So whose books were more cooked -- Enron's accounts of its financial doings or the administration's prewar reports on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction?
Enron's books didn't lack for detail. They were simply and deliberately fictitious. They documented all manner of energy sales and swaps that in fact never transpired but that had to be conjured up retrospectively to explain how Enron's apparent assets and profits were so dazzling.
The administration's accounts of the Iraqi arsenal were also detailed. Descriptions of Saddam Hussein's weapons caches were the centerpiece of the president's State of the Union address and the sum and substance of Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council. The secretary told the council there was convincing evidence that Iraq had hundreds of tons of chemical and biological agents and that it had been buying uranium from Niger to put its nuclear program on fast-forward.
But yesterday's certitude is today's confusion. Task Force 75 -- the armed services unit charged with locating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- is packing up in frustration after repeated efforts to turn up any evidence of Hussein's weapons programs yielded nothing.
Indeed, the administration's antebellum accounts of the Iraqi weapons hoard are looking every bit as dubious as Enron's electricity transactions, and they increasingly seem as phony a casus belli as the destruction of the Maine in Havana Harbor.
This is not to say that the liberation of Iraq from Hussein's Stalinoidal tyranny isn't a blessing for the Iraqi people. But that was never a sufficient reason for the United States to go to war, as Bush and his aides clearly understood. Even under the theory of preemption as they propounded it, the preemptee can't simply be a totalitarian thug; he has to pose a threat to us as well.
And so a threat was found -- though finding it required the creation of a new intelligence office devoted entirely to finding that threat. As reported by Robert Dreyfuss in the Prospect last December and by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker last week, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the administration's foremost war hawk, established a small operation in the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans last year that was eventually to provide most of the "facts" the administration cited as the reason to go to war.
The impetus for starting the new operation was the neoconservatives' frustration with both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for their inability to document Iraq's illegal weapons and its ties to al-Qaeda.
The neos knew with existential certitude that the weapons were there. "Does Saddam now have weapons of mass destruction?" Richard Perle, then the incoming chairman of the Defense Policy Board, testified before Congress in March 2001. "Sure he does. How far he's gone on the nuclear-weapon side I don't think we really know. My guess is it's further than we think. It's always further than we think, because we limit ourselves, as we think about this, to what we're able to prove and demonstrate."
And that was the problem with the CIA and DIA: They were a bunch of vulgar empiricists. What the Bush administration wanted, it turns out, was faith-based intelligence. Thus the operation in the Office of Special Plans, headed by neocon Abram Shulsky, was born. Shulsky's shop didn't have agents in the field; indeed, it had just a handful of analysts. But what set them apart from the intelligence agencies was that they relied heavily on information from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) -- an organization of Iraqi exiles whose raison d'etre was to promote the overthrow of Hussein. As both Hersh and Dreyfuss document, a lot of the INC's information on weapons programs and other matters was considered patently absurd by veteran intelligence analysts. But that was the information that served as the basis of the administration's case for war.
Additionally, The New York Times now reports that the administration was told many months before Powell's Security Council speech that the documents purportedly demonstrating Iraq's purchase of uranium from Niger were forgeries.
Apparently, Bush administration intelligence is to intelligence as FOX News is to news. Facts are fine so long as they bolster the president's case. When they don't, they will be suppressed or forgotten, and other, more congenial facts will be found.
As at Enron, there are leading figures in this administration who think that when the real facts don't look so good, it's fine to substitute your own.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, of course, they simply may have been very credulous in the face of the INC's material (not a hugely comforting thought). And certainly, unlike the Enron gang, they weren't putting out these detailed accounts of unreality in an attempt to cover up crimes or enrich themselves.
They merely wanted to start a war. No big deal.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.
This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.