David Remnick, FAITH-BASED INTELLIGENCE, The New Yorker, July 28, 2003

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” So said President Bush on January 28th, outlining the case for war with Iraq in his State of the Union address. It was perhaps the most chilling moment of the speech, for it raised the spectre of nuclear weapons in the hands of a dictator who had proved himself capable of terror, invasion, and genocide.

To many listeners, the attribution of this sensational piece of information to the British served only to emphasize its reliability. The President might as well have gone on to say, “And you can take that to the bank, because MI6 doesn’t mess around.” We now know that if the Administration had been playing it straight there would indeed have been a follow-up line, but it would have been something like this: “The C.I.A., however, believes that this so-called fact is almost certainly untrue.”

Indeed, four months earlier, in October, 2002, the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, had personally intervened to remove from a Presidential speech an assertion that Iraq had tried to buy five hundred tons of uranium oxide from the African country of Niger. That “information” was a fantasy backed by a set of forged documents. The C.I.A. knew it; others in the government knew it; the President had no reason not to know it. What’s more, by March, a number of reporters—including Seymour M. Hersh, in these pages—had published stories about this dubious intelligence and the pressure that the Pentagon and the Vice-President’s office had been exerting on the C.I.A. to square the evidentiary circle. One war later, the President and his team have variously (1) denied that they knew the facts, (2) dissembled over who knew what when, (3) sort-of-but-not-really apologized, (4) said it’s only “sixteen words” and “enormously overblown,” and (5) ladled blame alternately upon the C.I.A., which had tried, however feebly, to prevent the damage, and the United Kingdom, America’s only full-sized partner in the warmaking coalition.

Last week, Ari Fleischer conveyed the Bush team’s general contempt for the media’s interest in the Niger “documents” and, more generally, for the fact that, three months after the fall of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s arsenal so far appears more chimerical than chemical. “The President has moved on,” Fleischer said in the days before he stepped down as press secretary. “And, I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on as well.” The very idea that the Administration had put Iraq’s nuclear ambitions at the center of its case for war, Fleischer said, was “a bunch of bull.”

The President, for his part, told reporters that the intelligence behind his speech had been “darn good.” Never mind that a flood of apoplectic C.I.A. analysts and ex-analysts have been telling reporters for months that the Administration was interested less in the ambiguities of reality than in arming itself with facts, half-facts, and suppositions sufficient to “prove” that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda and well stocked with weapons of mass destruction. It seems the President shares Ronald Reagan’s notion that “facts are stupid things.”

In reality, the arguments about Iraq were so complex, and so filled with competing and legitimate claims, that some of us, no matter where we came out, were divided within ourselves. Even the Administration betrayed signs of division: the axis made up of the Pentagon and the Vice-President’s office was far more aggressive and unilateralist in the push for war than the State Department and much of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the end, the President made a case for war based broadly on three components: the nature and history of the Iraqi regime; the security of the United States; and the idea that a liberated Iraq would have a transformative effect on the region.

These propositions have fared variously since the fall of the regime. Of the three, the first seems, if anything, even firmer than it did before the war. The Baath regime had sustained itself from the start through the systemic use of torture, assassination, mass murder, and political suppression. Human Rights Watch reports that three hundred thousand people went “missing” under Saddam, and since his fall, twenty mass graves have been discovered. There are likely many more to find. Political prisoners have been freed; torture chambers have been emptied. The Shiites and Kurds, once the focus of Saddam’s oppression and slaughter, are no longer under the thumb of the minority Sunnis.

The third proposition, of regional transformation, was highly speculative before, and remains so. Iraq’s former enemy Iran is witnessing increasing political ferment among the younger generations, but it is not yet clear whether the American occupation will strengthen or weaken the grip of the theocratic regime in Tehran. Israelis and Palestinians are moving fitfully toward negotiation after two and a half years of sustained suicide bombings, army incursions, and despair; as Seymour Hersh reports elsewhere in this issue, Hezbollah is relatively quiet, having been given pause, perhaps, by the presence nearby of a hundred and fifty thousand American troops. Vice-President Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and others in the Administration are convinced—almost evangelically so—that Saddam’s fall will precipitate all manner of positive developments. In the region, as in Iraq itself, much will depend on the constancy of the United States in this ill-prepared, increasingly expensive, and mortally dangerous task of underwriting the rise of a stable, independent, and peaceful successor regime. The early signs are ominous. The continuing attacks on American troops, especially in the Baath strongholds north and west of Baghdad, a development that the new commander of American forces has likened to guerrilla war, does not bode well. Neither does the Administration’s reluctance to internationalize the effort to rebuild.

It is the second proposition—that Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear arsenals, or programs, constituted an intolerable threat—that at this point seems near collapse. From Blix to Bush, no one disputes the history: over the years, Saddam compiled a documented record of pursuing all three types of weapons and tried to conceal it; Iraq sacked Kuwait, attacked Iran and the Kurds with poison gas, and fired ballistic missiles at four neighboring countries; in 2001, Germany, a country that would be ardently opposed to the war, leaked an intelligence report saying that Saddam could have a nuclear device as soon as 2004; according to Blix and others, Iraq never accounted for hundreds of tons of chemical weapons; and so forth. Yet, since the regime’s fall in April, scant evidence has been revealed of a threat so serious as to have justified, in itself, a rush to war. That does not mean that such a threat did not exist. And the Administration did not rest its case on the weapons threat alone. But it was that threat which created the sense of urgency, even emergency.

Since the fall of Communism, the United States has had to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of the world’s sole remaining superpower. For those who had little affection for the Bush Administration but still took up the argument for confronting Saddam, that argument was based on a moral, as well as political, consideration of American power. And it was informed by the fresh memory that when intervention was justified and swift, as it was in Kosovo, the result was, over all, a political, even moral, success; and when it was grievously delayed, as it was in Bosnia, or utterly absent, as it was in Rwanda, the result was a source of abiding shame.

But, in the case of Iraq, it’s impossible to be indifferent to the prospect that intelligence has been manipulated, forged, or bullied into shape. Government cynicism—in Vietnam, in the Iran-Contra affair, in the tacit indulgence of Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in 1988 and his slaughter of the Shiites in 1991—inevitably cripples the country’s ability to cope with future crises. The United States, and the world, has now to deal with the reconstruction of Iraq, to say nothing of the dangers faced in North Korea, South Asia, and elsewhere. The Administration evidently calculates that its popularity is such that no one much cares about the petty questions of means and ends. The Administration is wrong. A serious investigation is urgently needed. The American people cannot be expected, in Ari Fleischer’s blithe formulation, to get with the program and “move on.”