The Bush administration put its credibility on the line when it asserted that Iraq's illegal weapons program posed an immediate threat to U.S. security.
Surveys show that a majority of Americans believe the war in Iraq will have been justified even if no weapons of mass destruction are found there. That view is understandable in one respect: The world surely is a far better place with Saddam Hussein removed from power. The unearthing of mass graves across Iraq continues to add gruesome evidence of the scope of Hussein's barbarity.
However, the Bush administration did not seek to justify the war in Iraq primarily on humanitarian grounds. Instead, it put our nation's credibility on the line - along with that of Britain, our most important ally - by asserting that a pre-emptive war was necessary because Hussein's regime had developed an illegal weapons program that posed a clear and imminent threat to U.S. security.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair staked their considerable reputations on the accuracy of their public indictments of Iraq's illegal weapons programs. If evidence of that threat turns out to have been deliberately falsified or exaggerated, American credibility will be damaged in ways that could pose a true threat to our security. After all, our ability to enlist other governments' help in the continuing war against terrorism depends on shared recognition of a credible threat.
Those who already have judged the Bush and Blair administrations guilty of deliberate, wholesale disinformation are premature. Intelligence-gathering is an inherently inexact art. Even the most honest and thorough efforts can produce fundamentally flawed results. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. intelligence agencies had broadly underestimated the extent of Iraq's illegal weapons programs.
It is too early to make a final judgment on the state of Iraq's illegal weapons programs prior to this year's war. Biological and chemical weapons facilities can be relatively small and easy to hide, and the search for them could continue for months.
At the same time, some instances of misinformation already are clear. For example, the White House's warnings about Iraq's supposed nuclear weapons program were wildly overblown. The most spectacular charge - that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Africa for use in building nuclear weapons - turns out to have been based on transparently phony documentation. There also is no substantial evidence to support the Bush administration's allegations of the Hussein regime's supposed ties to al-Qaida. More broadly, top U.S. intelligence officials say the White House effectively politicized the intelligence-gathering process by rejecting their equivocal reports about Iraq's weapons programs in favor of findings from alternate sources that bolstered the administration's predetermined views.
The issue is important enough to demand a thorough review of the integrity of our prewar intelligence-gathering, as well as the accuracy of the charges the president and other administration officials made to justify the decision to go to war. Congress and our intelligence agencies should not allow partisanship or internal politics to curb that process.
Any final judgment about whether the Bush administration deliberately overstated the threat of Iraq's illegal weapons programs should await a thorough review of the evidence. In the meantime, however, those who claim the issue is irrelevant are taking an indefensibly cynical view. The United States has unrivaled military and economic power, but the true strength of our nation has always emanated from the foundation of our democratic principles. If our government is found to have launched a pre-emptive war based on dishonest justifications, the resulting damage to our democratic institutions will be greater than any outside enemy could inflict.