Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've heard about Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's comments to Vanity Fair magazine in which he told author Sam Tanenhaus that the decision to focus on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was made in part for "bureaucratic reasons."
The Department of Defense now says Tanenhaus took Wolfowitz's comments out of context. But look at the interview transcript posted at the Pentagon Web site and you'll be hard pressed to interpret them any other way. Those comments have crystallized a growing suspicion among many in Washington --- and not just Democrats --- that the war against Iraq may have been justified on the basis of intelligence that was either flawed or consciously manipulated to build support for the war.
I have little doubt that we'll eventually discover that high-level administration officials simply refused to credit CIA reports that didn't match their assumptions about Iraq or ones that didn't help build the case for war. I'll also bet that many of those same officials put the most ominous possible gloss on intelligence that was either flimsy, fragmentary or just clearly unreliable.
But there's another part of the story that's essential for understanding the whole picture. In fact, in the Vanity Fair article, that other side of the story comes right after the section that generated all the news headlines over the last week. Right after the paragraph about the "bureaucratic reasons" for focusing on WMD comes a revelation that is, in its own way, even more eye-popping.
There, toward the end of the article, Tanenhaus reveals that Wolfowitz is "confident Saddam was connected to the World Trade Center bombings in 1993" and that he has "entertained the theory" that Saddam was behind the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, as well.
Needless to say, those are not ideas that are widely shared within the U.S. intelligence community, or any other intelligence community, for that matter. In fact, they aren't given a lot of credence much of anywhere. Both theories come from the work of Laurie Mylroie, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the publisher of a newsletter called Iraq News.
As Mylroie argues in her book, The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks -- A Study of Revenge, she believes Saddam has been fighting a covert war against the United States ever since Gulf War I --with the 1993 and 1995 attack but two key examples.
Let's not mince words: That is pretty far-fetched stuff. Even some of the most hard-line Iraq hawks roll their eyes when they hear those theories. And yet they appear to have played an important role in shaping Wolfowitz's view of the threat Saddam posed.
In the case of Saddam's purported connection to the Oklahoma City bombing, Tanenhaus apparently got the details on the deputy secretary's views from a friend or associate familiar with his thinking. When Tanenhaus asked Wolfowitz about it directly, he declined to comment. That just strengthens the impression that this isn't some bit of flimsy hearsay that Wolfowitz is tossing around to strengthen the case for war but a possibility he has at least seriously considered.
In other words, if Wolfowitz helped fool the public into believing that the Iraq threat was greater than it was, he evidently fooled himself, as well. A kinder way to put it might be to say that Wolfowitz's ideological predisposition to seeing Saddam Hussein in the most threatening light made him almost willfully credulous in evaluating some extremely outlandish theories.
The longer we go without finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the more important it will become for the U.S. Congress to find out just what sort of information we had before the war that made us so confident they were there.
Did we have bad intelligence? Did political appointees dismiss good, but less threatening, intelligence? Or was damning intelligence actually cooked up for political purposes? Those are all legitimate questions. But when Congress starts trying to get at the answers we should be open to the more complex, but in its own way no less disturbing possibility, that at least some of the main proponents of this war were so consumed by their zeal to crush Saddam and so driven by ideology that they fooled themselves as much as anyone else.
Just like in politics, the most dangerous spin is the spin you end up falling for yourself.
Joshua Micah Marshall is a Washington D.C.-based writer.