The Bush administration's inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- after public statements declaring an imminent threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- has begun to harm the credibility abroad of the United States and of American intelligence, according to foreign policy experts in both parties.
In last year's State of the Union address, President Bush used stark imagery to make the case that military action was necessary. Among other claims, Bush said that Hussein had enough anthrax to "kill several million people," enough botulinum toxin to "subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure" and enough chemical agents to "kill untold thousands."
Now, as the president prepares for this State of the Union address Tuesday, those frightening images of death and destruction have been replaced by a different reality: Few of the many claims made by the administration have been confirmed after months of searching by weapons inspectors.
Within the United States, Bush does not appear to have suffered much political damage from the failure to find weapons, with polls showing high ratings for his handling of the war and little concern that he misrepresented the threat.
But a range of foreign policy experts, including supporters of the war, said the long-term consequences of the administration's rhetoric could be severe overseas -- especially because the war was waged without the backing of the United Nations and was opposed by large majorities, even in countries run by leaders that supported the invasion.
"The foreign policy blow-back is pretty serious," said Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board and a supporter of the war. He said the gaps between the administration's rhetoric and the postwar findings threaten Bush's doctrine of "preemption," which envisions attacking a nation because it is an imminent threat.
The doctrine "rests not just on solid intelligence," Adelman said, but "also on the credibility that the intelligence is solid."
Already, in the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China has rejected U.S. intelligence that North Korea has a secret program to enrich uranium for use in weapons. China is a key player in resolving the North Korean standoff, but its refusal to embrace the U.S. intelligence has disappointed U.S. officials and could complicate negotiations to eliminate North Korea's weapons programs.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the same problem could occur if the United States presses for action against alleged weapons programs in Iran and Syria. The solution, he said, is to let international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency take the lead in making the case, as has happened thus far in Iran, and also to be willing to share more of the intelligence with other countries.
The inability to find suspected weapons "has to make it more difficult on some future occasion if the United States argues the intelligence warrants something controversial, like a preventive attack," said Haass, a Republican who was head of policy planning for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell when the war started. "The result is we've made the bar higher for ourselves and we have to expect greater skepticism in the future."
James Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration who believed there were legitimate concerns about Iraq's weapons programs, said the failure of the prewar claims to match the postwar reality "add to the general sense of criticism about the U.S., that we will do anything, say anything" to prevail.
Indeed, whenever Powell grants interviews to foreign news organizations, he is often hit with a question about the search for weapons of mass destruction. Last Friday, a British TV reporter asked whether in retirement he would "admit that you had concerns about invading Iraq," and a Dutch reporter asked whether he ever had doubts about the Iraq policy.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he had the intention, he had the capability," Powell responded. "How many weapons he had or didn't have, that will be determined."
Some on Capitol Hill believe the issue is so important that they are pressing the president to address the apparent intelligence failure in the State of the Union address and propose ways to fix it.
"I believe that unanswered questions regarding the accuracy and reliability of U.S. intelligence have created a credibility gap and left the nation in a precarious position," Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a speech last week. "The intelligence community seems to be in a state of denial, and the administration seems to have moved on."
Since last year's State of the Union, the White House has established procedures for handling intelligence in presidential speeches by including a CIA officer in the speechwriting process. The CIA is also conducting an internal review, comparing prewar estimates with postwar findings, and the final report will be finished after inspectors in Iraq complete their work.
But Bush and his aides have largely sought to divert attention from the issue. White House aides have said they expect this year's State of the Union speech to look ahead -- to the democracy the administration hopes to establish in Iraq -- rather than look back.
Officials also have turned the focus to celebrating Hussein's capture last month and repeatedly drawing attention to Hussein's mistreatment of his people. Officials have argued that if Iraq's stocks of weapons are still unclear, Hussein's intentions to again possess such weapons are not. Thirteen years ago, when the United States was a backer of Hussein, Iraq used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war.
The administration "rid the Iraqi people of a murderous dictator, and rid the world of a menace to our future peace and security," Vice President Cheney said in a speech last week. Cheney -- and other U.S. officials -- increasingly point to Libya's decision last month to give up its weapons of mass destruction as a direct consequence of challenging Iraq.
Bush, when asked by ABC's Diane Sawyer why he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when intelligence pointed more to the possibility Hussein would obtain such weapons, dismissed the question: "So, what's the difference?"
The U.S. team searching for Iraq's weapons has not issued a report since October, but in recent weeks the gap between administration claims and Iraq's actual weapons holdings has become increasingly clear. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that U.S. investigators have found no evidence that Iraq had a hidden cache of old chemical or biological weapons, and that its nuclear program had been shattered after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. A lengthy study issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also concluded the administration shifted the intelligence consensus on Iraq's weapons in 2002 as officials prepared for war, making it appear more imminent and threatening than was warranted by the evidence.
The report further said that the administration "systematically misrepresented the threat" posed by Iraq, often on purpose, in four ways: one, treating nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as a single threat, although each posed different dangers and evidence was particularly thin on Iraq's nuclear and chemical programs; two, insisting without evidence that Hussein would give his weapons to terrorists; three, often dropping caveats and uncertainties contained in the intelligence assessments when making public statements; and four, misrepresenting inspectors' findings so that minor threats were depicted as emergencies.
From likelihood to fact
Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment and co-author of the report, pointed to one example in a speech delivered by Bush in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002. U.N. inspectors had noted that Iraqi had failed to account for bacterial growth media that, if used, "could have produced about three times as much" anthrax as Iraq had admitted. But Bush, in his speech, turned a theoretical possibility into a fact.
"The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount," Bush said. "This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions."
Mathews said her research showed the administration repeatedly and frequently took such liberties with the intelligence and inspectors' findings to bolster its cases for immediate action. In the Cincinnati example, "in 35 words, you go from probably to a likelihood to a fact," she said. "With a few little changes in wording, you turn an 'if' into a dire biological weapons stockpile. Anyone hearing that must be thinking, 'My God, this is an imminent threat.' "
Steinberg, who was privy to the intelligence before Clinton left office, said that while at the National Security Council he saw no evidence Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, but that there were unresolved questions about Hussein's chemical and biological weapons programs. "Given his reluctance to address these questions, you had to conclude he was hiding something," he said, adding that given the intelligence he saw, "I certainly expected something would have turned up."
"I think there are [diplomatic] consequences as a result of the president asking these questions [about Iraq's weapons holdings] and the answer being no" weapons, said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who believes the ouster of Hussein justified the war. "The intelligence could have been better."
Richard Perle, another member of the Defense Advisory Board, said the criticism of the Bush administration is unfair. "Intelligence is not an audit," he said. "It's the best information you can get in circumstances of uncertainty, and you use it to make the best prudent judgment you can."
He added that presidents in particular tend not to place qualifiers on their statements, especially when they are advocating a particular policy. "Public officials tend to avoid hedging," he said.
Given the stakes involved -- going to war -- Mathews said the standards must be higher for such statements. "The most important call a president can make by a mile is whether to take a country to war," she argued, making the consequences of unwise decisions or misleading statements even greater.
Indeed, she said, the reverberations are still being felt, even as the administration tries to put the problem behind it. A recent CBS poll found that only 16 percent of those surveyed believed the administration lied about Iraq's weapons. But she said there is intense interest in the report's findings, with 35,000 copies downloaded from the think tank's Web site in just five days. "It is too soon to say there was no cost" to the failure to find weapons, she said. "I think there is a huge appetite for learning about this."