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WMD: Credit Where Credit Is Due?

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Three days after I accused the Bush administration of stonewalling a proper investigation of pre-war intelligence, the president has announced he will sanction just such an investigation. This is good news and I won't hedge about that. Whatever the motivation for the Bush team's dramatic reversal, it's the only conscionable course. And good policy is usually good politics, believe it or not.

There has already been predictable carping that the deadline for the proposed panel is far past election day. That doesn't worry me; this being Washington, D.C., any substantial revelations will be made known as they occur, regardless of deadlines. There has also been fretting that the panel will only examine forward-looking, big-picture issues and not 'what did they know and when did they know it'; that, too, is not going to happen. And finally, some have worried that the inquisition will examine the gathering of intelligence but not it's use; again, it ain't going to happen.

All this doesn't mean that the s-word (stonewalling) is irrelevant. This administration still has no reservoir of credibility. The 9/11 Panel has faced administration stonewalling to the point where it needs an extension which is not forthcoming. The investigation of the Plame-Wilson ordeal has been, reportedly, similarly shackled.

And this new inquiry should have begun last summer. It should be well along the path to examining not just intelligence pertaining to Iraq's banned weapons, but also the alleged ties between Saddam and al Qaeda. (Perhaps then Vice President Cheney would stop repeating the same discredited, now just bizarre claims.) And the very doctrine of pre-emption, though not a factual case, needs to scrutinized.

My commentary was just a chirp in a cacophony of calls for an independent examination that followed David Kay's coming out party last week, a chirp unheard, I'm confident, in high places. But I didn't want the piece to stand with out giving credit where credit is due.

The original story follows.


Is it worth the editorial breath to bother calling on the Bush Administration to heed David Kay's suggestion and assemble an independent investigation of pre-war intelligence on the Iraqi threat?

Probably not.

But there are three fairly decent reasons to think, or perhaps just to hope, that a proper inquiry may be a tad more than fantasy.

1. There have been reports that some in the administration actually favor an inquiry, or at least a public admission of fault. Maybe this faction will prevail.

2. President Bush's best overseas friend, Prime Minister Tony Blair, had the sense and confidence to endure an independent inquisition into pre-war intelligence. The report has now largely vindicated him and though he's taking a hit in the polls, he's still standing with honor. Perhaps this will influence President Bush's team.

3. It is conceivable – barely - that the Democrats, so feckless in their opposition to Mr. Bush in Congress so far, can commit an act of actual governing and force an independent investigation down the White House's clenched gullet.

The central obstacle remains the administration's considered commitment to a policy of stonewalling. Whether it's the Kean-Hamilton 9/11 Commission, the investigation of the leak that blew Valerie Plame's CIA cover, congressional intelligence committees' inquiries into Iraq or Vice President Cheney's energy deliberations, the approach of the 43rd president to open government is modeled on the 37th president, Richard Nixon.

But the administration is fully equipped to pursue its political self-interest and they may come to believe that honest politics and policy may coincide here.

And David's Kay's important testimony this week before the Senate Armed Services committee could move the administration along the path of virtue. Contrary to the headlines, Kay's testimony was not all bad news for the Bush administration and was not all good news for its opponents.

The most serious and politically explosive charge against the Bush hawks, obviously, is that they pressured the spies to say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Kay explicitly said he believes this is "a wrong explanation." He said:

"…I had innumerable analysts who came to me in apology that the world that we were finding was not the world that they had thought existed and that they had estimated.

And never -- not in a single case -- was the explanation, 'I was pressured to do this.' The explanation was very often, 'The limited data we had led one to reasonably conclude this. I now see that there's another explanation for it.'…

And each case was different, but the conversations were sufficiently in-depth and our relationship was sufficiently frank that I'm convinced that, at least to the analysts I dealt with, I did not come across a single one that felt it had been, in the military term, 'inappropriate command influence' that led them to take that position.

It was not that. It was the honest difficulty based on the intelligence that had -- the information that had been collected that led the analysts to that conclusion."

The administration's appointment of Kay as head of the Iraq Survey Group in June had immense credibility because he was a critic and a friend of the hated United Nations. He still has that credibility, but his words will only go so far in satisfying the doubters. Why was Vice President Dick Cheney so involved in intelligence assessment? Why did the Pentagon mount its own intelligence operation?

The White House might also take comfort in Kay's admission that, "If I had been there, presented what I have seen as the record of the intelligence estimates, I probably would have come to -- not probably -- I would have come to the same conclusion that the political leaders." He would have concluded that Iraq had WMD.

Kay also concluded that the intelligence agencies simply did not succeed, though not because of any corruption. The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, seemed to agree when he said there was a "world intelligence failure."

And now Kay's conclusion, shared also by Republican Senator John McCain, is that the country needs a fully independent examination of the world intelligence failure -- and how political leaders used intelligence.

It is reckless and irresponsible for the administration to avoid such an inquiry. How will this administration or future administrations have credibility when they say to the American people, "We believe -- fill in the blank: Syria, North Korea, Al Qaeda, Iran, Columbian cartels -- is a dire threat to the U.S. and we must act to protect ourselves."

I also think an independent investigation wouldn't mortally wound Mr. Bush's presidency in this term or in a second term if he should win one. Tony Blair is proving that this week. Ronald Reagan had the guts not to block Iran-Contra investigations and as damaging as they were, they didn't cripple his presidency, his legacy or any government agencies such as the CIA.

But this administration is committed to stonewalling. It can't be shamed into allowing a real investigation. It will admit to no legitimate national security need for an investigation. It thinks credibility is a word for suckers and demagogues. And the administration seems to have no confidence it could weather an investigation and is immune to arguments that an inquiry is actually in its own best interests.

So it's up to the Democrats and may be a few independent minded Republicans. Congressional Democrats have to look at every hardball tool in their arsenal -- filibusters, boycotts, lawsuits -- and find some way to force an investigation, even if its lousy election year politics for the party.

And a smart, efficient and serious way to get the job done is expand the mandate of the Kean-Hamilton 9/11 Commission to include the Iraq war. It is, as the president always says, all part of one battle to protect the country from terrorism.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer