Kerry continued to hammer Bush hard tonight on the missing WMD. In his very first answer, he said, "The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception." He cited the Duelfer report released this week, which definitively established that Saddam Hussein not only did not have weapons of mass destruction, but had basically been fangless ever since the first Gulf War.
Bush's response was to assert that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, Bush and Kerry, had been wrong. "We all thought there was weapons there. My opponent thought there was weapons there." This echoed his more explicit declaration in the first debate that Kerry saw the same intelligence he did.
For many voters, Bush's defense probably sounds like a good one. Why blame Bush for believing Saddam had WMD, when the problem was just terrible intelligence? In fact, of course, it has now been established beyond all doubt that the reason the intelligence was terrible was because the Bush administration cooked it. It was cooked in the Office of Special Plans, where Dick Cheney installed neocon minions to produce a constant stream of war-justifying intel, no matter how weak. It was cooked, as the New Yorker's Sy Hersh reported, by senior administration officials who bypassed normal channels to "stovepipe" bogus intelligence right to the top.
And, as a massive piece in the New York Times revealed last weekend, it was cooked, abused or lied about by the most senior figures in the administration, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Cheney. In one of the most egregious abuses of intelligence in U.S. history, the Bush administration falsely claimed that expert opinion supported a near-ludicrous theory that aluminum tubes acquired by Iraq were suitable for use in developing nuclear weapons. In fact, that theory's principal backer was a low-level CIA analyst who was almost laughed out of an international conference when he presented his theory. "Everybody was embarrassed when he came and made this presentation, embarrassed and disgusted," the Times quoted one expert who attended as saying. "We were going insane, thinking, 'Where is he coming from?'"
This was the "intelligence" -- an oxymoronic word in many ways when applied to this administration -- that Cheney, Bush's point man for scary falsehoods, used to justify the unequivocal statement "He [Saddam] is actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time."
The American people should be clearly told and retold that it was the Bush administration itself, and its lap dog CIA head George Tenet, who were responsible for the bogus intelligence that it used to sell the case for war.
So why isn't Kerry pointing this out? Why didnt he respond Friday night by telling Bush, "Yes, I saw the same intelligence as you, Mr. President after your administration cooked it."
He's come close to doing it on the campaign trail, saying that Bush "misled" the American people on Iraq. But he failed to do it in either debate -- and Friday was his last chance to do it before a huge audience.
It was a big mistake.
Kerry may fear that the answer is too complicated and might confuse people. But I suspect there's a political reason: he fears that accusing the president and his administration of lying, even if the accusation was only implicit, about something as crucial as the reasons we went to war would go beyond the bounds of acceptable political discourse. In other words, he doesn't want to be Howard Dean.
That cautious calculation may have some pragmatic truth. And certainly a debate in which that explosive point was raised would have a completely different, and brutal, dynamic, which Kerry may have feared would be too unpredictable. But Kerry would have been better off to call a spade a spade.
There are still buried truths about the Bush's criminal mishandling of this war, festering beneath the surface and emerging in flawed rants like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Those truths are available in books and magazine articles, but most Americans don't read those. They need to be aired on national TV.
It's time for the American people to be told the painful, unvarnished truth: that an arrogant and unaccountable administration, convinced as if by religious revelation that Saddam Hussein had to be removed, essentially suspended the process by which such claims are evaluated (it's called "democracy") and made war by fiat. If they then still wish to re-elect the King, I mean president, who made this decision for them, let them.