The resignation of — and subsequent week of heavy demand for — David A. Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector who headed the weapons-searching Iraq Survey Group, might turn out to be little more than a week of fleeting publicity. Even if his assertions are valid, it is probably too much to hope that it will lead to valuable reform of U.S. intelligence agencies. Kay said he now doubts Saddam had had stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, but that the best available intelligence before the war made it reasonable to suspect he did.
To get closer to the real problems, investigators should go beyond what Kay has recommended. That suggests that even an independent government-sponsored investigation should be supplemented by scrutiny and investigation by the media and other independent organizations.
Whether he is simply being meticulously careful or trying to have it both ways, Kay has questioned prewar intelligence while saying he doesn’t believe the Bush administration had pressured intelligence analysts to exaggerate the threat. If there is an independent inquiry into U.S. intelligence failures as he recommends, however, it should consider the possibility that pressure was exerted.
“Looking only a the CIA would miss the point,” Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said. “The most important charges that have been raised by critics are that administration people pressured intelligence analysts to furnish evidence of weapons, or that sketchy evidence was whisked to the White House without proper scrutiny by experienced and skeptical analysts. Looking only at the CIA’s internal working would not address those issues.”
Of course, the Bush administration rejected the idea of an independent investigative effort out of hand. One can understand that response: Any commission put together in an election year is bound to be affected by politics. The Democrats would pressure any investigative body to announce (or leak) potentially derogatory information about the administration, preferably before November. The Republicans (who hold majorities in both Houses of Congress) will not want any investigation, and certainly no publicity before November.
What that means in practice is that it will be up the media and watchdog groups to keep this issue alive. Even if it seems like wandering in the dark, the effort is worth it. Going to war, asking citizens to put their lives on the line, is the most serious action a government can take. We’re not interested in having people fired or prosecuted. But if we went to war on the basis of incorrect intelligence, it’s worth it to find out why and apply the lessons the next time war seems like a tempting option.