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The Fog of WMD

George W. Bush has met his own semen-stained blue dress.

It happens to be a former weapons hunter named David Kay. Just as a piece of clothing marked by DNA-containing jism forced President Clinton to acknowledge he had lied about his bizarre affair with an intern, Kay’s recent disclosures — in which he said he had concluded that there had been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war and that Iraq had not possessed any significant WMD production capability — have pushed Bush to concede his prewar assertions about Iraq’s WMDs were wrong.

Well, kind of.

He and his press secretary, Scott McClellan, have not been able to use the W-word. When Bush appeared on Meet the Press, host Tim Russert observed that Bush’s prewar claim that Iraq “continues to possess and conceal” WMDs was “apparently . . . not the case.” In reply, Bush muttered one word: “Correct.” And when a reporter asked McClellan if “the president now believes that this administration got it wrong when it came to assessing the intelligence and the threat that Saddam Hussein posed,” McClellan responded, “the intelligence that we had prior to the war was intelligence that was shared by agencies around the world.” It was a no-guilt-by-association defense.

But Bush has appointed a commission to review the prewar intelligence. That is an admission of sorts — even if the commission is being co-chaired by a right-wing judge named Laurence Silberman (who in 1993 encouraged a young conservative reporter named David Brock to pursue his investigation of Clinton’s extramarital affairs in Arkansas), contains few members with any intelligence experience and is not scheduled to release its final report until March 2005 (that is, months after the coming presidential election).

In announcing the commission at a no-questions White House briefing, Bush looked as happy to be there as Janet Jackson seemed in her post–Super Bowl apology video. He noted that Kay had “stated that some prewar intelligence assessments by America and other nations about Iraq’s weapons stockpiles have not been confirmed. We are determined to find out why.” That was a clever turn of phrase, Have not been confirmed. That makes it seem as if the problem is with the lack of confirmation, not the initial assessments. (Kudos to the guys in the speechwriting shop). And this slippery definition of the problem sidestepped a critical question: whether Bush hyped flawed intelligence, filled with qualifiers and caveats, to overstate the WMD threat Iraq posed. The answer: Yes, he did.

But Bush has yet to ’fess up to that, and he remains in partial denial about the missing WMDs. In the months prior to Kay’s there-are-no-bombs bombshell, the Bush White House continued to insist that weapons would be found in Iraq. Give it time, Bush aides said, asking for more patience than they were willing to grant the U.N. weapons inspectors before the war. Since Kay unloaded, Bush officials no longer claim they will uncover WMDs in Iraq. But Bush cannot give up the dream. On Meet the Press, he said, “There’s theories as to where the weapons went. They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country. And we’ll find out.”

With this remark, Bush was clearly suggesting that there had been weapons of mass destruction in Iraq right before the war. But that is the opposite of Kay’s findings. Kay concluded that Iraq did not maintain a serious WMD “production program in the 1990s.” He did unearth evidence of WMD-related programs “designed to allow future production at some time,” but he said there were no stockpiles to move or dismantle. Yet in his interview with Russert, Bush claimed that Kay had found “that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons.” Not really.

So while Bush and his compadres hope for a Hail Mary score — the near-magical appearance of a cache of unconventional weapons — they continue to defend the decision to go to war with a collection of Plan B talking points: Everybody thought Hussein had WMDs, he was a madman who could do who-knows-what to America with WMDs, he had used chemical weapons in the past, and he had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis whose remains could now be found in god-awful mass graves.

All this is more rhetoric than reason. Not everyone believed Hussein was neck-deep in WMDs. Former U.N. inspectors and even some intelligence analysts within U.S. intelligence agencies questioned whether Hussein was maintaining WMD stockpiles. Hussein was certainly a nutcase dictator, but the CIA had concluded he was unlikely to use WMDs against America unless the United States was poised to attack him. His past use of chemical weapons had occurred two decades ago, when the Reagan-Bush administration was courting Iraq, not invading it. And the mass murders — as terrible as they were — had mainly happened in the aftermath of the first Gulf War when Hussein slaughtered Shiites during an uprising that had been encouraged but not supported by George Bush I. Before the latest invasion, Bush II had primarily sold this war as necessary to protect the United States from a WMD-toting Hussein, not as a humanitarian endeavor.

As they have faced questions about those absent weapons of mass destruction, Bush and his aides have repeatedly described Hussein as a “gathering threat.” In press briefings, McClellan has clung to these words the way a drowning man holds on to a life preserver. “In my language,” Bush told Russert, “I call it a grave and gathering threat.” But according to Kay, nothing was being amassed. No WMD master plan was about to come together. Kay even testified that the U.N. inspections process scorned by the Bush White House had kept Hussein’s WMD programs from breaking out. What was so “gathering” about it?

Bush realizes he can no longer get away with saying the war was fought to rid the world of Iraq’s WMDs. But he has not fully come to terms with Kay’s conclusions. Kay has said he believes that Hussein was dangerous and the war was the right move. But his disclosures undermine Bush’s gathering-threat defense. They also have put pressure on Bush to explain why he made melodramatic prewar assertions about Iraq’s WMDs that were not supported by the available evidence. Kay has even suggested that Bush’s new commission examine whether there had been “an abuse” of the intelligence by Bush and company.

By appointing his unimpressive commission, Bush has recognized something went amiss. But he is refusing to take responsibility for errors or misjudgments committed by his White House or the intelligence community he oversees. And he has been trying to muddy up the picture by misrepresenting Kay’s findings and by deploying rhetoric untethered to reality. He knows the blue dress is there. He’s just hoping it will get lost at the cleaners.

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