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What Did He Know and When Did He Know It? | The Nation

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What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

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What did the President know and when did he know it?

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Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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The answer to that question forced the resignation of Richard Nixon as he was about to be impeached.

Now, with President Bush facing that same question, Congressional Republicans have circled the wagons to prevent a public hearing on whether intelligence was distorted by the White House to convince us of the need for war. Why? Because public hearings could lead to public demands for impeachment. Sound far-fetched? Not when you consider the gravity of the charge.

"To put it bluntly," former Nixon White House counsel John Dean wrote on the legal Web site FindLaw on June 6, "if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be 'a high crime' under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony 'to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.'"

Of course, intelligence data is often open to interpretation, and some political distortion is probably inevitable. Consider, however, just one of the recent revelations about how Iraq weapons intelligence was handled by the Bush Administration and you'll start to see a disturbing pattern of cynical mendacity.

Call it the "Case of the Phantom Uranium." It starts with a document, later exposed by United Nations inspectors as a crude forgery, that was sold by an African diplomat to Italian intelligence, which passed it to the British. It seemed to implicate Saddam Hussein in an attempt to buy uranium from Africa. This apparently proved too juicy a tidbit for the hawks in the Bush Administration to resist. They knew that the specter of Iraqi nukes--which UN inspectors would establish as baseless--would scare Americans much more than talk of mustard gas, and scaring Americans is this Administration's MO.

Thus in his 2003 State of the Union address, the President intoned that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa." Scary stuff. Problem was, the document was signed by an official who had given up his post a decade earlier, and the CIA had told the White House the story did not check out.

On Friday, the Knight Ridder newspaper chain reported that, according to a senior CIA official, on March 9, 2002, a full ten months before the speech, the White House was duly informed that an investigation, including an agent traveling to Africa to verify the story, had found no basis for the document. Three senior Administration officials told the Knight Ridder reporter that Vice President Dick Cheney and officials on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon ignored the CIA's reservations and argued that the allegation should be included in the case against Hussein.

This is just one example of the Administration's manipulation of intelligence in justifying a war that already has killed thousands of people and continues to take the lives of several Americans each week. It is exceedingly odd that the same Congressional Republicans who impeached Bill Clinton for dissembling in a sexual scandal find none of this worthy of a full public hearing. To pacify a growing number of critics, they have instead scheduled a secret and limited inquiry.

Perhaps the Republicans think they can stall until fragments of evidence of weapons of mass destruction are found, which would clear Bush's name. However, that won't do the trick. The President persistently claimed that the war was necessitated by the imminent threat of deployed weapons--"a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles," as the President put it, capable of dispersing a huge existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, including "missions targeting the United States."

Instead, almost three months after we invaded Iraq, the United States and Britain have yet to find anything of the sort.

"Frankly, we expected to find large warehouses full of chemical or biological weapons, or delivery systems," Army Col. John Connell, who heads the hunt for those AWOL weapons in Iraq, said in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. "At this point, we're getting fairly sure we're not going to find a full-up production facility. We're going to find little pieces."

We now know that the threat of deployed WMD was a blatant falsehood. What has not been established is whether the President was in on the lie. If he was, he should be impeached.

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