Does it matter that one of the documents connecting Saddam Hussein with attempts to buy uranium from Niger turned out to be fraudulent? Yes. But not for the reasons being trotted out breathlessly by many of the president's opponents.
It matters because many of those who believe we had no business in Iraq in the first place feel they have license to cast doubts on the whole enterprise. The fact that one piece of evidence supporting one of many charges against Mr. Hussein isn't reliable doesn't undermine the legitimacy of using force to remove him from power. But that's how this fact is being used -- as a club to batter a decision that was right and just.
It matters because many politicians and pundits (read: presidential candidates and international liberals who just don't like conservative American presidents) have been able to use this relatively innocuous piece of information to advance their own political agendas at the expense of the president's credibility. That we're at war doesn't seem to matter to them, as long as they can score political points.
It matters because it underscores a serious problem within the U.S. intelligence community. It's clear from the legalistic excuses being offered by CIA Director George J. Tenet that the agency was unsure about the information's reliability. Attributing it to the British government didn't magically make it worth including in a major presidential address.
It's the agency's job to prevent this type of snafu, not yield in a foolhardy attempt to make policy-makers happy. In this circumstance, they seemed all too ready to tell senior officials what they wanted to hear. This episode shows clearly why oversight of our intelligence community is crucial. Without such oversight, its credibility is diminished.
But let's keep matters in perspective. The problem boils down to one fraudulent document. A document that seems to have made its way from an embassy in Italy, through Britain and into the United States was shown to be a forgery.
Granted, this document was fairly damning. It seemed to provide evidence that Mr. Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa -- which was peculiar, since Iraq has no nuclear power facilities. That he had sought uranium from Africa in the 1980s made it all the more believable. But this document proved to be fraudulent.
Still, there are two reasons why this doesn't matter as much as the president's critics would have us believe. First, the British stick by their intelligence and are adamant they have other sources to corroborate their claim. Second, the document was only part of the intelligence that connected Mr. Hussein with African uranium. The other sources still stand. The fraudulent document was only a small part of the African uranium accusations, and African uranium is only a small part of the reasons why Mr. Hussein was removed from power. To listen to the president's critics, the entire case relied on this one document.
That, however, is not the case. Nothing changes the fact that Mr. Hussein defied 17 U.N. resolutions, including the cease-fire that ended the first gulf war. Nothing changes the fact that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned the U.N. Security Council about mobile labs and that these labs were later found. It's still true that hundreds of chemical/biological suits and nerve gas antidote were discovered.
And it's still true that Mr. Hussein killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis and Iranians using poison gas, and that he supported terrorists for decades. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in Washington on Thursday, "If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhumane carnage and suffering."
If fraudulent documents are what the critics want, they should take issue with the accounting of weapons of mass destruction that Mr. Hussein was compelled to provide, lest he face serious consequences. It was shot through with lies and deceit.
Mr. Hussein's dangerous and belligerent behavior, his development and use of weapons of mass destruction, his declared hostility toward the United States and its allies and his support of terrorism -- these are the reasons he was removed from power. Not because of a single line in a single speech. And not because of one fraudulent document.
Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security at the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for International Studies.
Appeared in The Baltimore Sun