“Intelligence is an art, not a science,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz. Secretary of State Powell observes, “There are always debates about intelligence subjects. You get information in, and there are debates.” Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informs us, “Intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean something is true, it’s just, it’s intelligence, you know, it’s your best estimate of the situation.”

All these statements were uttered as senior government officials responded to questions about the MIA WMDs in Iraq. Such remarks are not inaccurate or misleading, because the intelligence business does often deal with fuzziness and frequently relies on informed guesswork. But they blatantly contradict what the Bush Administration was telling the American people before the war. Most (in)famously, George W. Bush, on March 17–two days before he began the war–declared, “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” No doubt–his choice of words. These days his senior aides are saying, Well, you never know.

Defending themselves from the accusation that they misled the nation into war, these Bush officials now overstate the case in the opposite direction, for there can be firm intelligence (think photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba). But their unintentional confessions (that their prewar assertions about WMDs were unjustifiably unambiguous) provide further reason for Congressional investigation. There are two fundamental questions that deserve examination. First, what was the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq and the supposed Al Qaeda-Hussein tie Bush often cited? Second, did Bush and his aides accurately represent this intelligence in their on-to-war pronouncements? There are other matters that warrant probing: Did the White House pressure intelligence analysts to produce conclusions in sync with its policy? Did the Pentagon set up an intelligence shop to cook up unsubstantiated intelligence that supported the case for war?

But the central matters are easy to dissect. Any seasoned investigator can examine the intelligence and the supporting material, assess the quality of the intelligence and then compare that intelligence with the Administration’s public statements to determine whether those assertions match the intelligence.

This is not rocket science. Perhaps that’s why Republicans on Capitol Hill have demonstrated little eagerness to conduct an extensive investigation in public view. Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Select Committee, has been hesitant to conduct a full-blown probe. Instead, he has initiated a behind-closed-doors “review.” The House Intelligence Committee is also mounting what its Republican chairman, Porter Goss, calls a “review.” That committee has been poring over nineteen volumes of prewar intelligence.

Though the WMD controversy has not yet become a political problem for Bush, the initial news from the Congressional “reviews” is not good for the White House. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, recently referred on the House floor to the committee’s preliminary findings. “When discussing Iraq’s WMD,” she said, “Administration officials rarely included the caveats and qualifiers attached to the intelligence community’s judgment…. For many Americans, the Administration’s certainty gave the impression that there was even stronger intelligence about Iraq’s possession of, and intention to use, WMD.” Harman–a California moderate who voted for the war and is no hothead–also noted that the committee’s “investigation” indicates that the Administration’s allegations of an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda were not supported by the intelligence. Her remarks, which received little media attention, were quite stunning. If they are an accurate reflection of the committee’s work, they signal that there is compelling evidence that Bush dishonestly steered the country toward war.

Bush’s prewar veracity demands scrutiny not only to insure accountability but because intelligence and presidential assertions about threats assume even more significance when a core strategic doctrine is pre-emption. Striking pre-emptively presumes that threats can be accurately foreseen and discerned. With Iraq, Bush claimed that they can be and they were. But the recent statements of his own aides–and the still-missing WMDs–undermine (to put it politely) his argument. And any President who asks for–or seizes–the prerogative to hit first must demonstrate trustworthiness. If Bush, as Harman noted, did create a false impression before the war, he has no right to ask Americans to permit him to make such a pre-emptive call again. When intelligence is debatable, it should be used to justify military action only by a President who honors and engages in honest debate.