Washington hath no fury like a Henry Waxman scorned. On March 17, as President Bush made final preparations to order the invasion of Iraq, the veteran Democratic Congressman from California asked the White House to explain how forged evidence claiming Iraq had sought nuclear material from Niger featured in the State of the Union address. Waxman had supported the October 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. But with the revelation that the CIA did not believe to be credible the intelligence Bush had used, Waxman says, “I wanted an explanation.”
Waxman got no answer from the White House–nor much attention from the docile media or his Congressional colleagues. But he persisted, dispatching letters to the President and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, raising the issue in hearings and floor speeches, and finally, in late June, convincing more than twenty House Democrats who had also supported the war resolution to co-sponsor legislation to establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate “an inexcusable breakdown in our intelligence system prior to the Iraq war.”
Even that action rated little notice. But barely ten days later, reporters and members of Congress were asking whether the President had employed deceit to lure the country into an unwarranted “pre-emptive” war. It was more than just mounting death tolls, troubling calls for more troops and questions about whether weapons of mass destruction would ever be found that inspired previously silent sections of the Washington establishment to follow Waxman’s lead. Simmering frustrations within the intelligence community boiled over into open complaints–and back-channel leaks–that suggested the Administration had inflated intelligence to identify threats that may never have existed. Meanwhile, pollsters saw the number of Americans who were pleased with Bush’s management of the conflict dip below 50 percent for the first time since the fighting began, with growing numbers wondering whether the threat posed by Iraq had ever been as serious as Bush claimed.
How far this questioning will take journalists, elected officials and the American people remains to be seen. Karl Rove’s White House political machine is hoping a tepid acknowledgment by Bush of “personal responsibility” for his speech and the emptying of Washington for August’s Congressional recess will deflate the discussion. But if members of Congress get an earful from constituents and the media stay on the story, Rove could be in for a hot month. “If members of Congress hear in August that the people want a real investigation, I think we’ll have it,” Waxman says. Representative Jan Schakowsky noted, “The White House says this is just an inside-the-Beltway issue, but I think that when members go home they are going to find that it is a big issue across America.”
The shift in the debate came in time-honored Washington fashion: when someone on the inside started talking. With a July 6 New York Times op-ed column and an appearance that day on NBC’s Meet the Press, in which he detailed how his investigation had exposed the Niger uranium claims as false almost a year before Bush repeated them in the State of the Union address, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson broke the dam Waxman and others had pounded on for months. Not even a fall-on-his-sword performance by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was enough to halt the questioning. As more members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities stepped forward to express outrage, former CIA Director John Deutch explained, “If, however, no weapons of mass destruction or only a residual capacity [is] found, the principal justification enunciated by the US government for launching this war will have proven not to be credible.”