WASHINGTON The intensifying debate over prewar American intelligence about Iraq presents President George W. Bush with a vexing set of alternatives, all fraught with risks as the he balances election-year politics with calls to overhaul America’s intelligence apparatus and to restore U.S. credibility around the world.
He could order the start of an inquiry about the performance of intelligence agencies, as Democrats and the chief weapons inspector, David Kay, have insisted — but his aides fear that that could prove politically damaging and would almost certainly reopen old wounds with the CIA.
He could keep arguing that the military action was justified no matter how immediate a threat Saddam Hussein posed, and push off an examination and possible overhaul of America’s intelligence operations for another year. But his political team worries that could keep the issue alive through a long campaign.
Or the president and those on his national security team, who once described how Saddam could use his stockpiles of weapons to strike at any time, could conclude that something went badly wrong during their long march to war. But this is not a White House given to admitting error. And even if Bush vowed to fix what many say is a broken system, his national security aides note, the fix would not be easy.
‘‘They’ve made a pretty huge mess of it,’’ said one senior Republican who has been talking to Bush’s top advisers about what steps they should take next. ‘‘They wove this giant story, based on intelligence assessments that in hindsight — and this is hindsight, remember — were wrong. It’s exposed a huge problem in our intelligence gathering.
But who wants to take that on in an election year? Or while you are fighting terrorists?’’ White House officials will not talk at length about why they are so deeply hesitant to begin an investigation. But they are facing a situation where Democrats are looking for evidence to blame Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and some Republicans are looking for evidence to blame George Tenet, the director of central intelligence. One White House official said on Thursday that there was clearly a risk that an inquiry could spin out of control, exactly what many administration officials fear has happened to the inquiry into Sept. 11 attacks. Yet some officials are beginning to argue, in background conversations, that such an investigation is inevitable now that Kay has declared to the Senate that ‘‘We were almost all wrong.’’ At another point in the week, he added this bit of cold comfort for Bush: ‘‘If anyone was abused by the intelligence it was the president of the United States.’’ Yet the politics of doing what Kay says needs to be done — conduct an inquiry and overhaul the intelligence community before a similar mistake is made over Iran or North Korea or other potential threats — has grown enormously complex. Bush has publicly defended the ‘‘unbelievably hardworking, dedicated people’’ of the American intelligence community in part, some administration officials say, because he wants to avoid another bitter, public dispute with Tenet and the intelligence community. Feelings are still raw over last summer’s open arguments between the White House and Tenet over who was to blame for Bush’s false claim in the 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium in Africa. They were worsened by the accusations that a White House official blew the cover of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer who operated under cover and is the wife of Bush’s greatest critic on the Africa claims, Joseph Wilson IV. Repairing that damage has taken months, and a grand jury has recently begun to hear evidence about the leak. And many in the intelligence community continue to argue that the real problem was not the ambiguous intelligence about Iraq’s capabilities, but how Bush and Cheney chose to use it. On Thursday,appearing on NBC, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, insisted that Bush and Cheney were not ducking the issue. ‘‘No one will want to know more than the president of the comparison between what we found when we got there and what we thought was there going in,’’ she said. She sounded in no hurry, saying it was important first to let the Iraq Survey Group complete its work, which Kay believes is already 85 percent done.
Many Republicans have a very different instinct: to follow Kay’s lead and put the blame on the agency’s assessments, rather than on the White House. In their view, that is the best way to insulate Bush from the charge that he cherry-picked the most damaging information. Conveniently, some of them have long been suspicious of Tenet, who was put in his post by President Bill Clinton, and see this as an opportunity to speed along a retirement that the CIA chief has been talking about for a year. But Tenet has many defenders, including George H.W. Bush, the president’s father. Meanwhile, Bush’s political advisers are highly aware that Kay’s report has given Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination something they have long sought: a way to revive the issue of whether Bush was careless and trigger-happy, willing to twist intelligence findings to fit his own agenda, even at the cost of American credibility abroad. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the current frontrunner, described in a recent interview how Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most cautious of the members of the administration when it came to citing the evidence, was sent up to convince him and his colleagues to authorize Bush to wage war. ‘‘He said the bottom-line reason was the WMD,’’ said Kerry, who now tells versions of this story at some campaign appearances. ‘‘This was Colin Powell, who I respect,’’ he said. He concluded by arguing that ‘‘they knew what day they wanted to invade,’’ and manipulated the intelligence to fit the case. But Kay holds a very different view, declaring to the Senate that in his interviews with American intelligence analysts who got the data wrong ‘‘never, not in a single case, was the explanation, ‘I was pressured to do this.’’’ What that leaves for now is a slow retreat by White House officials — a day-by-day, fact-by-fact backing away from assertions they made with such confidence nine months ago.