Dubious Claims Indeed

LONDON -- In a way, it was heartbreaking to watch the Mother of Parliaments deal with half of a particularly nasty problem in an impressive way. It was sad and depressing for an American because the United States seems so unable even to begin to address the first half of the same problem -- how and why were we so badly misled about the reasons for going to war with Iraq. Did our leaders lie to us, knowingly distort or exaggerate? Or was their own intelligence that bad, and if so, why? And why isn't something being done about it?

In Britain, the debate was over the accuracy of a British Broadcasting Co. -- the state-owned radio and television network -- report that the government had "sexed up" a prewar dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The BBC's claim was traced to a respected weapons inspector and expert Dr. David Kelly, who was outed by the government itself and who later committed suicide. With that, the uproar became so great -- and you haven't seen uproar until you've seen the British tabloid press in full cry -- that an independent commission was named to investigate the whole mess, and Blair's political life was on the line.

I don't think even the American press can hype a story the way the British press does, and by the time Lord Hutton, the almost comically pukkah head of the inquiry commission, delivered his report to a breathlessly waiting nation, the whole place had more or less come to a halt. To add to the tension, Blair's administration had just barely survived a tough battle in the House of Commons over raising college student fees the previous day, winning by only five votes despite a 166-seat Labour Party majority.

Obviously (at least obviously under British rules), had the Hutton inquiry found Blair culpable for Kelly's death in any way, he would have had to resign. Instead, the BBC's board chairman resigned, disgraced that the Beeb had broadcast a stretcher. (If only we could get rid of Rupert Murdoch like that.) Imagine: a government where those found responsible for the mistakes have to go. It's such a concept.

The half of the problem the Hutton report did not address was how Blair's claim in the famous dossier that Saddam Hussein could deliver his (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction in Europe in 45 minutes ever found its way into the dossier in the first place.

Hutton concluded Blair's people had put no pressure on their intelligence agencies to "sex up" the report -- they were wrong all by themselves. (Actually, one intelligence guy had questions about the advisability of putting the claim in, but his objections don't seem to have made it far.)

If I were British, I'd like to know why the intelligence people fouled up, especially whether the phony 45-minute claim came from either the Iraqi National Congress or the Pentagon's Office of Special Projects, both of which should have been notorious by then.

This is an almost perfectly parallel case to George W. Bush's claim, in his 2003 Sate of the Union Address, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa, thus proving the Iraqis had a nuclear program -- a claim quite a few people in American intelligence knew was false.

Neither the Bush administration nor the Democrats seem much interested in getting to the bottom of why American intelligence was so bad on Iraq. Here we are with David Kay telling us, "We were almost all wrong." OK, shouldn't we at least find out why, so we can fix it?

The "everybody was wrong" excuse does nothing to restore confidence in our intelligence. Yup, Germany and France both thought Iraq had WMD, too. All that means is that they should be having "inquiry commissions" of their own to determine why their spooks were so wrong. (You may recall that before the war Hans Blix was signaling that if there were WMD, they didn't seem to be findable -- but we were so busy dissing the U.N. at that point, we paid no attention.)

I was privileged to watch Tony Blair's victory lap in the House of Commons after the Hutton inquiry cleared him of "lying, deceit and duplicity," as he put it, or even of "sexing up," in the sense of embellishing with known falsities. The sad part is that if Hutton had found otherwise, Blair would have resigned for such an old-fashioned reason -- dishonor.

Whereas, in the United States, we know there was an Office of Special Projects set up in the Pentagon before the war precisely to embellish intelligence reports, if not with known falsities -- always a bad practice -- at least by "sexing up" what was known and blowing up some very dubious claims. Anyone for a commission of inquiry?

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