An unprecedented array of US intelligence professionals, diplomats and former Pentagon officials have gone on record to lambast the Bush administration for its distortion of the case for war against Iraq. In their view, the very foundations of intelligence-gathering have been damaged in ways that could take years, even decades, to repair.
A new documentary film beginning to circulate in the United States features one powerful condemnation after another, from the sort of people who usually stay discreetly in the shadows - a former director of the CIA, two former assistant secretaries of defence, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and even the man who served as President Bush's Secretary of the Army until just a few months ago.
Between them, the two dozen interviewees reveal how the pre-war intelligence record on Iraq showed virtually the opposite of the picture the administration painted to Congress, to US voters and to the world. They also reconstruct the way senior White House officials - notably Vice-President Dick Cheney - leaned on the CIA to find evidence that would fit a preordained set of conclusions.
"There was never a clear and present danger. There was never an imminent threat. Iraq - and we have very good intelligence on this - was never part of the picture of terrorism," says Mel Goodman, a veteran CIA analyst who now teaches at the National War College.
The case for accusing Saddam Hussein of concealing weapons of mass destruction was, in the words of the veteran CIA operative Robert Baer, largely achieved through "data mining" - going back over old information and trying to wrest new conclusions from it. The agenda, according to George Bush Senior's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, was both highly political and profoundly misguided.
"The theory that you can bludgeon political grievances out of existence doesn't have much of a track record," he says, "so essentially we have been neo-conned into applying a school of thought about foreign affairs that has failed everywhere it has been tried."
The hour-long film - entitled Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War - was put together by Robert Greenwald, a veteran TV producer in the forefront of Hollywood's anti-war movement who never suspected, when he started out, that so many establishment figures would stand up and be counted.
"My attitude was, wow, CIA people, I thought these were the bad guys," Mr Greenwald said. "Not everyone agreed on everything. Not everyone was against the war itself. But there was a universally shared opinion that we had been misled about the reasons for the war."
Although many elements in the film are not necessarily new - the forged document on uranium sales from Niger to Iraq, the aluminium tubes falsely assumed to be parts for nuclear weapons, the satellite images of "mobile biolabs" that turned out to be hydrogen compression facilities, the "decontamination vehicles" that were in fact fire engines - what emerges is a striking sense of professional betrayal in the intelligence community.
As the former CIA analyst Ray McGovern argues with particular force, the traditional role of the CIA has been to act as a scrupulously accurate source of information and analysis for presidents pondering grave international decisions. That role, he said, had now been "prostituted" and the CIA may never be the same. "Where is Bush going to turn to now? Where is his reliable source of information now Iraq is spinning out of control? He's frittered that away," Mr McGovern said. "And the profound indignity is that he probably doesn't even realise it."
The starting point for the tarnishing of the CIA was a speech by Vice-President Cheney on 26 August 2002, in which he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear weapons programme and was thus threatening to inflict "death on a massive scale - in his own region or beyond".
According to numerous sources, Mr Cheney followed up his speech with a series of highly unorthodox visits to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in which he badgered low-level analysts to come up with information to substantiate the extremely alarming - but entirely bogus - contents of his speech.
By early September, intelligence experts in Congress were clamouring for a so-called National Intelligence Estimate, a full rundown of everything known about Iraq's weapons programmes. Usually NIEs take months to produce, but George Tenet, the CIA director, came up with a 100-page document in just three weeks.
The man he picked to write it, the weapons expert Robert Walpole, had a track record of going back over old intelligence assessments and reworking them in accordance with the wishes of a specific political interest group. In 1998, he had come up with an estimate of the missile capabilities of various rogue states that managed to sound considerably more alarming than a previous CIA estimate issued three years earlier. On that occasion, he was acting at the behest of a congressional commission anxious to make the case for a missile defence system; the commission chairman was none other than Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defence and a key architect of the Iraq war.
Mr Walpole's NIE on Iraq threw together all the elements that have now been discredited - Niger, the alumin- ium tubes, and so on. It also gave the misleading impression that intelligence analysts were in broad agreement about the Iraqi threat, relegating most of the doubts and misgivings to footnotes and appendices.
By the time parts of the NIE were made public, even those few qualifications were excised. When President Bush's speechwriters got to work - starting with the address to Congress on 7 October that led to a resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq - the language became even stronger.
Mr Tenet fact-checked the 7 October speech, and seems to have played a major role in every subsequent policy address, including Colin Powell's powerful presentation to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February. Of that pivotal speech, Mr McGovern says in the film: "It was a masterful performance, but none of it was true."Reuse content