Weapons of Distraction

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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Faced with growing public and professional skepticism over their claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to deploy them last year, the Bush administration and its allies are now scrambling to find a backup position that leaves them some shred of credibility. They seemed to be getting one this week from David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector who shocked the system by declaring last week that there were no weapons. Kay announced this week that the failure was not on the part of the policy-makers but of the intelligence community, which he said had underestimated the bankruptcy and internal decay of the Saddam Hussein regime. If an explanation is due, Kay told National Public Radio this week, it is one that “the intelligence community owes the president rather than the president owing the American public.”

Kay’s explanation sounds suspiciously like spin. Given what we now know about the president’s determination from the outset to go into Iraq with guns blazing, the details of the weapons program appear to have been an afterthought in the policy-makers’ minds. Still, there’s room to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. As Kay notes, governments around the world were worried about the Iraqi weapons program. So was the Clinton administration in its time. The Bush administration may have given too little time for United Nations inspectors to do their job, but as we’ve argued before, that amounts to a quibble over the timing of the invasion.

If Kay’s analysis is correct, though, the administration needs to explain why it is opposing the extension requested by the congressional committee investigating the September 11 attacks. The committee says there are too many details left unresolved, particularly about intelligence, for the work to be wrapped up in May, as called for in its mandate. The administration thinks it’s time to shut down. What don’t they want the committee to ask?

And if Kay is right, there’s one more question we’d like the administration to answer: How long will it keep attacking its critics for “underestimating” the threat from a blind and bankrupt Iraqi regime?

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