After recently moving out of Washington after more than 22 years there, I realize now more than ever how divorced from reality (and the ethics of the rest of the country) the nation’s capital has become. What is regarded as deception and even lying everywhere else is just good clean fun on the banks of the Potomac. A case in point is the administration’s admission that President Bush’s State of the Union reference to Iraq’s alleged quest to buy uranium from Africa should not have been inserted in the speech.

The media and Democrats are rushing to thrust, with a twist, the verbal dagger into the Bush administration over the “gotcha” in the speech. The administration so richly deserves acerbic criticism over its bellicose invasion of a sovereign Iraq and its subsequent botched attempt at nation-building there. But the real question is why it took so long for the criticism of administration duplicity to be exposed and debated. This question goes to the heart of culture of the nation’s capital.

Many Washington reporters, policy analysts and politicians—even Republican ones—knew before the invasion of Iraq that the administration’s multiple reasons for going to war were shaky. For example, in a speech on October 7, 2002, President Bush stated flatly, “Iraq could decide on any given day [my emphasis] to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.” But a National Intelligence Estimate from the U.S. intelligence community, released on October 2, contradicted the president’s statement. The estimate said that Saddam Hussein was likely to use chemical and biological weapons, or give them to terrorists, only if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime—that is, the administration’s very policy. The full estimate was only declassified recently but, at the time, the then-chairman of the intelligence committee pressured and succeeded in compelling CIA director George Tenet to make public that conclusion.

Similarly, another administration assertion made to connect the unrelated war against Iraq with its justifiable war against al Qaeda was an Iraqi link to the group. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his speech to the United Nations, each claimed that the Bush administration had strong evidence of the link. But most intelligence experts, while acknowledging some contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda over the years, discounted any significant cooperative relationship between the religious radicals of al Qaeda and one of the corrupt, secular governments that al Qaeda was committed to overthrow. It was also widely known in Washington circles before the war that the evidence for that claim was shaky.

Some ex-generals associated with the administration in one way or another—for example, Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni—had the courage to speak out against the imminent war. But their criticisms echoed down the empty canyons of the nation’s capital as reporters, analysts and politicians hid in the bushes as Bush’s war juggernaut roared ahead. Even when the emperor has no clothes (in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, this phrase may be less metaphorical and more literal), he will not be criticized in Washington if he is popular outside the beltway. And, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, President Bush was immensely popular with Americans. But now that a chink has developed in the emperor’s armor, the media and Democratic politicians are piling on by “discovering” materials that were already publicly known before the invasion. If the current chaos in Iraq does not improve, more and more examples of administration trickery will undoubtedly “drip, drip, drip” into the public discourse.

But I guess the cliché “better late than never” would apply here. Increased media scrutiny, and intelligence community pique at the CIA Director’s falling on his sword for the president’s twisting of the truth, has resulted in many leaks that have recently exposed further administration deceptions to justify the war. For example, the shocking truth was that the U.S. intelligence community gathered very little new information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs after the U.N. inspectors left in 1998 and had no high-level spies in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle to provide up-to-date information on such weapons programs (according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials). Yet, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in remarks made shortly before the President’s State of the Union speech, described the administration’s intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs as current and convincing. “It is a case grounded in current intelligence,” he told New York’s Council on Foreign Relations, “current intelligence that comes not only from sophisticated overhead satellites and our ability to intercept communications, but from brave people who told us the truth at the risk of their lives. We have that; it is very convincing.” Not anymore.

It is a shame that as the republic confronted the grave decision to go to war, the debate on the issue in Washington could not have been more honest and informed. If the media and Democratic and Republican skeptics had provided any help to the minority of vocal critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, the nation might have been able to avoid the current quagmire that is likely to sap the country’s strength for years to come.