In their final report last week, Yale President Richard Levin and the eight other members of the presidential commission charged with examining pre-war intelligence got it mostly right. The intelligence community, as the report concluded, was “dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” The commission was similarly justified in its assessment of how damaging these errors were, noting that “[t]he harm done to American credibility by our all too public intelligence failings in Iraq will take years to undo.”
But the commission’s final report was so disappointing because of what it left unsaid. Through this commission and others, the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to accurately assess Iraq’s threat has been well-documented. Yet the link between these intelligence failures and the actual decisions made in the White House has never been given the same level of scrutiny. In explaining how the United States took faulty information and used it as the rationale for war, the WMD commission only went half the distance.
The commission has a simple excuse for failing to go further, of course. Created during an election year, its mandate was intentionally limited by the president to questions of intelligence, not policy. But intelligence cannot be entirely separated from the decisions that result from it. Even if analysts were not pressured by the White House’s desire to go to war — which is what the WMD report concludes, at least — the Bush administration surely bears responsibility for how it used the intelligence. Instead, the commission apparently consented to the notion that the gathering of intelligence and its use in policy are entirely separable — an idea hard to stomach in evaluating whether that intelligence justified going to war.
Given the history of another high-profile commission, the commission’s timidity is especially hard to accept. Like the WMD Commission, the 9/11 Commission was treading in difficult political territory, and its initial scope and powers were limited. But faced with the choice of following a narrowly defined mandate or challenging the White House, its members took the courageous move to press further. The WMD Commission showed no such courage. Unlike the 9/11 Commission, the WMD panel had no Republican co-chair willing to buck his own party, and no families of victims offering a public face to the call for a more extensive inquiry. We do not know what he said behind closed doors, but Levin, along with his eight colleagues, still bears the responsibility for serving on a commission that could have and should have tried to go further.
A year ago, an editorial in this space defended Levin’s decision to accept the president’s invitation to serve on the commission — and rightly so. As a leading figure in higher education, his appointment was sensible enough, and conspiracy theories about White House invitations aside, no serious observer would identify Levin as a Bush partisan. But when history looks back at the two high-profile commissions of the last year, it will see one that took a bold view of its responsibilities to understand the failures of the past, and one that did not. It is disappointing to know Yale’s president served on the latter.