The WMD-Gate Inquisition has begun not with a bang but a whisper.
There will not be a credible, serious investigation of the spies, the Bush Hawks, the WMDs and the war without some big bangs.
Will that happen? Will Congress cop out? I can't say it's looking good.
The congressional committees tasked with finding the secrets of the secret agents have opened hearings on the intelligence secrets used to justify the war with Iraq -- in secret. In both the House and the Senate, the intelligence committees are meeting behind closed doors.
Closed hearings have their virtues, the noblest being that they preclude most pandering to the cameras. Having covered many spectacle hearings -- the Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas and John Tower confirmations, Iran-Contra, the Clinton impeachment -- I am no fan.
But closed hearings held by committees with narrow jurisdictions cannot and will not provide the oversight needed in the post 9/11, post-Iraq War world.
This is not, as Republicans would have you believe, just a matter of settling a now academic argument about whether Saddam had an arsenal of unconventional weapons and plans to build more.
Yes, the backwards-looking questions are big: Did the intelligence agencies give the policymakers the straight and full scoop? Did the Bush Hawks let them? Did the administration's War Council -- the customers as they are called -- use the intelligence they were given honestly to make the case for war. Was the public duped about why American soldiers were sent off to get killed in Iraq?
But the forward-looking questions are even more important and that's a point Congressional Republicans and administration officials are trying to spin away.
If Iraq had WMDs, could other scary countries and terrorist have them now? Does the CIA have the capacity to answer that?
Since the Bush administration has declared a policy of pre-emptive warfare that says America reserves the right to wage war upon countries or terrorists that pose a threat,who tells us where the threats are? The spies will. And their credibility, and the credibility of the customers needs to be well examined before the next call to arms. It would be nice to know what the deal is with Iraq's WMDs before we take on Iran, Syria or North Korea.
Enter politics -- here defined as the desire of elected officials to get reelected.
Republican members of Congress think an Inquisition will hurt their reelection prospects. The White House agrees.
And many Democrats also think an Inquisition -- and I use that phrase in the noblest and nicest sense -- hurts them politically. Their reading of the polls suggests Americans approve of the outcome of the war no matter what its ostensible justification was. Carping now about dead horses like WMDs could make the Dems look like unpatriotic partisan hacks.
The Democratic and Republican low roads lead to the same place.
So it's not a shock that the partisan jousting in the House has been mild. Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee agreed on a process and substantive hearings commenced this week. The may be in private but they aren't phony.
But here's a problem. The Republican chairman of committee, Rep. Porter Goss, a former CIA agent, said, "I'm not going into what the customer did with the intelligence."
In other words, his committee will investigate whether the CIA slanted intelligence in order to please their customers. It will look to see if the spooks did a lousy job of finding out was going on in Iraq in the first place.
But the committee will not conduct a post-mortem on the actual policies and decision of the Bush White House. The committee will stay in its jurisdiction. That may be proper, but it's not good enough. It's only looking at part of the picture.
Initially, Senate Republicans recognized that a wider and deeper inquest was necessary. The Senate Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, it was announced, would hold joint hearings to examine the intelligence and the policy, the war and the prewar. But they weaseled out of it.
So Senate Intel began its closed hearings with a partisan squabble, undecided on how to proceed, Republicans reluctant to dig deep.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, said, "What they appear to be doing is entirely inadequate and slow-paced and potentially kind of sleep-walking through history."
Somnambulation is an equal opportunity affliction; it can affect Democrats, too. And right now, it's going to take a big bang to wake Congress up.
And once more, for the record: Where's Osama? Where's Saddam?
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer