WASHINGTON - One of the most difficult aspects of the flap over President Bush's use of false information asserting Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons is that we do not know the facts.
One of the most reassuring aspects is that the system works.
Almost everything we've known about this whole mess has changed 180 degrees from what we originally thought we knew. Democrats said they accepted Mr. Bush's assertion about Iraqi weapons at face value; now they don't. Last week George Tenet, the CIA director who accepted responsibility for the inclusion of false information in Mr. Bush's State of the Union speech, was a pariah; now he's been exonerated by most because he didn't know all that happened.
And in the meantime the White House looks uncharacteristically inept in trying to explain what happened, finally lapsing into “oh, just-move-on” mode, as if it were that simple. Even the usually unflappable, competent national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice looked bad, saying, in effect, well, gee whiz, it was only 16 words. As we well know from Mr. Bush's predecessor, presidents have come under tremendous volleys of fire for fewer than 10 words.
Whether you agree with the U.S. attack on Iraq, the Bush Administration had many reasons to order it - a ruthless dictator was a danger to his own people and the peace of the region and perhaps the United States and convinced the United Nations of that. There was no reason for Mr. Bush to have relied on phony evidence, if he did. Most of the rest of the world was not in accord with the war in the first place; now the opponents may have even more ammunition to use against the moral standards of this country. If the administration did not fudge the facts, it will be hard to disabuse millions that it did.
As Americans continue to be killed in Iraq, it doesn't help that the administration has equivocated about when U.S. troops who fought in Iraq will be relieved of their duties there and rotated out. Daily, families and even soldiers are on TV saying they feel betrayed. Pentagon promises that they'll be home soon are met only with skepticism.
Whether the administration intentionally put a “spin on the truth” over Iraq, as an irate Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) charged, there is now a bad taste in the mouth for proponents of the war as well as its detractors and queasiness even among many Bush supporters.
In other words, we must find out what really happened and whether someone such as Vice President Dick Cheney deliberately permitted phony information to be in the speech. (Isn't it interesting that most people assume Mr. Bush was a passive player in all this and that the offending 16 words just got in there without his input?)
The good news is that we will find out what happened. Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who originally was dubious about the need for hearings into prewar intelligence, now says his panel must “aggressively” pursue such a review. That means public hearings. That means the public grilling of top administration officials. That means a world spotlight on the issue for months longer. “Mistakes were made up and along the chain,” Mr. Roberts now says ominously.
It's obnoxious that so many Democrats in Congress, who voted for the war and accepted the argument that Iraq was bent on getting nuclear weapons - an argument that has yet to be proved or debunked, now are saying, “We told you so - the emperor has no clothes.” Most of them look cloyingly opportunistic.
But ultimately it was Mr. Bush's fault if he used information he knew came from forged documents, evidence Secretary of State Colin Powell considered badly flawed. War against terror does not justify a president's public prevarication. If we find out Mr. Bush or his top aides did know, it may not even be of little lasting significance to his own political future. But it will have caused enormous damage to the United States. The President should be praying that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction are found. Fast.
Again, we do not know that the major cause for war was deliberately created out of forged documents and half-truths. But ultimately the American people must and will know if their intelligence apparatus remains seriously flawed or if officials, eager to justify war, deliberately played with the truth.