The Washington debate over the justifications for the US invasion of Iraq is deepening in intensity, swirling into a Force 5 storm as the presidential political season begins in earnest.
A series of reports critical of the intelligence community's pre-war assessments of Saddam Hussein's power and intentions appears set to provide charges of incompetence for weeks to come. At the same time, the new Democratic ticket is signaling its intention to make the issue a central one - even though Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted to approve the war before combat began.
The bottom line: The US appears poised to continue an unprecedented national argument about the inner workings of its national-security apparatus, with the charged context of an election year inevitably affecting that debate. "These things are converging - and a lot of them are saying the same thing: 'We got things wrong,' " says Lee Strickland, a former senior intelligence officer, now a professor at the University of Maryland.
The latest major development on this subject came Friday, when the Senate Intelligence Committee dealt a stinging blow to the nation's intelligence community. In a scathing 521-page report, the committee charged that the Central Intelligence Agency's judgments about Iraq's continuing weapons of mass destruction programs (WMD) were exaggerated, and were a product of "group think" - not properly challenged from within.
The report specifically said that:
• Key judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's pursuit of WMD were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."
• Intelligence officials did not fully explain to policymakers the uncertainties behind key judgments.
• There were shortcomings in almost every aspect of human-intelligence collection about Iraq's WMD activities.
• Most of the problems stem from a "broken corporate culture and poor management, and will not be solved by additional funding and personnel."
In addition, the report pointed out that prior to the invasion of Iraq, CIA information described an Iraqi Army long on dysfunction and short on strength. The most dangerous weapon Iraq possessed at the time may have been the unpredictable Mr. Hussein himself, according to contemporaneous CIA assessments.
Time pressures were among the reasons intelligence was mangled and misinterpreted in this area, according to experts. "Group think" complacency was another issue. But pressure from administration officials to back up their pre-cooked conclusions was also partly at fault for CIA mistakes, according to at least one high-ranking current official.
"I think what happened in this case, to use the British phrase, it was 'sexed up,' " says a senior intelligence official, who has just written the book, "Imperial Hubris," a strong criticism of the war on terror.
Publicly, top CIA officials agree with most of the Senate Intelligence Committee report findings - with the notable exception of charges of broken corporate culture, and the report's implication that the agency is too timid to send spies into dangerous or difficult situations. At a rare press conference on Friday, John McLaughlin, deputy director of the CIA, pointed out the stars on the wall of the agency's lobby that represent fallen agents.
The incriminating report, unanimously agreed to by the nine Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee, is not a surprise. But the panel's censure comes in the midst of a tumultuous time at the CIA. Just Sunday, George Tenet, who served as director for the past seven years, left. And his deputy director for operations, Jim Pavitt, also resigned.
Within the next 10 days or so, the national 9/11 commission expects to release its sweeping recommendations to fix flaws that prevented the intelligence community from thwarting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US. The House intelligence panel is in the midst of its own study. And on Wednesday, "Imperial Hubris," the latest in a series of books critical of government performance prior to 9/11, hits bookstores.
Amid these developments, Democrats have begun to indicate that they will make the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq a big theme in the campaign. This may not be as obvious a decision as it seems. It was Howard Dean, not Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Edwards, who was the full-throated Iraq critic in the Democratic primary campaign. Both Kerry and Edwards voted in favor of the Senate resolution approving Iraq combat, a move which at the time may have seemed the politically prudent course.
In a series of joint interviews over the weekend, Kerry and Edwards charged that the false assumptions behind the Iraq invasion unnecessarily cost the US precious military lives, as well as billions of dollars, and much international prestige.
"What George Bush has done in Iraq ... cost America dearly," said Mr. Edwards in a typical interview.
In response, a GOP campaign official said Kerry's position on the war has changed repeatedly. In addition, the spokesman noted pointedly that as of Sunday Kerry had not had the time to receive the classified national security briefing offered presumed presidential candidates.
But in a sign of how polarized Iraq has become as a political issue, some Democrats now say flatly that the Senate was misled in the runup to conflict. "The administration at all levels, and to some extent us, used bad information to bolster its case for war," said Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, ranking minority member of the Intelligence Committee. "And we in Congress would not have authorized that war ... if we knew what we know now."
President Bush, however, defends his decision to wage war on Iraq - even with the faulty intelligence. "Although we haven't found stockpiles of weapons, I believe we were right to go into Iraq," he told crowds in Pennsylvania over the weekend. "He [Hussein] had the intent and the capability, which is why I say I would have done it again, because he's a dangerous person."