WASHINGTON - Somehow, despite the bite of reality, we kinda, sorta, always thought the CIA was like Mission: Impossible.
When other countries scoffed that Saddam Hussein had large, hidden caches of the most evil weapons ever invented, we believed the U.S. president who said he knew they were real because the CIA told him so.
When the United States kept Hans Blix and his cadre of United Nations weapons inspectors out of post-war Iraq, we cringed but thought President Bush knew best, because he told us so.
When our credibility crashed around the globe as weeks went by with no proof, we listened to the White House, which assured us that once Iraqi scientists came out of hiding, they would point to the secret weapons stashes.
When Mr. Bush began backtracking on his certitude that the United States would find the weapons of mass destruction and instead said that some day there would be proof that Iraq once did have a weapons program, the doubts multiplied.
The United States this year started a pre-emptive war in which thousands of people were killed. Every day American soldiers are in mortal danger in Iraq; leaving Iraq anytime soon isn't even discussed. On the other hand, Saddam Hussein has disappeared. Children have been released from horrific Iraqi prisons. And while the Iraqi people may be slow to realize it because they are hungry and thirsty and need jobs and electricity and the quiet joy of normal life, they are on the road to freedom.
Mr. Bush boldly justified the war as a war of self-defense for the American people, saying it was necessary to prevent chemical, biological, and, some day, nuclear weapons from being sold to terrorists by the Iraqi dictator. As proof, he points to two suspicious mobile labs - but no banned weapons have been found.
War shouldn't be fought on partisan grounds. But so far, Republicans generally believe Mr. Bush; Democrats don't believe him; millions don't know what to believe but are skeptical. Six out of 10 Americans no longer believe Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda or even that Iraq had facilities to create banned weapons, although 56 percent believe the war was justified.
It's too bad some people in the Bush Administration loathed Hans Blix and wouldn't let him do his job. Now the White House is scurrying around, bringing back retired CIA people to try to save face and find something - anything - that could be construed as weapons. But it will be nearly impossible for Mr. Bush to assemble another coalition if he wants to take on Iran, Syria, or North Korea or even nomadic bands of terrorists.
Republicans will block a full-scale public investigation of the quality of Mr. Bush's prewar intelligence, but there will be hush-hush hearings on Capitol Hill. The usual suspects will go behind closed doors, and there will be a gush of leaks that Mr. Bush had bad intelligence, that he had good intelligence, that he didn't believe the intelligence, that he believed the intelligence. Nothing will change because most of the true data will remain classified; both parties will use the issue for political expediency.
This grim post-9/11 world is fast becoming an excuse for our leaders to play fast and loose with the truth, our national credibility, and our trust. Listening to John Ashcroft, the buttoned-down attorney general with attitude, is disheartening. Over and over again he demands more power, refuses to apologize for jailing innocent people for months at a time, and rationalizes assaults on democratic traditions with the specter of terrorists lurking everywhere.
The danger, of course, is that he wears down his critics, demeans them, makes suspect their patriotism. Eventually, the criticism will be tamped down, and we will forget that once it was illegal for the authorities to jail you without cause.
Just as dangerous is the idea, now widely accepted by many Americans, that war is justified if the President says it is, because he's likable and insists he is doing the right thing, and because the other guy is bad.
Being a U.S. citizen is a lot harder than it used to be. There are days when it seems Mr. Bush is not helping make it easier to debate, to search for the truth, and to decide for ourselves whether waging war was justified.
And the CIA, it turns out, is certainly not Mission: Impossible with cool spy stuff and infallible super heroes. It is thousands of ordinary people, most very hard-working but without special powers, who pore through incredible amounts of data and satellite photos and sometimes don't see the forest for the trees. The CIA had no smoking gun on Iraqi weapons to show Mr. Bush. To Mr. Bush, it didn't matter. His mind was made up.