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Doling out the benefit of the doubt

When President Bush is asked whether he regrets attacking Iraq on what now turns out to be bad information, he always answers to the effect that the world is better off with Saddam Hussein out of power.

Which is no answer at all. I can think of many world leaders (and even a few members of the Bush administration) whose absence from power would leave the world better off. But that does not justify turning thought into violent action.

The president wants us to forget this awkward truth: The justification he offered for attacking Iraq was not that Saddam was a bad guy, but (1) that he was contemptuously in violation of U.N. resolutions, and (2) that he and his weapons of mass destruction were an imminent danger to the United States _ so ominous, in fact, that if we waited for more inspections and negotiations, it might be too late.

Former weapons inspector David Kay now says, to the obvious embarrassment of the administration, that he believes Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction when American bombers struck Baghdad almost a year ago. Does that mean that we launched the war on false pretenses?

No, in Kay's view; yes, in mine.

Kay explains that he thought at the time that the WMDs existed, and were a menace. The problem, he has been at pains to say, is not Bush administration mendacity but failure of the intelligence apparatus. Bush, by that explanation, is not villain but victim.

Well, he was a most eager victim, practically begging for justification _ any justification _ for the war he was determined to have. He was only temporarily stalled when Secretary of State Colin Powell persuaded him to take the case to the U.N. Security Council. But the administration's chapter-and-verse accounting of how Saddam had violated U.N. agreements and directives did not produce a call for war.

The Bush administration was left with a single rationale: Iraq's imminent threat to America.

Thus came Powell's Feb. 5 multimedia extravaganza before the Security Council. You may remember it.

"Look at this (satellite image). This one is about a weapons munition facility, a facility that holds ammunition at a place called Taji. This is one of about 65 such facilities in Iraq. We know that this one housed chemical munitions. . . .

"Here, you see 15 munitions bunkers in yellow and red outlines. The four that are in the red squares represent active chemical munitions bunkers."

Again: "At this biological-related facility, on Nov. 25, just two days before inspections resumed, this truck caravan appeared, something we almost never see at this facility, and we monitor it carefully and regularly. . . . Five large cargo trucks appeared along with the truck-mounted crane to move missiles. We saw this kind of house-cleaning close to 30 times."

And this: "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

Well, not so solid after all, it now turns out.

The question _ to give Powell the benefit of the doubt Kay gives the president _ is: Did the intelligence agencies serve the secretary of state a batch of cooked evidence? Or was Colin, my personal hero, in the kitchen?

Does it matter? Perhaps the administration oversold the evidence. Perhaps the war was, in retrospect, too hasty, even unnecessary. But, hey, it happened, so let's just get on with it. What's the point of raking through the ashes of year-old decisions?

Maybe there is no point _ if you believe, as Kay claims to believe, that it's all about failed intelligence.

But there is a vital point if you believe, as I'm increasingly inclined to believe, that the administration lied to us in calculated and quite deliberate ways. If that happened _ if it still is happening _ I want to know as much about it as can be discovered. After all, there's an election coming up.

+ William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group