A hard look

February 03, 2004

IN THEORY, President Bush's plan to appoint a commission to get to the bottom of the American intelligence fiasco in Iraq is welcome. Learning from the mistakes of the past - especially from mistakes as glaring as those that concerned Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction - is always a good idea.

The problem is that investigations don't take place in the realm of theory. Various congressional committees have already made plans to look into the same questions; it's because these inquiries are likely to be so limited that there is still the need for a presidentially appointed bipartisan panel. Yet the sort of commission Mr. Bush has been talking about also seems likely to be significantly circumscribed.

A commission that is entirely controlled by the White House is unlikely to root around too deeply into the White House's own conduct.

And even if it tried to, the Bush administration already has a pretty poor record where investigating panels are concerned; consider the obstructionism that has greeted the commission looking into the intelligence failures of 9/11.

Mr. Bush says the Iraqi weapons report won't come out until after the elections in November. This does help ensure that the probe doesn't become a political football, which is good, but it also looks a lot like trying to sweep things under the rug until a second term is well under way.

When he was running for president the first time, Mr. Bush asked Dick Cheney to scout out a running mate, and Mr. Cheney finally came up with one - himself. Maybe it would be a good idea for Mr. Bush to appoint Mr. Cheney as head of the new commission; in looking for someone to blame for the bad info on Iraq, he might just come to the same conclusion.

The point is that war was not forced on the administration by the intelligence agencies. The White House is in charge; a decision to go to war is ultimately one of judgment. That's why the voters put the president in office - to use his judgment.

It is evident that Mr. Bush relied heavily on Mr. Cheney, who made it clear to the CIA what kind of intelligence he was looking for - evidence that would justify a war. The CIA gathered and reported that sort of evidence, and because the evidence was wrong, it did a disservice to the country - but the CIA didn't make the decision to send American troops into action. Mr. Bush is right that the intelligence agencies of the United States should be examined to learn how to avoid repeating their mistakes on Iraq - but responsibility lies at the top.

Nonetheless, a presidential commission on the intelligence failures of the past year can be of great service to the country. The more independent such a panel is, the wider its scope, and the greater the cooperation it receives from the White House - the more credible it will be.

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