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Surely even supporters of the Iraq war must be dismayed by the administration's reaction to David Kay's recent statements. Iraq, he now admits, didn't have weapons of mass destruction, or even active programs to produce such weapons. Those much-ridiculed UN inspectors were right. (But Hans Blix appears to have gone down the memory hole. On Tuesday Bush declared that the war was justified - under UN Resolution 1441, no less - because Saddam "did not let us in.")
So where are the apologies? Where are the resignations? Where is the investigation of this intelligence debacle? All we have is bluster from Dick Cheney, evasive WMD-related-program-activity language from Bush - and a determined effort to prevent an independent inquiry. True, Kay still claims that this was a pure intelligence failure. I don't buy it: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has issued a damning report on how the threat from Iraq was hyped, and former officials warned of politicized intelligence during the war buildup. (Yes, the Hutton report gave Tony Blair a clean bill of health, but many people - including a majority of the British public, according to polls - regard that report as a whitewash.)
In any case, the point is that a grave mistake was made, and America's credibility has been badly damaged - and nobody is being held accountable. But that's standard operating procedure. As far as I can tell, nobody in the Bush administration has ever paid a price for being wrong. Instead, people are severely punished for telling inconvenient truths. And administration officials have consistently sought to freeze out, undermine or intimidate anyone who might try to check up on their performance.
Let's look at three examples. First is the Valerie Plame affair. When someone in the administration revealed that Plame was an undercover CIA operative, one probable purpose was to intimidate intelligence professionals. And whatever becomes of the Justice Department investigation, the White House has been notably uninterested in finding the culprit. ("We have let the earthmovers roll in over this one," a senior White House official told The Financial Times.) Then there's the stonewalling about Sept. 11. First the administration tried, in defiance of all historical precedents, to prevent any independent inquiry. Then it tried to appoint Henry Kissinger, of all people, to head the investigative panel. Then it obstructed the commission, denying it access to crucial documents and testimony. Now, thanks to all the delays and impediments, the panel's head says it can't deliver its report by the original May 11 deadline - and the administration is trying to prevent a time extension.
Finally, an important story that has largely evaded public attention: the effort to prevent oversight of Iraq spending. Government agencies normally have independent, strictly nonpartisan inspectors general, with broad powers to investigate questionable spending. But the new inspector general's office in Iraq operates under unique rules that greatly limit both its powers and its independence.
And the independence of the Pentagon's own inspector general's office is also in question. In September, in a move that should have caused shock waves, the administration appointed L. Jean Lewis as the office's chief of staff. Lewis played a central role in the Whitewater witch hunt (seven years, $70 million, no evidence of Clinton wrongdoing); nobody could call her nonpartisan. So when Bush's defenders demand hard proof of profiteering in Iraq - as opposed to extensive circumstantial evidence - bear in mind that the administration has systematically undermined the power and independence of institutions that might have provided that proof. There are many more examples. These people politicize everything, from military planning to scientific assessments. If you're with them, you pay no penalty for being wrong. If you don't tell them what they want to hear, you're an enemy, and being right is no excuse.
Still, the big story isn't about Bush; it's about what's happening to America. Other presidents would have liked to bully the CIA, stonewall investigations and give huge contracts to their friends without oversight. They knew, however, that they couldn't. What has gone wrong with our country that allows this president to get away with such things?
In some editions published on Wednesday, this column incorrectly stated that the head of the National Park Service's police was fired. She was suspended.
Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune