Can George W. Bush be trusted as he further heats up the rhetoric on Iraq?

Two days after a horrific bomb blast in Bali, Indonesia, killed over 180 people–including at least two Americans–Bush, appearing at a Republican campaign rally in Michigan, cited the assault as yet another reason for vigorous prosecution of the war on terrorism. But as he rallied the GOP loyalists, he focused less on al Qaeda (which, naturally, is suspected of being associated with the Bali attack) and more on Saddam Hussein. Bush maintained that the Iraqi dictator hopes to deploy al Qaeda as his own “forward army” against the West, that “we need to think about Saddam Hussein using al Qaeda to do his dirty work, to not leave fingerprints behind,” and that “this is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda.”

Bush and his administration have offered no proof of any of this. In fact, less than a week before the Michigan event, the CIA had released a letter noting that it had no evidence that Saddam intends to commit terrorism against the United States, absent a US strike against him. (Did the President miss the newspapers that day?) The Agency’s conclusion is hardly consistent with Bush’s claim that Saddam is actively engaged in turning Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network into his own private force. And while the CIA, in that same letter, noted–vaguely–that it possesses “solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade,” that, too, is a far cry from Bush’s assertion that Saddam has had direct ties with al Qaeda. [For more on the CIA letter, click on the link for the previous column at the end of this posting.]

Why doesn’t Bush make it easy for himself? If he can show that Saddam has a working relationship with al Qaeda, he could do whatever he wants in Iraq, with or without the blessing of that pesky United Nations Security Council–especially if al Qaeda is stepping up operations, with attacks in Indonesia, Kuwait, Yemen, Morocco, Europe and elsewhere. Forget diddling around about weapons inspection or pretending to be motivated by the need to locate and disarm Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush could go straight to regime-change war–and he might be justified in doing so–if he could demonstrate that his claims about Saddam are accurate. If it turns out al Qaeda is blowing up nightclubs around the world and receiving current assistance from Iraq, Bush could resubmit to Congress the blank-check use-of-force resolution and receive unanimous backing–not just the three-quarters support it drew last week. Proof of an operational link between Saddam and bin Laden would blow away the modest-sized antiwar sentiment that now exists. The nation and the international community would unify underneath the White House’s get-Saddam banner. Maybe such woolly-headed peaceniks as Bush I national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and retired generals Wesley Clark, Anthony Zinni, Joseph Hoar, and John Shalikashvili–who have all expressed skepticism about W’s Gulf War sequel–would finally jump on board.

So why doesn’t Bush? The obvious answer is, he can’t. And the public should not fall for any attempt on the administration’s part to play the if-you-only-knew-what-we-know card. The CIA has already presented the best case it can make (or manufacture) out of the classified evidence available to it. Moreover, as The Los Angeles Times, reported a few days ago, those CIA conclusions where produced in an environment in which “senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein.

The L.A. Times piece, which cited “intelligence and congressional sources,” was a blockbuster of a story. (Click here to read it.) The paper reported, “In what sources described as an escalating ‘war,’ top officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have bombarded CIA analysts with criticism and calls for revisions on such key questions as whether Iraq has ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network….The sources stressed that CIA analysts–who are supposed to be impartial–are fighting to resist the pressure. But they said analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process.” The paper’s sources wagged an accusing finger at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

If there is the slightest truth to this report, it ought to trigger an outcry and a scandal. Imagine rigging intelligence to shape the outcome of a debate that determines whether American lives are lost (and Iraqi lives are taken) overseas. How foul and sinister can a bureaucrat get? An article of this sort should cause members of the House and Senate to rush before microphones and declare they will not rest until they determine if the allegations hold up. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be fired if they are unduly leaning on nothing-but-the-facts analysts. But, as of yet, the Times story has caused no public ripples. I called both the House and Senate intelligence committees and inquired if either intended to investigate whether Bush officials have attempted to doctor intelligence to improve the administration’s case for hitting Saddam. Neither responded.

Bush’s bluff–if that is what it is–should be called. Nearly two hundred people are killed in a car bombing, and he uses the occasion to whip up support for his war against Saddam. Either he can prove what he said about the Iraqi regime being in league with al Qaeda or he cannot. If he is misleading the public about the threat, he should not be followed into war. Yet Congress has already ceded Bush the power to declare war–perhaps a unilateral war–as he sees fit, and the Democrats’ leaders are now saying it is time to move on…to pension reform and small business tax cuts–that is, anything the Democrats can talk about, besides war against Iraq, in the three weeks left before the congressional elections.

It’s like Scrabble. If no one challenges Bush’s words–false they may be–they still count as if they were real.