As the CIA director, George Tenet, arrived at the Senate yesterday to give secret testimony on the Niger uranium affair, it was becoming increasingly clear in Washington that the scandal was only a small, well-documented symptom of a complete breakdown in US intelligence that helped steer America into war.
It represents the Bush administration’s second catastrophic intelligence failure. But the CIA and FBI’s inability to prevent the September 11 attacks was largely due to internal institutional weaknesses.
This time the implications are far more damaging for the White House, which stands accused of politicising and contaminating its own source of intelligence.
According to former Bush officials, all defence and intelligence sources, senior administration figures created a shadow agency of Pentagon analysts staffed mainly by ideological amateurs to compete with the CIA and its military counterpart, the Defence Intelligence Agency.
The agency, called the Office of Special Plans (OSP), was set up by the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to second-guess CIA information and operated under the patronage of hardline conservatives in the top rungs of the administration, the Pentagon and at the White House, including Vice-President Dick Cheney.
The ideologically driven network functioned like a shadow government, much of it off the official payroll and beyond congressional oversight. But it proved powerful enough to prevail in a struggle with the State Department and the CIA by establishing a justification for war.
Mr Tenet has officially taken responsibility for the president’s unsubstantiated claim in January that Saddam Hussein’s regime had been trying to buy uranium in Africa, but he also said his agency was under pressure to justify a war that the administration had already decided on.
How much Mr Tenet reveals of where that pressure was coming from could have lasting political fallout for Mr Bush and his re-election prospects, which only a few weeks ago seemed impregnable. As more Americans die in Iraq and the reasons for the war are revealed, his victory in 2004 no longer looks like a foregone conclusion.
The White House counter-attacked yesterday when new chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, accused critics of “politicising the war” and trying to “rewrite history”. But the Democratic leadership kept up its questions over the White House role.
The president’s most trusted adviser, Mr Cheney, was at the shadow network’s sharp end. He made several trips to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, to demand a more “forward-leaning” interpretation of the threat posed by Saddam. When he was not there to make his influence felt, his chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was. Such hands-on involvement in the processing of intelligence data was unprecedented for a vice-president in recent times, and it put pressure on CIA officials to come up with the appropriate results.