Bob Tippee

In the matter of smoking guns, great wariness is in order. The hunt for them, including one having to do with oil, makes US politics goofy.

Opponents of the Bush administration think they sense a smoking gun that will prove the president lied about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to induce war in Iraq.

They probably won't find one. They'll find mistakes, propaganda, in-fighting, suspicious-looking e-mail messages, and other evidence of the human imperfection and intrigue that go with any organization of people, especially people with power. They'll find competitive interpretations of intelligence, which occur all the time.

But it's very doubtful they'll find persuasive evidence that anyone in power flat-out lied about WMDs to legitimize the invasion of Iraq.

A simple question explains why this is so: Why would anyone lie about the existence of something in a place he or she wanted to invade, knowing that success of the ruse and consequent invasion would surely uncover the lie? The lie hypothesis makes no sense.

The Iraqi experience raises many difficult questions, large among them the quality of intelligence and planning for operations after the invasion. It's a shame that a misguided search for a smoking gun about a most improbable lie deflects attention from serious issues.

The oil industry's smoking gun is the deep American suspicion that the oil and gas industry routinely sets the price of oil and used Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as cover for a systematic gouge of fuel consumers.

The hunt for this smoking gun drives the recrimination now spewing out of Washington, DC, toward the industry. It's what motivates pointless inquisitions and destructive proposals for punitive taxation.

Like the WMD smoking gun, this one crumbles under a simple question: If the industry really can set the price of oil, why did it not exercise the ability during the nearly two decades in which the profitability of oil and gas companies barely covered the cost of capital?

The most interesting thing about smoking guns is how people frantically looking for them ignore questions with potential to call off the hunt.

(Online Nov. 18, 2005; author's e-mail:

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