On Second Thought

Here's what President Bush said in his State of the Union address on January 28: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Last week, the White House acknowledged that Bush's claim was based on unreliable information and should never have been included in the speech. CIA Director George J. Tenet issued a statement in which he assumed personal responsibility for failing to keep the assertion—which was based, in part, on forged documents—out of Bush's speech.

Tenet tried last week to protect the president. The intelligence chief contended, "The text in the speech was factually correct—i.e., that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa." What he seems to be stating is, "We didn't say it. They did." Yet to call the assertion "factually correct" sounds a little Clintonian: It depends on the meaning of "correct."

Nevertheless, The New York Times reports, that was precisely the standard used by a National Security Council expert when he vetted the statement with the CIA: whether it was accurate for the president to claim that the British reported the information. "This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address," Tenet now says.

Tenet also says, "The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound." If that was the case, then the president was ill-served by his intelligence advisers, who had known for months that the information was not sound. Tenet acknowledges that the statement was kept out of "public speeches, congressional testimony, and the secretary of State's United Nations presentation in early 2003"—a week after the State of the Union address.

The uranium claim was even kept out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati last October in which he outlined the threat posed by Saddam. "The Cincinnati speech originally had a very specific reference to uranium in a specific amount on a single source," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says. "That was taken out at Director Tenet's urging." So the president certainly had reason to suspect that the information was not sound.

"This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude," Greg Thielmann, a former State Department expert on nuclear proliferation, told The New York Times. "We know the answers. Give us the intelligence to support those answers." That is a dangerous attitude precisely because the Bush administration has embraced a policy of pre-emptive action. The United States now reserves the right to use force against those who threaten it. Such a policy demands flawless intelligence. Bush's credibility must never be in doubt.

To most Americans, it isn't. The public has always given Bush high ratings for honesty and trustworthiness. In a Gallup Poll taken in late June, Americans expressed confidence in Bush's credibility by 65 percent to 33 percent.

Last week's Newsweek poll asked whether people thought the Bush administration "misinterpreted or misanalyzed" intelligence reports saying that Iraq possessed banned weapons. The public was split—45 percent said yes; 41 percent said no. When pollsters asked whether the administration "purposely misled" the public, a majority (53 percent) said no. The number who said yes—38 percent—closely matches the number who say they would vote for a Democrat over Bush next year. (Bush got 53 percent in the Newsweek poll; Howard Dean 38 percent.) The belief that Bush deliberately deceived the public appears to be a partisan sentiment—pretty much limited to Democrats—at this point.

Here's why: 69 percent of Americans in the Newsweek poll say they think that Iraq did possess banned weapons "right before the war started in March." That number has hardly changed. It was 72 percent in late May. Most Americans saw Iraq's reluctance to cooperate with the inspections process as evidence that it was hiding something.

As a result, most Americans share the conviction expressed by Bush last week: "There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. ... did the right thing in removing [Saddam] from power." The basic principle operating here is, don't quarrel with success.

But what if the public no longer sees the war as a success? That's the real political danger for Bush. If Americans begin to have doubts about the war, it will not be because they think the intelligence was flawed. It will be for a different reason.

In fact, doubts about the war were growing even before the controversy over intelligence emerged. The percentage of Americans who said that Iraq was not worth going to war over more than doubled between the end of the war and the end of June (from 19 percent to 42 percent, according to Gallup).

Why? American losses nearly doubled between the end of formal combat operations (102 Americans killed) and late June (199). Criticism of the war has increased in direct proportion to the number of Americans killed.

The issue that's gaining traction is not, was the intelligence misleading? It is, why are Americans still getting killed?

Americans will quarrel with Bush's policy if they no longer see it as a success. If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, the public will then ask, "How did we get into this mess in the first place?" And the issue of flawed intelligence could suddenly matter.