WASHINGTON - Recent Senate hearings on whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction were heartbreaking. Most U.S. citizens who watched or read about the sessions, regardless of their political persuasion, would have to agree.
David Kay, the outgoing top weapons inspector, stood by his candid insistence after nine months in Iraq that it is now "highly unlikely" stockpiles of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons will be found in Iraq.
His credibility is indisputable. He's the best of the best. And even he began the thankless but vital task of trying to find such weapons with the firm belief that the administration was correct in saying Iraq posed an immediate danger because of its threat that it had and would use weapons of mass destruction.
Gray-haired, mustached, and bespectacled, Mr. Kay is earnest and sincere and vastly respected inside and outside of government. His bottom line? "We were almost all wrong - and I certainly include myself here," in assuming last year that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Kay does not believe the administration purposefully fabricated evidence of such weapons. He does think this has been yet another colossal failure of intelligence. He told senators he is convinced they will decide to go with an outside review because lawmakers have to find out why administration claims that Iraq posed such a threat were so wildly wrong. And, Mr. Kay said, an independent probe is needed to give "the American people the confidence" the Senate has done its job.
But the issue already has become a political football.
During the hearing, Republicans tried to bolster the notion that the administration had no choice but to go to war, and that its outcome - the downfall of Saddam - was worth everything, even the mounting toll of American and Iraqi lives. But they took care to characterize Mr. Kay as an American hero for his service to his country.
Democrats, meanwhile, were pointing fingers at the administration for "manipulating" intelligence. Democrats on and off the campaign trail said the goal was to justify invading Iraq, a plan formulated in the earliest days of the administration, long before anyone had a legitimate rationale for a pre-emptive strike.
And U.S. allies who refused to accept the administration's word that the evidence for invading Iraq was incontrovertible are cackling. It's as if Goliath is falling, and everyone is cheering.
Through it all, the administration has seemed unfazed, even though it presumably would be well served if people knew the truth. Vice President Dick Cheney still insisted as of a few days ago that weapons of mass destruction will be found. Secretary of State Colin Powell sounds less certain. President Bush said he still has full confidence in the competence of the intelligence apparatus.
The bottom line for us is that we have to know - before the election - whether this White House "manipulated" the intelligence services, such as the CIA, or whether those services misled the White House. Two and a half years after 9/11, is U.S. intelligence still in shambles?
It is not enough to say, "Who cares? We got Saddam." This is far too serious and has too many ramifications. Yes, it is a good thing that Saddam is gone from power. But it is irresponsible to make this a political issue. Those who want answers are not traitors, but it is also premature to say the administration "cooked the books," as Howard Dean claims.
It is also not enough to say that we had other reasons for going to war. We went to the United Nations and argued for war primarily on the pretext that weapons of mass destruction were involved and that this country and others were in "grave and gathering" danger. If Mr. Kay is correct, that was not true because most of what Iraq had was destroyed in the 1990s.
Even the looting that occurred in the war's aftermath, when security collapsed, does not explain the failure to find any clues that would lead to the conclusion that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kay, who said he has seen the U.S. intelligence on this issue, is not saying that analysts were pressured by the White House. He is saying that U.S. intelligence in that region is simply not very good and relied far too much on U.N. inspectors. He says that the United States has fewer than 100 clandestine officers who speak Arabic.
Mr. Kay does not want a political circus, he says, and "certainly not a witch hunt."
What he says must take place is an outside inquiry of what happened, why the intelligence was so fundamentally wrong, and why false analysis was permitted to drive the case for war. The administration should overcome its reluctance and agree.
U.S. credibility, what there is left of it, is at stake.