What he said, after investigating British intelligence from the six-month period before the fighting began, is that there was no solid evidence that weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq. But he said that such evidence as there was might easily justify the suspicion that such weapons had existed. He rebuked sharply the proposition, advanced by the BBC, that intelligence estimates had been "sexed up" for the purpose of advancing the war-bound agenda of Tony Blair.
That was a bombshell. Criticizing the BBC at so fundamental a level is on the order of looking into the Bureau of Weights and Measures to find out whether a pound was being misweighed. The chairman of the board of governors of the BBC promptly resigned, leaving only a Tory former foreign secretary to complain that intelligence estimates should have been so mistaken.
Yes, they were mistaken, Lord Hutton's 740-page report agreed, but the same data yielded the same suspicions in France and Germany and, of course, the United States.
In Washington we had the testimony of the eloquent David Kay. He had been in charge of searching out the evanescing weapons and one day, a few weeks ago, after months of scrutiny, he came to a conclusion, namely that such weapons did not exist.
But like Lord Hutton, he declined to insinuate any deception by administration officials. Kay also noted that the same evidence had convinced French and German officials that the dangerous weapons were there. WMD, he said, is what it looked like, and that is what President Bush acted on.
And then, answering a question from Sen. John McCain, Kay reached the identical conclusion of his counterpart in Great Britain. Whatever we think of the honesty of our intelligence sources, they simply are not reliable enough. Either Saddam Hussein was spectacularly resourceful in setting up brummagem deposits of chemical and biological look-alikes, or the perceptions of our whole assembly of satellites and Peeping Toms and spies on the ground can be fatefully mistaken. If there is a scandal, it is that our vision, in important matters, is defective.
The intelligence services, in 1962, initially discounted reports that the Soviets had nuclear missiles on the ground in Cuba, but that is indeed what they proved to be, and photographs were taken and shown to President Kennedy. Our ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, then showed them to the Security Council, causing embarrassment to the Soviet members, to the extent that Soviet officials were capable of embarrassment.
The question will naturally arise: If we had had proof positive that the weapons did not exist on Iraqi soil, would we have held back the war?
Certainly Mr. Bush would have had fewer supporters in Congress for his Tonkin Gulf-style resolution, leaving it for him uniquely to decide whether to go on to war. The Democratic presidential candidates are resting their claims on this one point: that the president himself deceived the American people.
Whether the war that proceeded was indefensible asks a different question, not one that can be authoritatively answered pending the distillation of the scene in Iraq. If what comes out of the bloody present is a reformed society freed of a sadistic tyrant, bent on a future in which there is, so to speak, separation of church and state, and if such developments inspire a whole region in the direction of civic stability, you will not find presidential aspirants in the year 2008 declaiming about the misleading evidence on which we acted in 2003.