraq was exaggerated and, ultimately, wrong. Already, opposition politicians in Washington and London are calling for further inquiries into why intelligence estimates were so off base.

"In both Britain and the United States, we are politicizing the politicization of intelligence," says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The danger, he says, is that all the back and forth may "lose sight of the fact that governments and the public need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of intelligence and what we can do to correct them."

After Mr. Kay's testimony, Democrats called for a new independent inquiry to focus on whether the White House manipulated intelligence estimates to fit its case for war - an investigation likely to carry deep into this year's presidential campaign. At least four official investigations are under way, from congressional committees to the CIA.

In the US, polls so far have shown support for intervention in Iraq. "Whereas Tony Blair is getting skewered over weapons of mass destruction, President Bush is not facing the same scrutiny, because we were attacked on 9/11," says Charles Pena, an analyst at the Cato Institute.

But Kay's carefully nuanced testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday signaled how intractable the intelligence challenges may be.

The view that Iraq possessed and was actively developing weapons of mass destruction was widely shared by the world's intelligence services and by both the Bush and Clinton administrations, he said. While US failure to prevent looting and the destruction of documents may have made the task of inspectors harder, it doesn't explain the outcome: that the situation on the ground didn't look anything like intelligence analysts said it would, he added.

Kay said that during his recent Iraq inspections, "innumerable analysts ... came to me in apology" for that disconnect. "Never, not in a single case, was the explanation, 'I was pressured to do this,' " he added.

In response to Kay's highly charged comments, British and US officials called for more time for the Iraq Survey Group to complete its work - a move Kay supports.

But critics, including some who approved the use of military force, are using Kay's remarks to build momentum for further probes of prewar assessments."The President owes the American people an explanation as to why we went to war when there was no imminent threat," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who opposed war.

Similar questions are persisting across the Atlantic. Kay's testimony fired up British critics, just when Mr. Blair had hoped to put them to rest. "The [judicial] report necessarily leaves unanswered the most fundamental question of all ... the basis upon which this country went to that war in Iraq," said Charles Kennedy, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats.

A strong current of public opinion remains skeptical of Blair's motives in joining the US-led attack. A National Opinion poll survey found that 49 percent of people believe the judicial inquiry was a "whitewash." Some 27 percent said Blair should resign despite his exoneration.

The case-for-war issue could be affect Bush's election campaign as well as Blair's viability - especially if the post-war situation in Iraq deteriorates. "We are a split nation, and an issue like [Kay's testimony] is cannon fodder to Americans who are angry about Iraq," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International.

What may be lost in the politics of the moment are the deeper questions about the capacity of intelligence to guide national strategy, defense analysts say. "David Kay pointed out quite correctly that this was primarily a problem of intelligence, but ... it's not a failure in competence or neglect," says Mr. Cordesman. The deeper problem, he says, is that the issues are so complex that current analytic methods - even enhanced by the most intensive inspection of a nation in history - aren't up to to the task.

Such concerns surfaced in another Capitol Hill venue this week, as a commission on terrorist attacks released its first findings of fact on the failures leading up to 9/11. Here, the intelligence challenge isn't exaggerating a threat, but largely missing it. Ironically, that failure to recognize a threat may have encouraged exaggerated estimates on Iraq, Kay said. "What changed after 9/11 was the level of risk we are prepared as a nation to run."

• Mark Rice-Oxley contributed from London.

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