A lot is being made these days about whether George J. Tenet, the director of the CIA, told President Bush that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States - imminent enough to go to war.
Nope, says Tenet. The CIA "never said there was an imminent threat."
Or whether Bush himself actually used the word "imminent" when he talked about the threat to America posed by Hussein and the need to invade, occupy and rebuild Iraq.
Nope. He didn't. He saw a "gathering threat." At least that's how it's being put since David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, said his team could not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that the intelligence the president acted on was wrong.
Here's a question: When Bush was whipping up American support for a pre-emptive war against Iraq - and when, many forget, the CIA was being denigrated for not getting with the program - what if he had said Iraq's threat to the security of the United States was not imminent?f What if the false information he disseminated in his 2003 State of the Union address about Hussein's nuclear efforts had been replaced by the tortured terminology Bush borrowed from Kay's findings in his 2004 State of the Union?
On March 19, 2003, the night the war started, what if Bush had said "My fellow citizens, at this hour, American coalition forces are in the early stages of operations to disarm a threat that may not be imminent but we know the enemy has weapons of mass destruction-related program activities"?
Would the United States have gone to war if he had said that instead of saying we have to "defend the world from grave danger" ... so "the people of the United States ... will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder"?
Bush may never have used the word "imminent," but that's what he wanted everyone to think. Imminent means something bad is about to happen, like a "grave danger."
If you want to make war, you have to scare people into thinking it's necessary. It's the difference between intelligence and propaganda. Carrying out a political agenda depends on the information used to support that agenda and the control of that information.
Friday, Bush, under intense political pressure, appointed a group to look into why the intelligence that he acted on to go to war against Iraq was wrong. He says he did not manipulate intelligence; Tenet says he was not ordered to skew his reports to fit Bush's agenda.
The panel's task is hardly encouraging. It is supposed to "figure out why" the intelligence estimates on Iraq were wrong. But it's also supposed to look into intelligence on places such as North Korea and Libya, which dilutes the mission. The panel is not supposed to complete its work until March 31, 2005, well after this year's election.
Equally important, the panel is not assigned to investigate whether the Bush administration manipulated information to press ahead with the war.
Certainly this would not be the first administration to have manipulated information - or to go into deep denial of the truth - to advance a dubious, often dangerous program.
Neither has the panel been asked to investigate the legitimacy of the administration's assertion that the war in Iraq somehow advanced the war against the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. This was and remains a rallying cry for going to war against Iraq.
If the panel were to investigate that dimension of the experience in Iraq, it would find little or no connection between Hussein's regime and al-Qaida, but plenty of reason to think that once the Americans became targets as occupiers in Iraq, the attraction for terrorists from all over was great.
One of Kay's theories is that Hussein was determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and that he was so unstable in the past few years that top aides were able to convince him that they were working on it while they were actually stashing away the money. These people may not only have fooled Hussein; they may have fooled anyone listening in.
This may be true. And it may have been why Bush was convinced Hussein had an arsenal and was ready to launch it, no matter how many other sane voices said it wasn't so and argued that the investment of more time was worth it to avoid a war.
The problem was that Hussein's insanity and his manipulators actually fit into the agenda of Bush and the people who came to power with him determined to remake the Middle East into a region of Western-style democracy, beginning with Iraq after toppling the Butcher of Baghdad.
Hussein now has lost everything. He faces judgment for the brutality he inflicted on his people and others - a lot of which happened back when other U.S. presidents - and our secretary of defense - with other agendas were treating him as an ally.
As for Iraq and Bush's promise to "free its people," they are no doubt better off without Hussein. But many of them seem to be wondering whether they wouldn't be better off without the Americans, too - not just the Sunni Muslims, but also the Shiites and the Kurds - all of whom have agendas that are different from the Bush administration's.
The Bush administration disregarded a lot of the intelligence and advice it received before the war about how dangerous the aftermath would be. But the panel Bush named Friday to investigate what are really his own administration's mistakes won't be looking into that either.