REMEMBER THE affair of "the sixteen words"? A year ago this month official Washington was convulsed by a controversy over whether President Bush had knowingly twisted the truth about Iraq to persuade the country to go to war. A former U.S. ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, made that charge. As evidence he cited Mr. Bush's statement in his January 2003 State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," a finding that seemed to support the conclusion that Iraq's nuclear weapons program was active. Mr. Wilson suggested that the White House should have known this was not true, because he himself had traveled to the African state of Niger at the request of the CIA a year before the speech and debunked the intelligence. A few days later, embarrassed by the fact that part of the evidence about Niger was a forgery, the White House said the sentence should not have been included in the president's speech.
Amid the subsequent uproar, we suggested that if Mr. Bush had indeed falsified the case for war, his offense would be a grave one -- but we cautioned that all the facts were not known. We still don't have all those facts -- and some of the investigations of them, unfortunately, will not be completed before the November election. But over the past 10 days two major official reports, by the Senate intelligence committee and a special British commission, have concluded that the claim in the "sixteen words" may, after all, have been justified. Britain's Butler report called it "well-founded"; the bipartisan Senate investigation said the conclusion was a reasonable one at least until October 2002 -- and that Mr. Wilson's report to the CIA had not changed its analysts' assessment.
What is to be learned from these findings? Not necessarily that Mr. Bush and his top aides are innocent of distorting the facts on Iraq. As we have said, we believe the record shows that they sometimes exaggerated intelligence reports that were themselves flawed. A case against Saddam Hussein could have been made without such hyperbole; by indulging in it, the Bush administration damaged its credibility and undermined support for the Iraq mission. But, as both the new reports underlined, no evidence has been presented that intelligence on Iraq was deliberately falsified for political purposes. In the intelligence community, analysts struggled to make sense of fragmentary and inconclusive reports, sometimes drawing varied and shifting conclusions. In the case of Niger, some chose to emphasize the evidence that Iraq explored the possibility of purchasing uranium. Others focused on the seemingly low probability that such a deal had been concluded or could have been carried out without detection.
Mr. Wilson chose to emphasize the latter point, that no deal was likely -- but that does not negate the one Mr. Bush made in his speech, which was that Iraq was looking for bomb material. This suggests another caution: Some of those who now fairly condemn the administration's "slam-dunk" approach to judging the intelligence about Iraq risk making the same error themselves. The failure to find significant stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons or an active nuclear program in Iraq has caused some war opponents to claim that Iraq was never much to worry about. The Niger story indicates otherwise. Like the reporting of postwar weapons investigator David Kay, it suggests that Saddam Hussein never gave up his intention to develop weapons of mass destruction and continued clandestine programs he would have accelerated when U.N. sanctions were lifted. No, the evidence is not conclusive. But neither did President Bush invent it.