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SCOT LEHIGH

Oval Office failure

BOB WOODWARD'S best Oval Office anecdote is telling. And yet, more revealing still is what doesn't take place in "Plan of Attack," Woodward's detailed new book about the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq.

According to Woodward, on Dec. 21, 2002, George Tenet, the CIA director, and John McLaughlin, his deputy, went to the Oval Office to run through the CIA's presentation making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When it was done, George W. Bush had a quizzical look on his face.

" `Nice try,' Bush said. "I don't think this is quite -- it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from.' " Chief of staff Andrew Card, too, was underwhelmed, "worried that there might be no `there there.' "

The president then turned to Tenet and asked: "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?" Tenet, Woodward writes, "rose up, threw his arms in the air. `It's a slam dunk case' . . . Bush pressed. `George, how confident are you?' "

Tenet: "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk."

What we have, then, is a president who, with the critical decision on war pressing hard upon him, had gotten a look at the CIA's evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and found himself somewhat dubious about the agency's case.

So here's the question: Where was the gimlet-eyed follow-up, the hard-nosed executive evaluation, the painstaking dissection of the evidence that any commander in chief should insist upon before deciding on war?

There's precious little evidence of that in Woodward's book. Indeed, the picture that emerges is of a president less concerned with flyspecking the intelligence in determined pursuit of the truth than with making the strongest possible case to the world that Iraq had WMD.

"Needs a lot more work," Bush told Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about the briefing. "Let's get some people who've actually put together a case for a jury."

After the McLaughlin/Tenet briefing, the CIA assembled a 40-page dossier that was turned over to two lawyers -- Scooter Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and Steve Hadley, Rice's deputy -- to use in building a persuasive public argument against Iraq. On Jan. 25, Libby presented that case to a group that included Rice; Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser; Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- but that did not include either the president or the vice president.

"Armitage," Woodward writes, "was appalled at what he considered overreaching and hyperbole. Libby was drawing only the worst conclusions from fragments and silky threads." That's a conclusion Colin Powell would come to as well. Still, after going to the CIA and culling the intelligence, the secretary of state made his powerful Feb. 5 presentation to the UN.

By then, events were in the saddle. More than three weeks earlier, Cheney and Bush had informed the Saudi ambassador that the decision to go to war had been made.

Now, it's true that Saddam had been pursuing a nuclear bomb before the first Gulf War, that he had used chemical weapons against his own people, and that he had had a secret WMD program in the 1990s, a program which the 1995 defection of Hussein Kamel, the Saddam son-in-law in charge of that effort, helped reveal.

Still, inspectors had been absent from Iraq since 1998. But in Woodward's account, when Tenet declared the case "a slam dunk," Bush basically took him at his word.

With no WMDs found, Tenet, in a speech earlier this year, acknowledged flaws in the intelligence. And in a Feb. 2 interview with The Washington Post, Powell gingerly conceded the obvious: If the administration had known Iraq did not have WMD stockpiles, that knowledge might have affected the decision to go to war. That, Woodward writes, brought a call from Rice to tell Powell that the president was "mad," feeling that the secretary of state had "given the Democrats a remarkable tool."

That's one way to describe the truth. Still, the Bush campaign apparently thinks Woodward's book paints a sufficiently positive picture of a resolute, action-oriented president that they have a link to it on their website. But what a careful reading actually reveals is a commander in chief who failed to do or demand the due diligence that any president owes his citizens before committing the nation to war.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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