THE STORY of the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus tells you much about why people hate Washington.

It was recounted by John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine, on the opinion page of the New York Times. It's about manipulation and lobbyists and the incestuous relationship between public relations and public policy and the coziness between Congress and people who are paid vast sums to influence them -- and what countries do when they want to go to war. It is overlaid with a fine scum.

The main point is that one of the most effective witnesses against Iraq at a time when the United States was pondering the wisdom of going to war was a 15-year-old girl who appeared before the caucus. She was identified only by her first name, Nayirah, to protect her family in Kuwait. One caucus co-chairman, Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) knew who she was. The other, John E. Porter (R-Ill.) did not. Nayirah was, in fact,the daughter of the ambassador of Kuwait.

In highly emotional testimony, she told one of the most harrowing tales of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. She had seen, she said, 22 babies ripped out of their incubators in the Al-Adan Hospital in Kuwait City. She was not the only one to say so. Amnesty International, the largest and most respected of the human rights organizations, verified her charges.

Though John MacArthur may have exaggerated the impact of Nayirah's testimony on her audience in the hearing room and on television, the murdered babies figured largely in the congressional debate on the war. The vote to use force was taken a year ago today.

The impact on President Bush, however, is unmistakable. For the first time, he mentioned an Amnesty report. He spoke of the unspeakable, of the 22 babies "thrown on the floor like firewood," six times -- in Massachusetts, in Hawaii, in Des Moines, in Dallas, in Washington and in Dahrain.

John Healey, executive director of Amnesty USA, took vehement exception to the president's use of the Amnesty report and, as a witness before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, inveighed against "using a Nobel {Peace} Prize winner as a war drum." For 12 years, he said, Amnesty had provided Washington with innumerable reports about Iraqi atrocities, about torture, executions, rapes. Nobody paid the slightest attention. Iraq enjoyed special trade status up to the moment it invaded Kuwait and Saddam began to remind George Bush of Hitler.

Nayirah was offered as a witness to the Human Rights Caucus by the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, which represented a group called The Citizens for a Free Kuwait. Hill & Knowlton was paid $8 million for its representation. The emirate required skillful flacks. The interest in democracy in the country we went to war to liberate was approximately that of the Soviet Union in the time of Brezhnev. The conduct of its leaders was hardly exemplary. They fled to the Riviera during the unpleasantness. Their teenage sons racketed through the streets of Cairo without a thought of defending their native land. There was a high-level preoccupation with gold bathroom fixtures.

There is no question that the Kuwaits were treated abominably by the invading Iraqi forces. The atrocities are too well-documented to be doubted. But when agents of Amesty and Middle East Watch, another human-rights group, finally got to Kuwait after the war, they reported that the incubator story was "totally false." Amnesty backed off its certification, saying it found no proof.

Caucus co-chairman Porter wishes he had been told the identity of Nayirah. The Kuwaiti ambassador insists she was in Kuwait at the time of the occupation and, as a hospital volunteer, observed first hand the murder of the premature babies. How did she move around the occupied city? How did she get out of the country? She was not asked.

"My concern," says Porter, "is for the credibility of the caucus. People wonder if she told the truth or was candid about her identity."

He worries that the caucus may be seen as the creature of Hill & and Knowlton, which represents a roll call of notorious human-rights violators: China, Indonesia, Turkey. "We took them on," says Porter. We did not go easy."

The caucus, which is not an official congressional committee, is beholden to Hill & Knowlton. At co-chairman Lantos's request, the firm gave office space to a caucus spinoff, the Human Rights Foundation, which funded caucus travel.

Lantos, an erratic Hungarian who survived a Nazi concentration camp, is a man of strong feelings. At the height of the Iran-contra scandal, he announced that he was writing a check for the defense of Oliver North. Now, of course, he must defend himself.

It's Washington at its worst.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.