In deciding to back an independent review of the intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, President Bush is implicitly conceding what he cannot publicly say: that something appears to be seriously wrong with the allegations he used to take the nation to war in Iraq.
Most everybody in a position to know has agreed that a huge mistake has been made.
"We were almost all wrong," David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, testified last week.
"In this case, there's no question that there was an intelligence failure, in some form or another," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said yesterday on "Fox News Sunday." "Clearly this is not the immediate threat many assumed before the war," is how Charles Duelfer, Kay's replacement, put it a few months ago when he noted "the apparent absence of existing weapons stocks."
Bush will announce this week that he is creating, by executive order, a bipartisan independent panel of at least nine members that will make a report in 2005, the White House confirmed yesterday. But those close to the president say he is doing so while continuing to avoid any explicit public acknowledgment that the intelligence was wrong. Why the reluctance to state what appears increasingly obvious as Kay spent the past 10 days dashing prospects that significant weapons stockpiles would be found in Iraq? Although the tactic may appear to be obtuse, there is a real strategy behind the Bush response -- and one that has been used before, to great effect.
Bush aides have learned through hard experience that admitting error only projects weakness and invites more abuse. Conversely, by postponing an acknowledgment -- possibly beyond Election Day -- the White House is generating a fog of uncertainty around Kay's stark findings, and potentially softening a harsh public judgment.
"They aren't giving up," Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, said recently. Blix's failure to find weapons of mass destruction before the war was ridiculed by the administration. "They all prefer to retreat under a mist of controversy rather than say, 'I'm sorry, this was wrong,' " he said.
Of course, Bush and his top aides are as aware as anyone -- and acknowledge as much in private -- that Kay's remarks of the last week have dispelled remaining hope that the intelligence might prove correct. Although some in the White House favor having Bush admit publicly that the intelligence was flawed, a high-ranking Republican source said such a step is not yet being contemplated.
Instead, for the White House, agreeing to allow an external review -- which Kay advocates -- amounts to a tacit acknowledgement of reality without an admission of error that would encourage opponents. Indeed, having a commission could postpone Bush's need to admit error indefinitely; in that sense, it is something of a tactical retreat.
Nobody expects any hard conclusions to be reached before the Nov. 2 election -- either by congressional probes or an independent inquiry -- on what went wrong with the intelligence. Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee and a former CIA case officer, said recently that partisan politics would make it impossible to get any real work done before the election. "Not this year," Goss said. "You couldn't get the members together, or even the rules set up."
Bush has lately found many of his rationales for the war in Iraq being challenged. Just as Kay has undermined the WMD rationale, a report published by the Army War College challenged the notion that the war in Iraq was part of the overall war on terrorism, while the group Human Rights Watch has disputed Bush's notion that the Iraq war was a humanitarian mission. Vice President Cheney has implicitly acknowledged that the Iraq war has not spurred peace in the Middle East, saying peace is not possible while Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains in power.
To all of these challenges, though, there is a simple solution for Bush: If the on-the-ground situation improves in Iraq, with violence abating and U.S. troops returning home, the American public will almost certainly forgive any flaws in the rationale for going to war. Discussing the weapons dilemma, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who backs the president on Iraq, sees it this way: "If people feel things are under control in Iraq, the WMD issue doesn't have traction. If things go badly, then it does have traction."
Also, the alternative for Bush -- admitting an error in the prewar allegations -- has not worked well for him in the past. Administration officials now say it was a mistake to acknowledge that Bush should not have included in last year's State of the Union address an allegation that Iraq tried to buy nuclear material in Africa. The admission of error, they say, made Bush appear weak and encouraged more skeptical coverage than if the White House had refused to budge.
Before deciding to endorse an independent review, White House officials had little alternative but to rely on some unsatisfying answers when asked about the intelligence failure. On Wednesday, for example, Bush suggested that war came because Saddam Hussein did not let inspectors into Iraq, when in fact it was the United States that called for inspections to end. "It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in," Bush said.
That same day, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan said the White House never said Iraq was an "imminent" threat. But when McClellan's predecessor, Ari Fleischer, was asked whether Iraq was an imminent threat, he replied: "Absolutely." And when White House communications director Dan Bartlett was asked whether Hussein was an imminent threat to U.S. interests, he replied: "Well, of course he is."
In addition, Bush aides have regularly said that they were following the advice of intelligence experts. On Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the weapons conclusion "was the judgment of our intelligence community, the judgment of intelligence communities around the world." Yet the White House, at various times, went beyond what the CIA advised. In addition to the allegation about Hussein's nuclear purchases in Africa, which the CIA discouraged, the White House asserted, without consulting with the CIA, that Iraq "could launch a biological or chemical attack 45 minutes after the order is given."
In all their efforts last week to blunt the issue, though, White House officials have been careful not to say the intelligence was wrong. Invited to do so in a television interview Thursday with CBS News, Rice replied: "I don't think . . . that we know the full story of what became of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." Those close to the White House said that, now that Bush has backed an independent review, there is no need for an immediate revision of that official position.
Staff writers Barton Gellman and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.