For 10 days, Washington has been consumed by one of those controversies that bedevils the government and consumes the press at frequent intervals. But behind all the speculation swirling around the leak that led to blowing the undercover status of Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife is a crucial policy question: Was it faulty intelligence, deliberate deception or both that prompted President Bush and his top advisers to mislead Americans into thinking Iraq was -- or was about to become -- a nuclear threat?
Each week that passes without finding the weapons of mass destruction whose alleged presence was a key factor in Bush's decision to attack Iraq bolsters his critics' contention that his action ensured major postwar problems. Supporters of attacking Iraq like to say the choice was between keeping or removing Saddam Hussein. "He is no more, and the world is a better place because of it," Bush said last week.
But the issue in Iraq never centered on whether Saddam Hussein was a cancer on humanity but whether he posed a sufficient danger that the United States should remove him. A secondary question was, if so, whether it was important to enlist the same broad coalition that the first Bush administration formed to expel him from Kuwait in 1991.
In a 2002 speech at West Point, Bush articulated the doctrine that the United States has the right to mount pre-emptive strikes to protect its national security. After sharp criticism from some Republicans and most Democrats, he decided to seek United Nations support, citing the intelligence that indicated Hussein had some weapons of mass destruction and was on the verge of acquiring others.
Some of that intelligence now appears far less clear-cut than Bush and his top advisers made it appear, such as the alleged Iraqi effort to acquire nuclear materials from Niger that Wilson's mission branded as questionable. Postwar events also have yet to validate claims about Iraqi weapons by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, though the probe led by former weapons inspector David Kay won't be finished for six to nine months. Still, the problem goes beyond whether this administration misrepresented its intelligence.
Intelligence and other national security experts from the Clinton and first Bush administrations agreed with this administration's estimates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., recently told reporters.
"If we were so misled, so wrong that now we cannot justify the intelligence on which we took action, that has serious implications for any president's policy," she said. "But it has really very significant consequences for the policies of a president who has adopted a policy of pre-emption and preventive war."
Remarkably, though other key lawmakers agree, Clinton holdover George Tenet remains as the director of central intelligence. He neither resigned when the Bush White House sought erroneously to blame him for its inaccurate statements about nuclear materials from Niger nor was he fired when administration intelligence seemed so far from the truth.
The probe into who leaked classified data to columnist Robert Novak could result in prosecutions or dismissals, regardless of whether the administration yields to pressure for an independent investigation. But to ensure national security and adequately assess Bush's performance on Iraq, the issue that really might require an independent probe is the adequacy of U.S. intelligence.
-- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of Dallas Morning News.