When no one could find any weapons of mass destruction, it raised the possibility that we might have gone to war in Iraq by mistake. The people responsible for making the call blamed it on bad intelligence.
They were being literal. No one seemed to notice the irony in the words themselves.
But for filmmaking bothers Joel and Ethan Coen, irony makes the world go around. They tried to camouflage the irony by painting it black and drenching it in blood in their Oscar bonanza, "No Country for Old Men," but they're back to their old smart-aleck - and brilliant - ways in this week's box-office winner, "Burn After Reading."
It doesn't hurt to have stars like George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons and especially Brad Pitt vying to see who can deliver the Coens' devastating one-liners with the straightest face.
This quietly hilarious CIA sendup is such a shaggy dog story, there's almost no dog. The action begins and ends at the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters, but the bad intelligence is too vast to be contained in those hallowed walls and echoey corridors.
It afflicts everyone in this ridiculous tale of a couple of fitness trainers (McDormand and Pitt) at the Hardbodies Spa who accidentally come upon the memoir of disgruntled ex-agent Malkovich and think they can blackmail him with it.
Characters who think they're smarter than they really are are another trademark of Coen brothers comedies. There's another word for people like that ? oh, right, stupid ? but that's a dangerous term to be throwing around lightly this political season.
One of the running jokes in "Burn After Reading" is that as the hare-brained extortion plot keeps escalating, it keeps getting harder to figure out what's going on. By the time the Russian embassy gets involved, it makes no sense whatsoever. J.K. Simmons plays the one character who at least admits his ignorance on the subject - but considering that he's the top man at the CIA, that's hardly reassuring.
"What the (bleep)?" is the question that keeps getting asked by one character after another for all sorts of different reasons. That line pretty well sums up the story, but it's already been used as a film title.
The script's brilliant assortment of pitch-perfect throwaway lines gives these talented actors the chance to riff. There's paranoid sex addict Clooney, whose partners include McDormand, intent on "reinventing herself," and Swinton as a pediatrician who hates kids.
Then there's Malkovich as Swinton's husband, a dictionary definition of "supercilious twit." And finally gum-chomping, pompadoured Pitt, stealing the airhead label from the opposite sex and stealing every scene he's in from his stellar collaborators.
While the satire takes aim on Beltway culture, the target is actually far broader. Venom drips from every marriage portrayed onscreen (raising the interesting point that "Fargo" Oscar-winner McDormand is, in real life, the longtime wife of Joel Coen.)
The most unnoticed details of modern life are fodder for the Coens' barbs. There's nothing wasted in the script, from McDormand's exasperated repetition of the word "a-gent" to an automated phone system, to a Russian official's question, when handed an allegedly top-secret CD, "PC or Mac?"
While the plot is ostensibly about the spy business, the allegory is about how dangerous "smart" technology can be when it falls into the hands of dumb people.
That's a lesson not limited to Washington. As illustrated by the Google Map-style opening and closing shots, what was once state-of-the-art spy surveillance is now available on your iPhone.
It's instructive to remember that the "great experiment" of America was created by men - men only- in white whigs and knee britches for whom the latest technology was probably a new buggy harness or monkey-teeth dentures.
They were gambling that the residents of the new republic would take the responsibility to be informed citizens seriously. In all their wisdom, what they couldn't have foreseen were the advances of technology over the next 232 years.
Creating our modern instruments and networks of communication would have struck them as wonders - until they saw the ways those networks were put to work not to inform but to distract.
The evolution of information into entertainment is disturbing enough. But if they could have seen the way smart technology could make people dumber -making some voters think, for example, that it's not bad intelligence, but intelligence itself that's bad - they might have wondered if democracy was really such a good idea after all.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.