Is there anything at all left of the Bush administration’s case for going to war in Iraq or, for that matter, the way it has been fought?
The answer seems increasingly doubtful given what appears to be an accelerating cascade of news, leaks and admissions by senior administration officials over the past several weeks.
Consider what has been disclosed in just the last few days.
On Monday, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that he had never seen any "strong, hard evidence that links" ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which was one of the administration’s two major justifications for the war.
One day later, the New York Times confirmed reports by Knight Ridder newspapers about the existence of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) study on the Iraq-based Jordanian "arch-jihadi," Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which had found no concrete evidence to support the administration’s pre-war insistence that Hussein’s government had given him safe haven or that he coordinates his actions in any way with al-Qaeda.
On Wednesday, Charles Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, pounded the final nail in the coffin of the second most commonly cited justification for the March 2003 invasion.
His final report concluded not only that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at the time of the invasion, but that he made no effort to reconstitute them after United Nations weapons inspectors left the country in 1998.
Indeed, the report, which was based on on-site inspections, interviews with Iraqi scientists and tons of Iraqi documents, concluded that while Hussein was hoping to rebuild a WMD program particularly one of nuclear weapons his ability to do so had actually deteriorated over the previous five years, in stark contrast to the administration’s warnings and Bush’s current campaign rhetoric that Hussein posed "a gathering threat" to the United States and its allies.
As Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin put it, the latest findings mean that the administration had "created a worst-case scenario on virtually no evidence."
If that were not enough to throw the administration on the defensive, consider what else has come out over the last week or so, as well as the sources of the information.
On Monday, the former U.S. viceroy in Baghdad, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer was quoted as telling an insurance group the administration "never had enough troops on the ground" in Iraq, both during the invasion, to prevent looting, and over the months that followed.
This has been precisely the critique of quite a number of retired military officers, many Democrats most especially, of course, presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and a number of prominent Republican senators, who themselves have become increasingly vocal about the administration’s performance in Iraq.
And while White House officials tried hard to persuade reporters that Bremer had never requested more troops, two "senior officials" contacted by the New York Times on Tuesday admitted that the CPA chief, who has been prominently mentioned as a possible secretary of state in a second Bush term, had indeed pressed for more forces, even before he went to Baghdad in June 2003.
The Bremer story broke just one day after the Times ran an unusually long investigative report on another specific and highly questionable prewar administration allegation that 60,000 aluminum tubes Baghdad tried to buy in early 2001 was firm evidence Hussein was trying to build a nuclear weapon.
Based primarily on interviews with officials throughout the U.S. intelligence community, the report found that nuclear engineering experts at the Energy Department had shot down the notion which originated with a junior CIA analyst who, according to the Times, "got his facts wrong, even about the size of the tubes" within 24 hours of its being raised in 2001, and did so in four detailed reports that followed.
Aside from the now-discredited report that Iraq tried to buy uranium "yellowcake" from Niger, as well as the testimony of a self-proclaimed Iraqi nuclear scientist handled by the exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC), the tubes were the only evidence for any nuclear program at all, according to the Times report.
While doubts within the intelligence agencies persisted, the administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, raised the specter of a "mushroom cloud" as the only proof, and worked to keep both the public and the Congress in the dark about the dissenting views in the Energy and State departments.
These latest revelations come against a background as well of what has become an escalating battle between the White House and CIA career officers, who apparently are seriously concerned about the agency being blamed for mistaken estimates in the lead-up to the war, especially in the super-heated environment of a presidential campaign and amid considerable politicking over a pending reorganization of the entire U.S. intelligence community.
Thus, while Bush and Cheney last month were fending off charges by Kerry and the Democrats that the situation in Iraq was increasingly chaotic as a result of administration incompetence, CIA officials leaked details of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) delivered to the White House in August that concluded the best-case scenario in Iraq over the next 16 months was more of the instability and violence that has prevailed since April.
As likely, according to the leaked assessment, was that Iraq could dissolve into civil war.
A second document drafted two months before the invasion by the National Intelligence Council, which is chaired by the CIA, predicted a number of the challenges including a strong anti-American insurgency and a surge in anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world Washington would face as a result of war.
The two leaks provoked an outraged response entitled "The CIA’s Insurgency," by editorial writers at the The Wall Street Journal, which was one of the leading voices for war, as well as from other neoconservative voices.
James Pavitt, a career CIA officer who retired as head of the agency’s clandestine service in July, told the Times he had never in his 31-year career seen such "viciousness and vindictiveness" in the fight between the CIA and its political masters, but could not resist a kicker of his own.
"There was nothing in the intelligence [produced by the CIA] that was a ‘casus belli’" that would justify war with Iraq, he said, echoing Kerry.