Rachel Lapp: You said we'd be safe in Philadelphia!
John Book: Well I was wrong!
-- "Witness" (1985)
WASHINGTON -- In that movie about an Amish woman and her child who become accidentally entangled in drug-related police corruption, she is reassured by the detective's assessment, which turns out to have been spectacularly mistaken. However, her trust in him, and the essence of his character -- trustworthiness, which is not the same as infallibility -- are established by four forthright words. A John Book Moment would serve the Bush administration.
Mature Americans understand that to govern is to choose, always on the basis of imperfect information. So why is it so difficult for the Bush administration to candidly acknowledge and discuss what Americans are not unnerved to learn -- that much prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was wrong?
``My colleagues," said Secretary of State Colin Powell as he began -- with CIA Director George Tenet seated behind him -- his Feb. 5 exposition to the U.N. Security Council of U.S. evidence of Iraqi WMDs, ``every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources." But asked last Sunday on ``This Week" whether, 172 days after the fall of Baghdad, the failure to find WMDs had caused him to reconsider what counts as ``solid intelligence," Powell said: ``No."
He said, ``We didn't put anything forward that we didn't believe was solid. But it was the product of the intelligence community." That is unresponsive to the pertinent question: How have we subsequently revised our criteria for judging solid intelligence?
Powell told the Security Council that ``in mid-December, weapons experts at one facility were replaced by Iraqi intelligence agents who were to deceive inspectors about the work that was being done there." (emphasis added) And ``in the middle of January, experts at one facility that was related to weapons of mass destruction, (emphasis added) those experts had been ordered to stay home from work to avoid the inspectors." Asked if those two sites have been visited by U.S. forces since the fall of Saddam's regime, Powell said he, too, is waiting for weapons expert David Kay's report.
On Feb. 5 Powell said ``we have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails." He said that Iraq ``has at least seven of these" and ``perhaps 18 trucks that we know of." In 2000 ``an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities" reported ``he actually was present during biological agent production runs" and he was ``at the site when an accident occurred in 1998" when 12 technicians were killed by biological agents.
Asked about this last Sunday, Powell mentioned ``the van that we did find" but added, with admirable measuredness: ``Even though there are differences within the overall intelligence community, the director of central intelligence, examining all of the material with respect to that van and examining counterarguments as to what it might be, stands behind the judgment that what we found was positive evidence of a mobile biological weapons lab."
Now, some stubbornness by Powell and others in the administration regarding prewar intelligence is perhaps understandable, given today's poisonous discourse, exemplified by Sen. Ted Kennedy's charge that fear of WMDs as a justification for war was a ``fraud." It is contemptible to regard any mistake as proof of bad motives.
But Powell's response to the difficulty of squaring parts of his Feb. 5 speech with what has been learned in the subsequent eight months is too defensive and diversionary. Defending the bureaucratic due process that produced U.S. intelligence claims and urging patience until Kay reports the findings of his 1,200 inspectors will not suffice, for two reasons.
First, kicking the can of this controversy down the road places on Kay's report a burden -- of vindicating prewar assessments of intelligence -- that it cannot possibly bear. Second, complacency about prewar intelligence assessments paves the way to a future crisis.
This president or a successor is likely to have to ask the country to run grave risks in response to intelligence from what the government will call ``solid sources." So unless the public is convinced that the government is learning from this war -- learning how to know what it does not know -- the war may have made the public less persuadable, and the nation perhaps less safe.
Americans know that government, whether disbursing money or gathering intelligence, is not an instrument of precision. Hence they want the government to have the confidence -- in itself, and the public -- to say, as John Book did, that it was wrong.