In recent days, Senate Democrats took heavy flak from Republicans when a memo they intended to keep private became public. In it, Democratic staff from the Intelligence Committee suggested that the committee’s review of the work of the intelligence community before the Iraq war should also assess how the White House used or abused that intelligence information.
The Democrats are right to want to reexamine the actions the administration took before the war. But to be credible and honest, they should also be willing to examine their own complicity—and that of Congress generally—in last fall’s truncated debate about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The issue here must not be just whether the CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency should have done a better job of figuring out whether Saddam Hussein had imported uranium from Africa or whether he had purchased aluminum tubes for use in enriching uranium. Intelligence is never created or used in a vacuum. It is always an input to political debates. How it is used or misused in those debates is of paramount importance to how the country makes its national security policy.
In particular, the country has a right to know whether the Bush administration deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Hussein to justify a rapid march to war that it already wanted for a host of other reasons. But we also deserve to know whether members of Congress had the same information available to them but failed to stand up publicly to debate the war.
It is not just the executive branch but also Congress that has access to findings of the intelligence community, a responsibility for overseeing the work of that community and a solemn responsibility to interpret and explain that information.
The Senate leadership and members of the intelligence community see a great deal of the information that goes to the president, vice president, secretary of Defense and secretary of State. They can provide independent assessments of what the executive branch is saying. They can challenge the president and his national security team if and when they disagree.
And it is this last action that was generally not taken last summer and fall in the prelude to war. Few members of Congress made an effort to independently assess the intelligence information they were provided. That gave free rein to the administration and served the nation poorly as a result.
To be sure, we all thought Hussein had some capability for chemical and biological weapons. That was true within the U.N., the European community and the Democratic Party as well as the Bush administration.
Given his track record of building weapons of mass destruction, using them in war and against his own populations and impeding the work of inspectors charged with destroying them after Desert Storm, there was every reason to think that he still had such agents last year. It now appears this conventional wisdom may have been wrong.
However, of much greater concern were two other aspects of the alleged threat: Hussein’s possible progress toward reconstituting a nuclear weapons program and his links to Al Qaeda. On both points, the Bush administration hyped the threat, and Congress let the administration get away with this “spin.” The result was a more rapid and unilateral rush to war than was necessary or prudent. And on both matters, there was sufficient evidence to know the administration was probably wrong at the time, as we both wrote last fall.
Congress knew from unclassified briefings and findings from the intelligence community that the Al Qaeda link and the nuclear capabilities charge were being distorted by the administration. Even the president has since repudiated the 9/11 connection. Nuclear weapons programs require large, fixed infrastructures that would have been hard to hide from U.N. inspectors. Furthermore, the intelligence community voiced unusually strong dissents to claims in the National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that Iraq had restarted a nuclear program.
The administration and the Congress both failed the American people. The investigation spotlight needs to shine on both branches.