A faulty intelligence report
IT WAS classic irony that Terri Schiavo died the same day the presidential commission on intelligence failure was released. For the brain-damaged Schiavo, the allegedly life-loving Republican Congress and White House engineered a historic and histrionic Palm Sunday vote to support Schiavo's parents, who wanted her feeding tube reinserted over the wishes of Schiavo's husband.
President Bush said yesterday that those who want to honor Terri Schiavo should work to ''build a culture of life." But the commission report offered the occasion to be reminded that on Iraq we were a culture of death, with Bush still avoiding accountability for actions that have led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians and 1,500 US soldiers.
The report was important because it said the US intelligence community was ''dead wrong in almost all of its prewar judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction." It was also important as it recognized that the international trust destroyed by the false judgments will take years to repair. But there is a missing link of the most predictable kind.
The missing link was evident as Bush introduced the commission's cochairmen, Chuck Robb and Laurence Silberman, with a straight face, saying: ''I asked these distinguished individuals to give me an unvarnished look at our intelligence community and they have delivered. . . . I'm grateful for your hard work."
Bush was grateful because the commission absolved the White House of pressuring intelligence agencies to come up with information that fit the politics. The report itself said that intelligence officials claimed ''that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments." Yesterday, Silberman added, ''We did not see any evidence of false intelligence being injected by any policymaker into the intelligence community."
The answer to why the commission saw no evidence is because it is amazingly unclear as to how much they questioned the White House, whose public relations campaign from the current defense secretary to forcibly remove Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein predates Bush's 2000 election. A 1998 open letter to President Clinton from defense hawks, one of them Donald Rumsfeld, said, ''even if full inspections were eventually to resume, which now seems highly unlikely, experience has shown that it is difficult if not impossible to monitor Iraq's chemical and biological weapons production. . . .
''The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy."
That was five years before the invastion. Perhaps no political pressure was necessary because everyone in the intelligence community knew what Bush wanted to hear and there were few people willing to risk their careers to expose weak evidence. This obvious possibility did not seem to be prominent in the commission's inquiry. At one point yesterday, a reporter asked Silberman and Robb, ''Did the administration not ask the tough questions, the right questions? Did they not challenge some of these assumptions? And doesn't ultimate responsibility rest with the president of the United States?
Silberman stunningly referred the reporter to Bob Woodward's book ''Bush at War." Woodward interviewed the president for four hours. ''Actually," Silberman said, ''if you read the Woodward book it would appear that the president did ask tough questions. Our job was to look at the intelligence that came from the intelligence community."
Several minutes later, a reporter followed with: ''Since you cited a journalist's book, does that mean you did not have a chance independently to interview the president himself and the vice president?"
Silberman responded: ''We had discussions with the president. We didn't interview the president, nor did we interview the vice president."
They of course could not, since, as Silberman said, ''our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that was not part of our inquiry."
With all this agreement between the president and his commission, we need a commission for the commission. For Schiavo, Bush said we must protect Americans who live at the mercy of others. In a distant land, the fate of Iraqis rested on the mercy of a president and his intelligent use of intelligence. We still do not know what he knew. All we know is that he showed no mercy.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.