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For Bush, no excuse

THE VERY BEST that can be said on President Bush's behalf is that he used the CliffsNotes version of intelligence information about Iraq as the basis for a poorly planned and rushed invasion of Iraq in March of last year.

The problem with this charitable approach to Bush is that it's unfair to CliffsNotes.

The lazy student's version of anything is at least an accurate summary.

But the intelligence information about Iraq was wrong. In terms that Bush can perhaps recall from his days at Yale as a budding intellectual of limited achievement, it's as if he went forth to his final exam on Dickens and wrote confidently that David Copperfield murdered Uriah Heep with a fireplace poker. The policy sophisticates and intelligence insiders are having a field day with the Senate Intelligence Committee's limited and highly censored report on prewar information. However, the sophisticates are missing the truly jarring truth.

In plain English, the Central Intelligence Agency was serving Bush large helpings of baloney in the form of summaries of analyses and conclusions that were directly contradicted by the detailed information on which these analyses and conclusions were supposedly based. For those seeking to blame the summaries, including Bush's own campaign and policy big shots, the desperate finger-pointing works only on the basis of an assumption that is grounds for tossing Bush out of office.

To try to escape accountability by blaming CIA summaries, the president would have to ask the country to believe that he led it to war after reading a few cover pages without once glancing at the backup material (sic) that was sent to him and his top advisers. This view of the Bush style -- big picture and full of alleged moral clarity -- is grounds all by itself for electing a new president.

But it gets worse. The major finding in the material released so far is not so much that the CIA's hard-liner-serving conclusions were uniformly false or wildly overstated. The major finding is that the conclusions and declarative statements were in every significant instance found to be undermined or even contradicted by the intelligence data that was sent along with them.

To absolve Bush of disqualifying responsibility for this true scandal, this is what you have to believe. The most glaring example involves one of the CIA's major National Intelligence Estimates about Iraq's unconventional weapons "programs" about six months before the invasion. Like any of these estimates, sent to the top security officials of the government, there is a brief summary and then gobs of more detailed material.

You have to believe that in processing all of this, Bush never bothered to look beyond the summary or to inquire in depth whether it was supported. You then have to believe that Condoleezza Rice never had her large national security staff in the White House take a long look at the backup material on Bush's behalf.

You have to believe that in getting ready for a war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his huge operation never snuck a peek, either.

You have to believe that Vice President Cheney -- he of the long resume and rich experience, not to mention his status as prime mover behind the idea of hasty, nearly unilateral invasion -- never bothered to see if his extreme statements about the "threat" from Iraq were supportable. You have to believe that his many personal visits to the CIA were simply to ask questions, not influence answers.

And you have to believe that before he went to the UN to make Bush's "case" just before the war, with George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, sitting right behind him, Secretary of State Colin Powell's own visits to the CIA never once turned up the hedging, contradictory information that the Senate committee found by the bucketful.

Much more is coming -- about the prison torture scandal and from the 9/11 Commission about the intelligence dots that were ignored or never connected by Bush and his top advisers. Nothing can top the discovery, however, that the wild statements about Iraq's actions, capabilities, and intentions before the war are belied by the data.

To return to my point about CliffsNotes, imagine you were Bush's instructor at Yale. He has turned in his exam, and you have noted that his assertion that David Copperfield dispatched Uriah Heep with the fireplace poker is contradicted by Dickens's novel itself. To save his skin, Bush comes to you and claims with a straight face that he used the CliffsNotes version to study and that the fact he got it wrong should be ascribed to the cheat sheet, not to him.

What would you do? I'd flunk him in a heartbeat.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

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