A hot debate is raging on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and whether the Bush administration—to justify its invasion of Iraq—deceived the public on evidence that those weapons existed. Evidence for such “micro-deception” seems apparent from the widespread leaks to the press by disgruntled intelligence analysts complaining of administration pressure to make intelligence fit Bush’s hard-line Iraq policy. Also, the Bush administration, ignoring expert analysis from the Department of Energy that imported Iraqi aluminum tubes could not be used to make nuclear weapons, included the accusation that they could in Secretary of State Powell’s speech to the United Nations aimed at building support for a tough resolution on Iraq. Similarly, President Bush did not retract his claim, in this year’s State of the Union speech, that Iraq tried to buy uranium from an African nation even when the allegation was found to be based on forged documents. Finally, two dissenting reports from State Department intelligence analysts—noting that no reliable evidence existed that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program—were dropped from the version of a government intelligence estimate released to the public. But as usual, the press focuses on the flea and ignores the elephant—“macro-deception” by the administration.

The press’s intense focus on finding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction may have an undesirable outcome. If weapons are eventually found, the issue of the administration’s deception could evaporate. No one will focus on Bush’s larger deception of the American people in his effort to sell his military adventure. For starters, even if unconventional weapons are found, the key fact is that Saddam Hussein did not use them even in the scenario in which almost all Western military analysts predicted that he would do so—the dire situation of a foreign invader taking out his regime (and possibly him). If Hussein did not use such weapons in that extreme situation, he most certainly would not have used them, in the absence of an invasion, against a superpower with a world-dominant nuclear arsenal. The hawks might respond that one can never be sure about a despot’s intentions. But during Gulf War I and its aftermath, Hussein had no track record of using unconventional weapons against nuclear-armed powers—Israel, France, Britain and the United States.

Hussein also had no incentive to give, or history of giving, such weapons to terrorists—another Bush administration justification for the invasion. In fact, the administration accused Iraq of supporting terrorism but forgot to mention that the groups Hussein supported didn’t focus their attacks on U.S. targets (they primarily attack Israeli targets). Furthermore, Hussein had no incentive to give super weapons, which are expensive to develop and produce, to radical and unpredictable terrorist groups that could turn them against him or that could get him into even more trouble with the great powers.

Of course, the CIA told the Bush administration that Hussein was unlikely to use any weapons of mass destruction or give them to terrorists unless the United States provoked him by attacking Iraq. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested that the CIA’s analysis be declassified before the Congress debated the resolution to support the war. In response, the administration declassified only those findings that supported its bellicose position. Graham had to pressure the administration to get the entire text declassified. Unfortunately, that astoundingly important analysis—making Hussein’s possession of unconventional weapons (even in the absolute worst case, nuclear arms) less important—was ignored by the Congress, the press, and the American public in the race to support the administration’s war. In other words, a small, relatively poor nation could be deterred even from using a few nuclear weapons against a superpower with thousands of nuclear warheads. Well in advance of the war, the CIA report clearly indicated that Hussein was not the imminent threat the administration claimed.

To drum up public support for a dubious policy, the administration also was beside itself to tie Saddam Hussein to the attacks of September 11—which it never succeeded in doing. Hardliners at the Pentagon highlighted a report from an unreliable student informant about an alleged meeting between an Iraqi intelligence official and hijacker-in-chief, Mohammed Atta, in Prague in April 2001. The FBI debunked that yarn by noting that Atta’s hotel and rental car receipts during that period showed he was in the United States.

Whenever the rationale for a government policy changes rapidly, one must become suspicious that the administration in power is test-marketing justifications to win the support of the public and the relevant government bureaucracies. Rarely, however, do high-level government officials admit that this occurs—as did Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz when he admitted that the administration settled on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as the justification for the invasion because that was the only issue the security bureaucracies could agree on. If an administration is shopping for reasons to invade another country and has to deceive the public and Congress to justify its actions, perhaps it should reconsider the policy. Equally important, if information on the weapons programs of rogue states is so inconclusive that the administration has to distort and embellish it, how can the United States conduct a strategy of “preemptive war” that is critically dependent on good intelligence?