War under false pretenses?

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from the cabinet over the Iraq war, told the House of Commons on June 17, "We used intelligence as the basis on which to justify a policy on which we had already settled."

Evidence is mounting that something of that sort happened in the Bush White House. A retired diplomat, Joseph Wilson IV, has come forward to say that the CIA sent him to Niger in February 2002 to investigate a reported uranium deal with Iraq, but ignored his finding that the story was a hoax.

In his State of the Union address 11 months later, the president was still talking of an African uranium deal and ignoring evidence to the contrary. In the face of this embarrassing revelation, the White House has now acknowledged that including the uranium story in the State of the Union address was a mistake. It would be fascinating to know how such a mistake came about.

On television, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner and ranking Democrat Carl Levin clashed over whether the Wilson revelation justified an investigation into possible intelligence manipulation to make the case for invading Iraq.

Recently released documents indicate that the invasion of Iraq was long in the planning. A 1992 Defense Policy Guidance paper drafted by Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense for policy under President Bush the elder, called for a preemptive strike against Iraq. The stated reason - to avert the spread of destructive weapons and to ensure "access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil." But nothing about an imminent threat from an Iraq defeated and disarmed in the Gulf War only a year earlier.

Sept. 11 provided momentum for an attack on Iraq, although no connection between the terrorist acts and the Saddam Hussein government has ever been convincingly established. According to Bob Woodward's book, "Bush At War," at a meeting of the war cabinet four days after Sept. 11, Mr. Wolfowitz pushed for an assault on Iraq rather than Afghanistan because it would be easier.

But not as easy as Wolfowitz hoped. And now, the continuing and escalating guerrilla war against US troops has raised the question of whether the administration took America into the war under false pretenses, with selective use of ambiguous intelligence.

The question of whether the president got congressional approval for a war against Iraq by manipulating intelligence comes at a delicate time. The White House may soon be asking to send troops to Liberia, and that is bound to reopen for Congress the whole issue of the administration's credibility.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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