As the White House's prewar claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs became increasingly discredited, the investigation by Charles A. Duelfer and his Iraq Survey Group provided a convenient out for President Bush and his aides.
When challenged about mounting evidence that crucial intelligence had been wrong or exaggerated, the administration could say only that Duelfer was still looking for the weapons and that the last word was still to come.
The last word arrived at the White House on Friday and was made public on Capitol Hill yesterday. It carried the title "Comprehensive Report."
From the perspective of the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign, the timing could be difficult , coming 27 days before the election, two days before the second presidential debate and a day after publication of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer's assertion that the United States had deployed too few troops in Iraq early on.
Duelfer was appointed in January by George J. Tenet, who was then director of the CIA. Duelfer operated independently of the White House, which had no control over the report's timing.
A U.S. official, who declined to be further described, said the timing of the report -- which is dated last Thursday -- was controlled by Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who had said in interviews before his appointment that he doubted chemical or biological weapons would be found.
"Charlie promised months ago that when the report was done, he would put it out, and that's what he's doing," the official said. "It's completely his show."
Duelfer, who had planned to issue his report in August, delivered more than 1,000 pages of conclusions to the CIA last week and circulated some portions to the State Department for discussion about classification. The CIA did not give it to Bush's National Security Council until later.
Officials in some parts of the administration outside the White House wanted certain sensitive sections to remain classified. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice "thought it was important that the entire report be declassified," said James R. Wilkinson, deputy national security adviser.
"The administration had asked Mr. Duelfer to report when he was ready, and he was ready," Wilkinson said.
The day before the report was made public, the CIA held an invitation-only briefing with Duelfer at the National Press Club for about 40 reporters. Attendees agreed not to report what they learned until after his appearance on Capitol Hill. At that point, Duelfer had not briefed anyone at the White House.
As of yesterday morning, Bush had not read the report but had been briefed on it, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
The White House sent administration officials and Capitol Hill Republicans a two-page memo titled "Talking Points on the Duelfer Report" that said it "provides extensive new documentation that Saddam Hussein was a threat to international peace and security, and was in violation of U.N. resolutions."
Bush gave two speeches on the campaign trail yesterday. Neither mentioned the report.