Demanding Accountability for the War in Iraq

By Colbert I. King

The Washington Post

Saturday, July 17, 2004; Page A19

Naomi Lewis, if convicted, faces up to five years behind bars for possession of a weapon on school property. Not that she intentionally brought the rifle and ammunition to Bull Run Middle School in Prince William County, where she's a cafeteria worker. But she realized her son had brought them to school when she heard something rattling around in the back of her van as they arrived at the building. Instead of taking the weapons home, she locked the van and went into the school. Her son later used a key she didn't know he had to open the van, retrieve several weapons and then barge into a school office with a loaded gun, ordering everyone onto the floor. He was arrested and, thank goodness, no one was injured. But Lewis's case is going before a grand jury next month because authorities believe she should be held accountable for her actions or inaction.

Theodore J. Gordon has worked in the D.C. health department for 31 years, and he says there's nothing negative in his personnel file. But he was placed on administrative leave last week and given a termination letter effective Aug. 6. The city won't say why Gordon was fired, but officials say the agency has serious problems and that changes needed to be made. Gordon, who was in charge of the environmental health division, apparently was being held accountable for something that he did or failed to do.

That's the way the system works. When something that could affect the public interest goes astray, someone, we are told, should be held accountable.

Which begs the question, where is the accountability for Iraq?

I raised this question on the "Inside Washington" show last weekend, and one of my colleagues responded: "It's called the presidential election. You can vote him out."

But does that do the trick? Losing, of course, is no fun. But it's not as if a defeated George W. Bush -- if it should come to that -- won't be in rather exclusive company, not the least of which includes his own father. And the younger Bush will still have his family, his health and his millions, not to speak of throngs of friends and well-wishers. There are worse fates in life.

Such is also the case with the other architects of Iraq war policy. 'Tis true, if Bush loses in November, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney will be out of a job. But who thinks they won't land comfortably on their feet, making more money and living higher on the hog than they do now? They will be the toast of the lecture and talk show circuit, in great demand in the academy and in policy circles, when not attending corporate board meetings on private jets. No red jump suits or unemployment lines for them.

And yet, consider the consequences of their collective actions: nearly 900 Americans killed, thousands maimed, billions spent, and 140, 000 U.S. troops still on the ground and in harm's way. That's not even counting the daily Iraqi casualties caused by insurgents opposed to the U.S. occupation.

The toll on America is all the more galling because of how the country went to war. We now know we were told a great many things that turned out to be untrue. Bush administration officials, relying on unfounded, distorted and exaggerated intelligence concerning weapons threats, took the country down a path that has led to a catastrophic waste of human lives as well as billions of dollars.

Let's consider just a few of the things that were conveyed as the gospel truth:

"The Iraq regime is a threat of unique urgency. . . . [I]t has developed weapons of mass destruction." President Bush, Oct. 2, 2002.

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Vice President Cheney, Aug. 26, 2002.

"We said they had a nuclear program. That was never any debate." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, July 13, 2003.

"We do know that there have been shipments going into . . . Iraq . . . of aluminum tubes that . . . are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs." National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Sept. 8, 2002.

"There is no doubt that he has chemical weapons stocks. . . . With respect to biological weapons, we are confident that he has some stocks of those weapons and he is probably continuing to try to develop more." Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sept. 8, 2002.

"The more we wait, the more chance there is for this dictator with clear ties to terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, more time for him to pass a weapon, share a technology, or use these weapons again." Secretary Powell, Jan. 26, 2003.

A year ago we were told by a senior administration official that Iraq could "really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." We now shell out more than $4 billion a month from the U.S. Treasury.

We were told last summer that the number of Iraqis signing up to fight "numbered in the thousands" -- only to see Iraqi troops refuse to fight at Fallujah and others switch sides, and hear military leaders admit that that the Iraqi forces weren't ready for prime time.

Now, let a D.C. government bureaucrat get it wrong or some low-level federal worker without friends in high places make a costly mistake and the weight of the world will come down on them. They will be hounded by congressional committees, pilloried and ridiculed in the media, and shunned by all people good and decent. They might even end up in jail.

That's what's called public accountability.

Well, how do we call to account those public officials who joined in decisions -- born out of concern for the nation's security but also out of pride, elitism and zealotry, as some will argue -- that led to the ruin of thousands of innocent, patriotic Americans and their families? When do they answer for their actions?

Martha Stewart was convicted for, among several offenses, lying to the government. What's the penalty when the government misleads the people?

kingc@washpost.com