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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

Getting at the truth

Doubts about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction have finally lit a fire under Republicans in our somnambulant Congress to hold public hearings on the subject.

It's about time.

Many members of Congress gave President Bush, the military, and the intelligence agencies a free pass on the Iraqi weapons claims when public opinion was stoked for the war last year. Now, with no weapons found, some feel they were misled.

Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is one of them. The Virginia Republican says he intends to hold at least one hearing this summer.

Did reports by the CIA and other intelligence agencies overstate Iraq's threat, or were they just wrong? Did the administration pressure the agencies to report a threat that wasn't there? Did Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others exaggerate the intelligence in order to shape public opinion?

These are all questions Congress should look into carefully, for the answer to any or all of them could be yes.

The administration employed a constantly revolving rationale in justifying the invasion of Iraq, but the central argument was that Saddam Hussein had chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons and was prepared to use them directly against the United States and others.

Even though no such weapons have been found so far, the administration continues to cling to the notion.

Mr. Bush himself stated flatly on May 29 that “we found the weapons of mass destruction.” He was referring to discovery of two truck trailers with laboratory equipment that could have been used to prepare biological weapons.

Since the trailers bore no trace of any bio-weapons ingredients, this claim is impossible to verify. This week, the President recast his semantics further, referring to Iraqi weapons in the past tense.

These are only a few in a long list of assertions - some unequivocal, some with weasel-worded qualifiers - which the President and his lieutenants have used to mold public opinion.

Some examples:

w Vice President Cheney, at the VFW convention, Aug. 26, 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.”

w Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, Jan. 9: “We know for a fact that there are weapons there.”

w Mr. Bush, State of the Union address, Jan. 20: Cited “evidence” that Iraq had not accounted for or destroyed materials to make more than 38,000 liters of botulism toxin and up to 500 tons of sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agents.

w Mr. Bush, national address, March 17, three days before the war began: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

This litany of supposed doom had the desired effect. Public opinion polls indicated before the war that invading Iraq could not be justified unless proof of weapons of mass destruction could be found. Now, the polls say that the public doesn't care much about finding weapons; a majority of Americans are just glad the United States won and Saddam is gone.

That may be, but a substantial segment of the public continues to believe that the U.S. was led to war under false pretenses, and some of those people are in Congress. They should not stop asking questions until the truth is known.



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