Bush's sin of commission: the Iraq WMD panel

It looks as if Bush is going to set up a panel to look at how and why this fearful pile of Iraq WMD never turned up. Is this a good thing? Well, there are a few, shall we say, "sins of commission" with the proposed inquiry.

Normally, no one would ever consider allowing a person suspected of involvement in wrongdoing, unethical behavior or gross incompetence to choose the people who are to investigate the matter. Normally, this would be seen as a huge conflict of interest. In the case of the Bush commission, however, this is exactly what is happening:
By setting up the investigation himself, Bush, who had resisted a probe, will have greater control over its membership and mandate.
Some of the names floated so far do not inspire confidence, including former CIA director James Woolsey, who was one of the great pro-war cheerleaders in the run-up to the invasion and who also sits on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.

This conflict of interest, however, is just the most apparent problem of the proposed panel. There are other built-in devices to prevent, or at least water down, any negative findings that the members of the commission sympathetic to Bush might feel compelled to put out.

First, the proposed mandate of the inquiry is so wide as to be meaningless:
Bush said Monday he would name an independent bipartisan commission to review intelligence failures in Iraq. It would also look at what is known about efforts by Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups to obtain nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
If we are going to have a commission examining intelligence on Iraq's WMD, for which there is a real need, then this is what the commission should do. Are there other concerns with intelligence on Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, etc. - that is, the CIA's performance in general? Fine - set up a separate panel to investigate that. But the fact that the US launched a war of aggression on grounds that have turned out to be completely false is an error of such magnitude that it must be looked at on its own.

Second, it appears as if the commission will not have a mandate to examine how the Bush administration made use of the intelligence (or, more properly, data) at its disposal. But the intelligence issue cannot be separated from the political use of intelligence. The CIA was not the group responsible for launching the war. That was decided in the White House and ultimately by Bush (even though conducting war is supposed to be a power reserved to Congress - maybe we can set up another panel while we're at it to investigate why the people's "representatives" decided not to do their jobs). There are important questions that cannot be answered if the focus is entirely on the CIA. Did the president and the administration make proper use of the intelligence they were provided? Specifically, were there any less wild-eyed estimates or evidence that were in the CIA's possession that the administration decided not to take into consideration? If so, why not? Were, for example, Ritter's judgements and the fact that the UNMOVIC inspectors found nothing at US-identified "WMD sites" before the war seen as potential red flags?

Third, there are indications that the Bush administration will attempt to focus entirely in the CIA. But the CIA was not the only "intelligence" group involved here (from the Knight-Ridder article):
The officials said they feared that Bush, gearing up his fight for re-election, would try to limit the inquiry's scope to the CIA and other agencies, and ignore the key role the administration's own internal intelligence efforts played in making the case for war.

.. they said that the intelligence efforts led by Cheney magnified the errors through exaggeration, oversights and mistaken deductions.

Those efforts bypassed normal channels, used Iraqi exiles and defectors of questionable reliability, and produced findings on former dictator Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaida and his illicit arms programs that were disputed by analysts at the CIA, the State Department and other agencies, the officials said.

"There were more agencies than CIA providing intelligence ... that are worth scrutiny, including the (Pentagon's now-disbanded) Office of Special Plans and the office of the vice president," said a former senior military official who was involved in planning the Iraq invasion.

Reviewing what the CIA did "is half the picture," said Melvin Goodman, a former senior CIA analyst who teaches at the National Defense University. "What you want is an open-ended, blue-ribbon inquiry of the whole picture, which is what (intelligence) the White House got and how the White House used what it got."
Kenneth Pollack, in his not entirely adequate mea culpa in the Guardian, gives us a glimpse of the workings of the administration's fly-by-night intelligence operation and its relationship with the CIA:
On many occasions administration officials' requests for additional information struck the analysts as being made merely to distract them. Some asked for extensive historical analyses and requests were constantly made for detailed analyses of newspaper articles that conformed to the views of administration officials - pieces by conservative newspaper columnists, who had no claim to superior insight into the workings of Iraq.
The fact that the "intelligence" staff of Rumsfeld and Cheney were taking jackasses like Krauthammer and Safire seriously really should be looked at in detail.

The only chance for a reasonably honest and transparent investigation is a Congressionally appointed panel - but with the current crop of scheming, orthodox party-line Republicans and spineless Democrats, I wouldn't hold much hope there, either. But it would be better than having a suspect choose the people who are to investigate something that very clearly implicates him.

One final thing: these hearings should be open. Evidence and testimony should as a rule be made public unless a clear and demonstrable security-related reason prevents this. Even if a full report has to come after the election, the proceedings should be available to citizens immediately. The whining about "partisan politics" just doesn't work. What would really be "partisan politics" would be to have a panel full of members with conflicts of interest conducting their work in secret with a pre-ordained conclusion at the end of the process. The fact that we are in an election year is not a reason to hold off on the inquiry - in fact, it is the exact reason why the hearings must be open to the public. In theory, an election should be a judgement on the part of voters as to how well their elected official is serving them. Fine - let us put theory into practice. Give the voters information and let them decide how well their "servant" (snort) served the US with his war.

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