WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - CIA Director George J. Tenet's willingness to take the fall for the latest Iraq intelligence flap means, according to President Bush, that the controversy is over. But the swarming of the field of Democratic presidential candidates to exploit it indicates otherwise.
Until recently, the Democrats as a group had been stymied by massive public support for Mr. Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism. Now they've found the opening they've been desperately seeking in the White House admission that Mr. Bush misspoke on alleged Iraqi efforts to buy material in Africa for nuclear weapons production.
The Democrats are brushing aside Mr. Tenet's good-soldier performance of taking the bullet for his superior and resurrecting Harry Truman's old motto that "the buck stops here." On NBC News' Meet the Press Sunday, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who voted against Mr. Bush's war resolution, put it most succinctly: "This is not an issue of George Tenet. This is an issue of George Bush."
Voters may have trouble following the convoluted story of how the British report of an attempted Iraqi purchase of uranium fuel in Africa got into Mr. Bush's State of the Union message last winter. But the Democrats are geared up now to explain it for them in the most politically damaging terms.
In varying degrees of directness, they are using the episode to buttress their contention that the president hyped questionable intelligence to convince Congress, the United Nations and the world that Iraq posed an imminent threat that had to be ended by the use of force.
As usual, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio are saying it with the bark off, which seems to be striking a receptive chord among Democrats who can't abide the macho-talking president.
The other candidates, in their fashion, are also hitting him, but the credibility of their ire is somewhat tempered by their votes last fall giving Mr. Bush authority to invade Iraq. Their remarks risk coming off as admissions that they were taken to the cleaners by him. Former House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, defending his vote at an Iowa forum the other day as his best judgment at the time in light of the information Mr. Bush had given him, came off as apologetic.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted for the resolution with reservations, when asked on CNN whether he was suggesting that Mr. Bush had misled the people, replied: "I am not making any such suggestion, I am not making any accusation" of the sort. But many Democratic voters, especially those getting revved up for the 2004 election, may well wish the contained Mr. Kerry would do just that.
Mr. Dean is showing no such restraint, and is pointedly spelling out the difference between himself and the others. "If I as governor of Vermont can figure out the case is not there to invade Iraq," he said in a New York Times interview, "how can three senators [Mr. Kerry, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina] and a congressman [Mr. Gephardt] who claim to have authority in public affairs manage to give the president unilateral authority to attack Iraq?"
Mr. Dean went on: "It looks like my analysis was the correct one and theirs was the incorrect one. It's going to be hard for them to make the case that I don't have the credentials on foreign policy after this."
When Mr. Bush's invasion swiftly drove off the Saddam Hussein regime, Mr. Dean seemed likely to pay the biggest political price for his outspoken opposition.
But now, with postwar Iraq still in turmoil and Mr. Bush's rationale for invading under increasing scrutiny, it's those Democrats who backed him who are squirming.
Striving to restore their own credibility in their party, they're just as eager as Mr. Dean now to keep alive the intelligence flap that the president insists is over. Nothing has more potential to make Mr. Bush vulnerable than public doubts about his justification for taking the country into a pre-emptive war.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.