WASHINGTON - The initial report of the bipartisan Senate investigation into the lead-up to the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq has dealt a heavy blow to the rationales the Bush administration used to sell the American people on why it had to launch a pre-emptive war.
The report of the Senate Intelligence Committee charged that the CIA in the fall of 2002 either "overstated" the reconstitution of Iraq's nuclear weapons program and its possession of chemical and biological weapons or made claims "not supported by the underlying intelligence."
It further alleged that in a public version of a classified National Intelligence Assessment presented to Congress, the CIA dropped "many of the caveats" in the classified document that tended to soften the sense of peril facing the country.
The report cited a CIA claim that Iraq was poised to use "lethal and incapacitating biological weapons agents ... for delivery by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and covert operations ... potentially against the U.S. homeland." That statement, it said, "conveyed a level of threat to the United States homeland inconsistent with the classified National Intelligence Estimate."
The findings led the Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, to say Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that had Congress been apprised at the time what his committee had learned of the CIA performance, "I doubt if the votes would have been there" to pass President Bush's war resolution.
That observation, coming from a senior Republican in the Senate, can help Democratic ticket mates John Kerry and John Edwards explain their votes for the Bush resolution. They have since suggested that the country was duped by exaggerations of the threat to America and led down the wrong path of an essentially unilateral response to it.
The Senate report also threw cold water on the administration's continued insistence of a link between Iraq and the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Although "there were likely several instances" of such contacts, it said, they "did not add up to an established formal relationship." Also, the report said, "There was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance in an al-Qaida attack."
This initial report dealt only with the reliability of the prewar intelligence, not with its use by the White House. By prior agreement between Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, the committee will now examine the use of that intelligence, but will not release its conclusions until after the November election.
That delay, clearly insisted upon by the Republicans, is a deplorable dodge of congressional responsibility. It's the same way Congress, and especially the Democratic leadership, ducked a serious debate before the 2002 congressional elections on whether use of American force was warranted against Iraq without broad international support.
This time, the Democrats doubtless wish they hadn't agreed to having the second part of the committee's report released after the election. But as the minority party in a Congress in which their say has been all but silenced by the well-disciplined Republican leadership on agenda issues across the board, the Democrats had no choice.
In any event, they already have ample political ammunition against the embattled president on his launching of the war and its chaotic aftermath.
Mr. Kerry wasted no time when the Senate report was released, saying nothing in it "absolves the White House of its responsibility for mishandling of the country's intelligence. The fact is that when it comes to national security, the buck stops at the White House."
Such comments go to the heart of the president's strength, as demonstrated repeatedly in the public opinion polls. President Bush sought to counter the reports of flawed intelligence by insisting in a speech Monday that "we were right to go into Iraq" and "the American people are safer" as a result.
But that may no longer be enough for Mr. Bush's re-election. His judgment and credibility are now more than ever in question. What he needs now is for the handover of political power to the new interim Iraqi government to produce a greater prospect for peace and progress in Iraq by Nov. 2.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.