Political rancor on the normally bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence threatens to scuttle a far-reaching probe into the failures of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

Such a probe is desperately needed. Too many questions remain unanswered, and the administration’s role in hyping the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has not be clearly determined.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Senate committee is preparing a report sharply critical of CIA Director George J. Tenet and other intelligence officials.

The committee, which includes Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, found that a surprising amount of circumstantial evidence and single-source or disputed information was used to build the WMD and terrorism case against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the Post reported.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who chairs the committee, called work on Iraq sloppy and inconclusive.

What seems clear is that the intelligence community failed. We don’t know how or why.

“It is important to understand what transpired,” Snowe told Knight Ridder Newspapers in July. “Future presidents, when they’re making a decision based on intelligence, it (the current controversy) could raise questions about the veracity of that intelligence. We never can allow that to happen. It goes to the height of our national security. However it came about, we need to know about it.”

The Bush administration has put in place a policy of preemption. The United States will strike first at enemies that present an imminent threat.

We remain leery about such an aggressive strategy that leaves us at odds with the international community and sets a precedent of preemptive action that other countries could follow.

The apparent failures of the intelligence community to gauge the actual threats posed by Saddam Hussein and his despotic regime point to the fatal flaw in preemption. If we attack a country, as we did in Iraq, based on faulty information and skewed assumptions, we create instability and the world becomes more dangerous, not less.

There are many reasons to hate Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant, murderous in intent and actions. He terrorized his own people, threatened his neighbors and was a boil on the conscious of the international community. But, it appears now, United Nations weapons inspectors and trade embargoes had been effective in greatly limiting his work on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He was not an imminent threat to the United States or its allies.

Yet, in Iraq we are and in Iraq we will remain for some time.

Meanwhile, inspectors have found traces of weapons-grade uranium in Iran, North Korea may already have nukes and, according to the Washington Times, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are working on a deal to trade cheap oil for nuclear technology. We have weakened our ability to respond to other threats, potentially more immediate and dangerous.

The United States must remain strong in the face of enemies, and it must be prepared to defend itself. But a policy of attack first and ask questions later is not adequate for the world’s lone superpower.

Congress has an obligation to investigate how this country finds itself in a divisive war in Iraq. Partisanship should be put aside, and Democrats and Republicans alike should be committed to finding the truth.

The Senate investigation should be expanded. The Defense Department, State Department, and the offices of the president and vice president should be scrutinized on their actions during the prelude to war.

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