The inner sanctums of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, have always been virtually impenetrable to all but a handful of CIA agents with top security clearance. I have been inside only once, when I dropped in for a private chat with the then director of central intelligence, William H Webster. He had a framed photograph of Winston Churchill on the wall in his seventh-floor office. In the foyer, stars were carved in a marble plinth, each one commemorating a CIA agent who had been killed on duty. Judge Webster, as he is known, seemed thoroughly at ease and in charge of a quietly efficient agency.
That seventh-floor office is now empty; it stands today as a symbol of the disastrous botching of US intelligence on Iraq. It was occupied until 11 July by George Tenet, who became the first scapegoat on Iraq after it became clear that the CIA had told the Bush administration exactly what it wanted to hear about Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Now we have all read a 511-page report from the Senate select intelligence committee which - despite having more than 15 per cent of its content blacked out by the CIA - provides a terse and at times almost unbelievable catalogue of the intelligence that provided the reasons for the US, with Britain on its tail, to romp so enthusiastically towards a bloody war.
The Senate committee consists of nine Republicans and eight Democrats, so it can hardly be said to be biased against the Bush administration. Yet the chairman, Pat Roberts - a Republican from Kansas - does not hide his anger with the way the so-called intelligence led to war. Had it been accurate, he told NBC, "I think the whole premise would have changed, I think the whole debate would have changed, and I think that the response would have changed in terms of any kind of military plans." And congressional approval of the war? "I doubt if the votes would have been there," he said.
The most senior Democrat on the committee, Senator John D Rockefeller, has even fewer doubts that the House was misled. "We in Congress would not have authorised that war, in 75 votes, if we knew what we know now," he said.
But the Senate committee threw one bone to a grateful administration. It reported that it had found no evidence that George Bush and his cronies had attempted "to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgements related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities". That one phrase provided the excuse to force Tenet out, and gave the administration a lifeline. The CIA could take all the blame - not those members of the administration who had been advocating war against Saddam long before 11 September 2001.
We learn, in the report, of "Curve Ball", the CIA's main informant on Iraq's alleged WMDs and nuclear capabilities. Ahmad Chalabi, the discredited long-term exile who planned to take over a post-Saddam Iraq, provided US intelligence with Curve Ball. He was interviewed only once by US analysts before the CIA accepted him as a reliable source; the interview was carried out by a member of the Defence Intelligence Agency who concluded that Curve Ball was an alcoholic, and voiced misgivings that were ignored by the CIA and others. Within the US intelligence community, the Senate committee concluded, there was a "group think" that made it stampede to the wrong conclusions. Thus Curve Ball and another supposed agent called "Red River" speedily came to be seen as valuable informants even though evidence to the contrary was staring US intelligence in the face; the Senate report found "significant shortcomings in almost every aspect" of the human intelligence.
The Bush administration's response to such searing criticism has been all too predictable, given that the presidential election is looming ever closer. It is sticking to its lines, however misleading and dishonest. If you repeat the mantras long enough, the reasoning goes, the American electorate will swallow them. Thus Bush told a meeting at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee on 12 July: "Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq . . . We are defending the peace by taking the fight to the enemy."
In that one speech, he repeated no fewer than eight times that the United States is safer as a result of the war - something which is manifestly untrue. Clearly, the Bush-Cheney electoral strategy is to continue to paint themselves as the saviours of America against terrorists.
It may yet work if the lines are repeated often enough, though 55 per cent of Americans now tell pollsters that they feel less safe from terrorism as a result of the war in Iraq - and only 45 per cent believe that it was worth fighting, compared with 57 per cent a year ago. But the Bush-Cheney team is shameless in the deceptions that it repeats over and over again: Bush is now also saying, with a dishonesty that is downright disturbing,
that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya gave up his nuclear capabilities when he saw what the US had done to Saddam. This, to anyone familiar with the dogged diplomacy with Libya since the mid-1990s, is a lie. Tony Blair, because he was involved in the long-standing diplomatic dealings with Gaddafi, knows the truth about the colonel and Libya. Will he, I wonder, have the courage to contradict Bush?
The president is said to be reluctant to appoint a new boss for the CIA until after the election, assuming that he is victorious on 2 November. There would need to be Senate confirmation hearings, which would doubtless go into excruciating detail about all the intelligence failures. But it might be in Bush's interests to push a new director through: although it would be a risky strategy for Bush-Cheney, it might serve to draw attention away from the administration and back to the CIA for all the pre-invasion misinformation.
It remains to be seen whether the CIA can survive the current upheavals, at least without facing fundamental changes after the presidential election - whether Bush or Kerry prevails. The so-called 9/11 commission will come out with another disturbing report in a few days' time, and I am told that it will recommend the establishment of a new office of director of national intelligence. He or she would have genuine oversight of all US intelligence and be a member of cabinet. Tenet has already privately advised against such an arrangement, saying that it would merely create yet another layer of bureaucracy in America's intelligence systems.
Meanwhile, the nonsense continues. We are told that al-Qaeda plans to disrupt the two party conventions, and that a terrorist attack like those of 11 September will strike America before 2 November. Plans to delay the election in such an eventuality, unsourced voices maintain, are already in place - though nobody, as far as I can see, has the authority to delay a presidential election. Such talk clearly maintains the state of fear that the administration is busy fomenting: and if Bush and Cheney keep promoting that self-image of noble protectors-against-terrorists, they could yet snatch a November victory from all the intelligence shambles.