Washington — Did the Bush administration deliberately trick the public and America's allies about the intelligence it had gathered on Iraq to clear the way last winter for war? And was the CIA a reluctant but complicit partner in that exercise?
That case is being made explicitly by some Democrats, who accuse the White House and the Pentagon of mounting an "intelligence hoax" on unsuspecting citizens and foreign leaders. It is also framed implicitly by a growing number of media reconstructions that portray wartime stories of heroic rescue and intense diplomatic maneuvering for peace as so much propaganda.
Count me as an opponent of news management and every other form of spin. But count me also as a skeptic on the accusations that Bush strategists pulled off a great scam on Iraq.
They no doubt would have -- had scamming been both necessary and possible. But it is disingenuous to look back now and say that support for the war was built solely on the belief that weapons of mass destruction would be found soon after the battlefield victory.
Some of the critics now saying just that originally blasted Bush for offering too many reasons for going after Saddam Hussein instead of relying on one overriding cause. The very multiplicity proved -- or so it was asserted -- that regime change and regime change alone was the real motive for the war, not weapons of mass destruction, humanitarian intervention or terrorist links.
Those provided a mix of valid reasons for removing Saddam, and I think a majority of Americans both understood and approved of that mix. Feigning shock on behalf of "duped" citizens who were fairly clear-eyed about what they were getting into should turn out to be a losing proposition.
Nor did foreign leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder base their decisions about whether Iraq possessed programs to produce biological, chemical or nuclear weapons on Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations.
Each of these stalwart opponents of the war was briefed by his own intelligence chiefs and given assessments that closely matched Powell's overall presentation, reliable sources tell me. The argument with Washington, as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin made clear at the time, was over the best way to find and get rid of the weapons -- not whether they existed. If Bush was wrong, so were Chirac and Schroeder.
Or is it possible, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now suggests, that Saddam destroyed or shipped out of Iraq his stock of terror weapons before the war started? That seems at first glance a stretch.
But consider this: If the Iraqi dictator did ditch his terror weapons then or earlier, he was never able to admit it in a convincing manner. He had manufactured them originally to deter an invasion from Iran and then from the United States. He would have given up valuable ambiguity by making a transparent and truthful declaration, as the United Nations demanded. He was condemned to live by and then be destroyed by his lies.
It is more probable that the extensive Iraqi concealment mechanisms that Powell spotlighted in his U.N. remarks worked, and that weapons remain hidden inside Iraq. It is important for the Bush administration's credibility in any future international crisis that the search for these unconventional weapons be expanded, extended and professionalized on an urgent basis.
The truth will out, as the spin masters who took liberties with the tale of Pfc. Jessica Lynch's capture and rescue are discovering. A detailed reconstruction by The Associated Press now makes clear that the injured prisoner of war could have been located in and removed from the Nasiriyah hospital without a shot being fired.
But that again is retrospective clarity. At the time, the rescue team had to suspect that it was being led into a trap. So it came with full force for an operation that was captured on video. The dramatic precautions were necessary. But the Pentagon fell down in the aftermath by not moving quickly and aggressively to correct a public record full of distortions and embellishments. Fairly or unfairly, that will help undermine the administration's credibility on larger questions.
But the American public has shown a steady ability to sort through news, propaganda and self-serving embellishment, usually without mistaking them for unalloyed "truth." You won't find that in a pure form in any newspaper or an intelligence report.
You find truth only in common sense -- in the process of comparing and analyzing information yourself and then applying your life experiences to it to see where, and how, it fits into the larger scheme of things. That's what I think people did and continue to do about Bush and Iraq.
-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.