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The credibility gap

If our democratic institutions were functioning as our founders intended, a thorough and independent investigation already would be under way to find answers to two questions of historical importance: Are our intelligence agencies incompetent? And can the word of the Bush administration be trusted on matters of national security?

David Kay, the White House's choice to lead the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has been visibly uncomfortable in stating conclusions that might embarrass the administration. But to his great credit, Kay has done his best to report the truth of what his team found, or failed to find, in Iraq. "I don't think (weapons of mass destruction) exist," he told Congress last week. "We don't find the people, the documents or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on."

Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis have died during a war that the Bush administration justified on the basis of the need to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. There can be only two possible explanations for the enormous gap between the administration's dire warnings before the war and the utter lack of evidence to support those warnings now:

Either the CIA and other intelligence agencies wildly miscalculated the threat posed by Iraq _ which would raise troubling questions about whether they might be similarly off base in underestimating threats elsewhere in the world . . .

. . . Or President Bush and other members of his administration purposely exaggerated, distorted or fabricated evidence against Iraq to justify their war plans _ which would raise even more troubling questions about the integrity and lawfulness of our government.

Kay is among those giving the president the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that Mr. Bush was poorly served by the CIA. However, the evidence is stronger that the CIA was poorly served by the White House's prewar efforts to manipulate intelligence for its own purposes. The president reacted to the Kay report by blandly expressing his continued confidence in the intelligence community and insisting that the failure to find illegal weapons programs has done nothing to discredit his rationale for going to war. Vice President Cheney responded by repeating allegations about Iraqi weapons programs that were contradicted by Kay's report.

Kay is among those recommending an independent review of our prewar intelligence to determine why, as he put it, "we were almost all wrong." The president, trying to quell the criticism of his dismissive reaction to Kay's report, said Friday, "I want to know the facts," but he still didn't say he would support an independent review.

Questions so vital to the nation's security should be above partisan calculations on the part of Democrats or Republicans. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, has nevertheless called for an independent investigation of our intelligence failures. Every true patriot should agree with McCain. Yet most other Republicans in Congress are so far showing more loyalty to the president than to the country. With both houses of Congress controlled by Republican loyalists, the issue is likely to remain suppressed for now.

Until the government's false alarms on Iraq are explained in a manner that can earn the trust of the country and the world, there is every reason to fear that our politicized intelligence community will continue to distort worldwide threats in ways that jeopardize our security and poison our democracy.