I Spy a Screw-Up

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

April 1, 2005

WASHINGTON

Like the new Woody Allen movie, "Melinda and Melinda," it is possible to view today's big story on the tremendous intelligence failures before the Iraq war as either comedy or tragedy, depending on how you look at it.

For instance, on the comic side, The Times reported yesterday that administration officials were relieved that the new report by a presidential commission had "found no evidence that political pressure from the White House or Pentagon contributed to the mistaken intelligence."

That's hilarious.

As necessity is the mother of invention, political pressure was the father of conveniently botched intelligence.

Dick Cheney and the neocons at the Pentagon started with the conclusion they wanted, then massaged and manipulated the intelligence to back up their wishful thinking.

As The New Republic reported, Mr. Cheney lurked at the C.I.A. in the summer of 2002, an intimidating presence for young analysts. And Douglas Feith set up the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon as a shadow intelligence agency to manufacture propaganda bolstering the administration's case.

The Office of Special Plans turned to the con man Ahmad Chalabi to come up with the evidence they needed. The Iraqi National Congress obliged with information that has now been debunked as exaggerated or fabricated. One gem was the hard-drinking relative of a Chalabi aide, a secret source code-named Curveball, who claimed to verify the mobile weapons labs.

Mr. Cheney and his "Gestapo office," as Colin Powell called it, then shoehorned all their meshugas about Saddam's aluminum tubes, weapons labs, drones and Al Qaeda links into Mr. Powell's U.N. speech.

The former secretary of state spent four days and three nights at the C.I.A. before making the presentation, trying to vet the material, because he knew that Mr. Cheney, who had an idée fixe about Saddam, was trying to tap into his credibility and use him as a battering ram.

He told Germany's Stern magazine that he was "furious and angry" that he had been given bum information about Iraq's arsenal: "Some of the information was wrong. I did not know this at the time."

The vice president and the neocons were in a fever to bypass the C.I.A. and conjure up a case to attack Saddam, even though George Tenet was panting to be of service. When Mr. Tenet put out the new National Intelligence Estimate on Oct. 2, 2002, nine days before the Senate vote on the war resolution and after our troops and aircraft carriers were getting into position for battle, there was one key change: suddenly the agency agreed with Mr. Cheney that Iraq was pursuing the atomic bomb.

Charles Robb, the former senator and governor of Virginia, and Laurence Silberman, a hard-core conservative appeals court judge, headed the commission. Unlike Tom Kean, Judge Silberman held secret meetings; he made sure the unpleasantness wouldn't come up until Mr. Bush had won re-election.

It is laughable that the report offers its most scorching criticism of the C.I.A. when the C.I.A. was simply doing what the White House and Pentagon wanted. Isn't that why Mr. Tenet was given the Medal of Freedom? (Freedom from facts.)

The hawks don't want to learn any lessons here. If they had to do it again, they'd do it the same way. The imaginary weapons and Osama link were just a marketing tool and shiny distraction, something to keep the public from crying while they went to war for reasons unrelated to any nuclear threat.

The 9/11 attacks gave the neocons an opening for their dreams of remaking the Middle East, and they drove the Third Infantry Division through it.

The president planned to announce today that he would put into place many of the commission's recommendations, including an interagency center on proliferation designed to play down turf battles among intelligence agencies.

As Michael Isikoff and Dan Klaidman reported in Newsweek, in the three and a half years since 9/11, the intelligence agencies still haven't learned how to share what they know. At the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the Homeland Security guy complained he was frozen out by the F.B.I. and C.I.A.

Like "Melinda and Melinda," the other side of this wacky saga is deadly serious. There are, after all, more than 1,500 dead American soldiers, Al Qaeda terrorists on the loose and real nuclear-bomb programs in Iran and North Korea that we know nothing about. No laughs there.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com