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Novel ideas in Washington and Iraq

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The awful part is that George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein were both staring into the same cracked spook-house mirror.

Thanks to David Kay, we now have an amazing image of the president and the dictator, both divorced from reality over weapons, glaring at each other from opposite sides of bizarro, paranoid universes where fiction trumped fact.

It would be like a wacky Peter Sellers satire if so many Iraqis and Americans hadn't died in Iraq.

These two would-be world-class tough guys were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to show that they couldn't be pushed around. Their trusted underlings misled them with fanciful information on advanced Iraqi weapons programs that they credulously believed because it fit what they wanted to hear.

Saddam was swept away writing his romance novels, while Bush was swept away with the romance of rewriting the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to finish off the thug who tried to kill his dad.

The two men both had copies of Crime and Punishment _ Condi Rice gave Bush the novel on his trip to Russia in 2002, and Saddam had Dostoyevsky down in the spider hole _ but neither absorbed its lesson: that you can't put yourself above rules just because you think you're superior.

When D Kay spoke these words on WMD _ "It turns out we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment, and that is most disturbing" _ both America and Iraq learned that when you try too hard to control the picture of reality, you risk losing your grasp of it.

In interviews, D Kay defended the war with Iraq, saying that the United States "has often entered the right war for the wrong reason," and he defended Bush, saying, "if anyone was abused by the intelligence, it was the president." He also told Congress "there's no evidence that I can think of, that I know of" that Saddam collaborated with al-Qaida.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, the ex-CIA weapons sleuth used a metaphor that was perhaps inspired by Martha Stewart, comparing the CIA with a lousy stockbroker.

"If I were your broker," he told Sen. Jack Reed, "and you were investing on my advice . . . and at the end of the day, I said Enron was the greatest company in the world, and you had lost a substantial amount of money on it because it turned out differently, you would think I had abused you."

Certainly the CIA has a lot to answer for. For a bargain price of $30-billion a year, our intelligence aces have been spectacularly off. They failed to warn us about 9/11 and missed the shame spiral of a deranged Saddam, hoodwinked by his top scientists.

They were probably relying too much on the Arabian Nights tales of Ahmad Chalabi, eager to spread the word of Saddam's imaginary nuclear-tipped weapons juggernaut because it suited his own ambitions _ and that of his Pentagon pals.

But while he is skittering away from his claims about Iraqi weapons, President Bush is not racing toward accountability. It's an election year.

The New York Times' David Sanger wrote about an administration debate "over whether Bush should soon call for some kind of reform of the intelligence-gathering process. But the officials said Bush's aides were searching for a formula that would allow them to acknowledge intelligence-gathering problems without blaming" the CIA or its chief.

The president wants to act as though he has a problem but not a scandal, which he can fix without rolling heads _ of those who made honest mistakes or dishonest ones by rigging the intelligence.

Dick Cheney, who declared that Saddam had nuclear capability and who visited CIA headquarters in the summer of 2002 to make sure the raw intelligence was properly interpreted, is sticking to his deluded guns. (And still trash-talking those lame trailers.)

The vice president pushed to slough off the allies and the United Nations and go to war partly because he thought that slapping a weakened bully like Saddam would scare other dictators. He must have reckoned there would be no day of reckoning on weapons once Saddam was gone.

So it had to be some new definition of chutzpah on Tuesday, when Cheney, exuding more infallibility than the pope, presented him with a crystal dove.

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service