Events do rush by us in a blur, I know, but let's not abandon Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5 speech to the United Nations in the graveyard of history without one last backward glance. It was, after all, billed by the president as a conclusive intelligence briefing on exactly how Saddam Hussein has been concealing his weapons of mass destruction and how he's hand-in-glove with Al Qaeda.

Now, when the commander-in-chief states publicly that his secretary of state will deliver the goods, we can be safe in assuming that he's been assured that yes, the U.S. intelligence "community" has indeed got the goods. But barely more than a week after Powell's speech it now looks as though its major claims were at best speculative, and at worst outright distortions, some of them derided in advance by U.N. Chief Inspector Hans Blix.

There was the supposed transporter of biotoxins that turned out to be a truck from the Baghdad health department; the sinisterly enlarged test ramp for long-distance missiles that was nothing of the sort; the suspect facility that had recently been cleared by the U.N. inspection teams; the strange eavesdropped conversations that could as well have been Iraqi officers discussing how to hide stills for making bootleg whiskey. The promoter of the Iraq/Al Qaeda link, Abu Musab Zarqawi, turns out to be an imaginative liar trying to get a prison sentence commuted, and the terror cell, Ansar-al Islam, a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists violently opposed to Saddam and operating out of Kurdish territory.

And, of course, there was the British intelligence report, sent by Tony Blair to Powell, who commended it in his U.N. speech as particularly "fine." The report turned out to be a series of plagiarisms from old articles from Jane's Information Group and from a paper on Iraqi politics written by a student called Ibrahim al Marashi, at the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

The Marashi plagiarism represents an interesting parable on how "intelligence" reports actually get put together to fulfill a political agenda. From some enterprising work by freelance reporter Kenneth Raposa, who worked on the Iraq Dossier story for the Boston Globe, it emerges that Marashi himself comes from a Shi'a family in Baltimore, Md. He's never visited Iraq and is keen to see Saddam toppled by U.S. invasion.

Marashi's essay was published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs in September 2002, a scholarly magazine run by the GLORIA Center (acronym for Global Research in International Affairs Center) in Herzliya, Israel. Its director is Barry Rubin, who's also a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- an Israel policy think tank. Rubin is part of the coterie -- which includes Daniel Pipes, Michael Ledeen and the arch conspirator Richard Perle -- who have been pressing for a U.S. attack on Iraq.

Marashi told Raposa that the documents on which he had based his paper had been given to him by Kenan Makiya, a well-known Iraqi exile and proponent of invasion, much favored by Powell's own State Department. Makiya claims to have some 4,000,000 pages of documents seized from northern Iraq after Operation Desert Storm.

So here we have a politically inspired document, spliced together by a Shi'a student, published by an Israeli-based think tank hot for war, swiped off the Web by Blair's harried minions and served up to Powell as a masterpiece of British intelligence collection from MI6.

Quite aside from the welcome damage done to Powell's credibility and to the war party in general, the Marashi saga vividly reminds us of just how much rubbish has been served up to the American people in the guise of reliable "intelligence." Remember how back amidst the build-up to the last Iraqi war, the Pentagon invoked satellite photos of 265,000 Iraqi troops massed to invade Saudi Arabia.

Jean Heller, a journalist from the St. Petersburg Times in Florida persuaded her newspaper to buy two photos at $1,600 each from the Russian commercial satellite, the Soyuz Karta. No troops showed up on the photos. "You could see the planes sitting wing tip to wing tip in Riyadh Airport," Ms. Heller says, "but there wasn't any sign of a quarter of a million Iraqi troops sitting in the middle of the desert."

The ridicule now being showered on Powell's Iraq Dossier won't slow up the production of these ridiculous documents or hinder the endless flourishing of supposedly conclusive satellite photography or communications intercepts. If war does come, we can be sure there will be repetitions of the "misinterpretations" and "tragic errors" of the 1991 onslaught.

When my brother Patrick drove from Amman to Baghdad back at the end of the 1991 onslaught, he passed the hulks of oil tankers bombed to bits under the claim they were mobile SCUD launchers. The single biggest atrocity of that war was the U.S. bombing of the Almartya shelter in Baghdad. The Pentagon claimed it was a top secret military command center. It wasn't. Absent its intended occupants, university professors and technocrats, ordinary Iraqi mothers and children had taken shelter there. Just another intelligence screw-up, with several hundred dead mothers and kids as the price.

And yes, we are in the wake of the greatest intelligence failure in American history, for which not one intelligence head rolled. Instead they gave the CIA even more money, and yes, its grateful chief, George Tenet, sitting beside Powell in the U.N. Security Council. He should have been too ashamed to show his face in public.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.