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Credibility Gap

The Bush administration and the U.S. intelligence community face a mounting credibility problem at home and abroad over the failure (so far) to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It’s been alleged that the administration either purposely “hyped” the threat posed by Iraq’s unconventional weapons arsenal and put pressure on the intelligence agencies to produce reports supporting its policies or misread the evidence the agencies produced, perhaps willfully.

Whatever happened — even if stores of chemical and biological weapons are found — Congress will want to conduct thorough after-action investigations of the intelligence agencies’ performance and the direction given to them by top administration officials. In fact, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has said that he envisions a joint inquiry with the Senate Intelligence Committee. There could be a separate House probe or a joint one with the Senate.

When the process is over, though, the American people have to be convinced by a public report either that they can rely on the agencies and their bosses, or they can’t. But, at the moment, there may be cause to worry that Congress’ previous probe of U.S. intelligence — over what was known in advance of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — won’t be reported to the public with candor and completeness. If the Sept. 11 report can’t be trusted, how can the eventual Iraq report be?

In an interview with Roll Call, Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of the joint House-Senate committee that undertook the Sept. 11 probe, assures us that negotiations are proceeding expeditiously on declassification of sensitive material so that the panel’s final report can be issued in short order. On the other hand, the other co-chairman of the joint committee, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), has made repeated allegations that a “coverup” is under way.

Last month on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Graham charged that administration officials are keeping material classified because “they don’t want the American people in one document to know and be able to assess and hold accountable the people who were involved in the lead-up to Sept. 11.” Graham, who’s running for president, is also one of the foremost critics of the administration’s Iraq policy and last weekend said on CNN that “if we don’t find these weapons of mass destruction, it will represent a serious intelligence failure or the manipulation of that intelligence to keep the American people in the dark.”

No other member of the joint Sept. 11 panel has joined Graham in his coverup allegations, but plenty of people — foreigners and Americans — harbor suspicions about the Iraqi weapons. It behooves the administration and Congress to maintain maximum trust. And the way to achieve that is through maximum — and prompt — openness.

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