- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

After a week of deft diplomacy in Europe and the Middle East, President George W. Bush returned to what may become the political crisis of his presidency — the controversy over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and their existence. Anyone following the run-up to the war in Iraq appreciates the issue. The argument for war put forward by the administration and endorsed by Congress’ resolution to authorize force against Iraq rested on the belief that Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMD and links to al Qaeda were imminent dangers. In the two months since the short war ended, none of those weapons has been found. The administration insists that, in time, they will be uncovered.

Unlike Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is in serious trouble over Iraq’s illusive WMD, most Americans are not perplexed by their absence. For the moment, Americans regard winning the war and removing Saddam as good outcomes. And the current paroxysms of criticism emanating from Europe over failure to find WMD have not resonated in this country. Of course, Mr. Blair’s political contagion, exacerbated by the resignation of two members of his cabinet, could spread across the Atlantic.

There are drumbeats in this country for investigations to find out what happened to Iraq’s WMD. The CIA has brought in retired officers to have a closer look. Congress almost certainly will hold hearings. As the presidential election of 2004 grows closer, the temptation to attack an otherwise popular president for going to war for specious reasons will be irresistible. And an equally partisan defense of the administration would stymie any chance of reasoned debate.

Discovery of WMD will burst this boil in a sound bite. But that has not happened yet. The last thing this nation needs is a circus over whether the administration relied on valid or invented causes for war. What it does need is a fair and balanced pursuit of the truth. What is the best way to do that?

For the moment, the controversy over WMD is perceived as a failure of intelligence and nothing remotely approaching the Iran-Contra debacle that almost ended Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The fact is that presidents can and do make mistakes. The ill-fated Desert One mission in 1980 to rescue American hostages incarcerated by so-called Iranian students in Tehran and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans in 1983 are telling examples. The biggest difference between those failures and the WMD issue is that we won the war in Iraq whether or not the administration got the casus belli right.

In those earlier circumstances, when American prestige was badly hurt, both the Carter and Reagan administrations called on retired admirals to sort through the aftermaths and deliver their findings on what went wrong and what needed to be fixed. Now, admirals (or generals) do not always get everything right. The admirals’ handling of the explosion in the battleship Iowa in 1987 and the Tailhook problem in 1991 were far from textbook.

In 1980, former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L. Holloway III headed the Desert One investigation. In 1983, former Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Admiral Robert L.J. Long, who recently died, chaired the Beirut panel. In both cases, the commissions honed in on the central issues, and their analysis and dissections were objective, brutally honest and on the mark. In both cases, problems with accountability, uncertain chains of command, absence of “jointness” among the services and lack of oversight characterized the explanation of why things went wrong.

These findings had weight and impact. In 1987, Congress passed the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Law that dealt with many of the flaws and shortcomings identified by those two commissions. And, after USS Cole was hit in Yemen in 2000 and more recently, after the Columbia shuttle disaster, retired Admiral Harold Gehman was appointed to investigate both.

The issue of whether or not Iraq actually possessed, hid or destroyed WDM extends beyond the CIA’s responsibility although that is the agency that will receive greatest attention in any investigation. And, to succeed, any investigation must overcome the vice-like bureaucratic constraints of America’s national security organization still wedded to the Cold War and “stove-pipe,” like structures that resist information sharing. Further, it is unreasonable to believe that the CIA or any agency maintains the same level of competence across all technical areas germane to assessment of WMD that are the responsibility of other departments, such as State, Energy, Treasury, Defense or Commerce. Hence, the question of Iraqi WMD cannot be answered by looking at only a few agencies.

Another Desert One or Beirut Commission is needed. And if the matter explodes into an Iran-Contra-like episode, well then, call in a retired general and senator as we did the last time.

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