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The Spin is Not Holding | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

The Spin is Not Holding

The spin is not holding. Facing two controversies--the Wilson leak (click here if you have somehow managed to miss this story) and the still-MIA WMDs--the White House has been tossing out explanations and rhetoric that cannot withstand scrutiny.

Let's start with the Wilson leak. In the issue coming out October 6, Newsweek will be reporting that after Bob Novak published a July 14 column containing the leak attributed to "senior adminsitration officials" that identified former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA operative, White House officials were touting the Novak story, according to NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell. Apparently, these officials were encouraging reporters to recycle or pursue the story about Wilson's wife. The newsmagazine also notes that, according to a source close to Wilson, shortly after the leak occurred Bush's senior aide Karl Rove told Hardball host Chris Matthews that Wilson's wife was "fair game." Matthews told Newsweek that he would not discuss off-the-record conversations. (He told me the same weeks ago when I made a similar inquiry about this chat with Rove.) An anonymous source described as familiar with the exchange--presumably Rove or someone designated to speak for him--maintained that Rove had only said to Matthews it was reasonable to discuss whether Wilson's wife had been involved in his mission to Niger. (In February 2002, Wilson had been asked by the CIA to visit Niger to check out allegations Iraq had been shopping for uranium there; he did so and reported back that the charge was probably untrue. In July, he publicly challenged the White House's use of this claim and earned the administration's wrath.)

These disclosures do not reveal who were the original leakers. (The Justice Department, at the CIA's request, started out investigating the White House; it has widened its probe to include the State Department and the Defense Department.) But these new details are significant and undercut the White House line on the leak. At a White House press briefing, Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, repeatedly said that Bush and his White House took no action after the Novak column was published on July 14 because the leak was attributed only to anonymous sources. "Are we supposed to chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper?" McClellan remarked.

He was arguing that a serious leak attributed to anonymous sources was still not serious enough to cause the president to ask, what the hell happened? And he made it seem as if the White House just ignored the matter. Not so. Mitchell's remark and even the Rove-friendly account of the Rove-Matthews conversation are evidence the White House tried to further the Plame story--that is, to exploit the leak for political gain. Rather than respond by trying to determine the source of a leak that possibly violated federal law and perhaps undermined national security ( The Washington Post reported that the leak also blew the cover of a CIA front company, "potentially expanding the damage caused by the original disclosure"), White House officials sought to take advantage of it. Spin that, McClellan.

Newsweek is also disclosing that a National Security Council staffer previously worked with Valerie Wilson (nee Plame) and was aware of her position at the CIA because he or she had worked closely with Wilson's wife at the Agency's counterproliferation division. McClellan has indicated in his press briefings that the White House did not--and has not--acted to ascertain the source of the leak. But shouldn't Bush or chief of staff Andrew Card (if Card is not one of the leakers) have asked this person whether he or she mentioned Valerie Wilson's occupation to anyone in the White House? (I believe I know the name of this person but since he or she may be working under cover I am not at this point going to publish it.)

McClellan has had a tough time providing straight answers. At the October 1 press briefing, he was asked what Bush did after the leak first appeared. He replied by saying that "some news reports" have noted that Valerie Wilson's CIA connection "may have been well-known within the DC community." That hardly seems so. Her neighbors did not know, and Wilson maintains their close friends did not know. No reporter that I have talked to--and I've spoken to many covering this story--had heard that.

During that briefing, reporters wondered if Bush approved of the Republican campaign to depict Wilson as a partisan zealot lacking credibility. McClellan sidestepped: "The President is focused on getting to the bottom of this." The next day, he was once more asked whether it was appropriate for Republicans to be attacking Wilson. "I answered that question yesterday," he said. One problem: he hadn't. He also maintained that Bush "has been the one speaking out front on this." Not quite. For over two months, Bush had said nothing about the leak. And on this day, Bush met with reporters for African news organizations and joked about the anti-Wilson leak. When asked what he thought about the detention in Kenya of three journalists who had refused to reveal sources, he said, "I'm against leaks." This prompted laughter, and Bush went on: "I would suggest all governments get to the bottom of every leak of classified information." Addressing the reporter who had asked the question, Bush echoed the phrase that McClellan had frequently used in his press briefings and quipped, "By the way, if you know anything, Martin, would you please bring it forward and help solve the problem?"

Perhaps Bush needed a good chuckle after reading--or being briefed on--the testimony that chief weapons hunter David Kay was presenting that day to Congress. In an interim report, Kay had noted that his Iraq Survey Group had found evidence of "WMD-related program activities," but no stocks of unconventional weapons. Kay also had an interesting observation about the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs: "Our understanding of the status of Iraq's WMD program was always bounded by large uncertainties and had to be heavily caveated."

Wait a minute. That was not what Bush and his compadres had said prior to the war. Flash back to Bush's get-out-of-town speech on March 17, two days before he launched the war. He maintained, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal" weapons of mass destruction. Yet Kay was saying there had been "large uncertainties" in the intelligence. How does that square with Bush's no-doubt claim? It doesn't.

Kay's testimony is more proof that Bush misrepresented the intelligence. Regular readers of this column will know that Kay's remark were preceded by similar statements from the House intelligence committee and former deputy CIA director, Richard Kerr, who has been reviewing the prewar intelligence. Both the committee (led by Representative Porter Goss, a Republican and former CIA officer) and Kerr have concluded the intelligence of Iraq's WMDs was based on circumstantial and inferential material and contained many uncertainties.

Prior to the invasion, administration officials consistently declared there was no question Iraq had these weapons. On December 5, 2002, for instance, Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, said, "the president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it." But what had been that "solid_basis"? Intelligence "bounded by large uncertainties"?

Look at what Kay said about Iraq's nuclear weapons program:

"With regard to Iraq's nuclear program, the testimony we have obtained from Iraqi scientists and senior government officials should clear up any doubts about whether Saddam still wanted to obtain nuclear weapons. They have told [the Iraq Survey Group] that Saddam Husayn remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons. These officials assert that Saddam would have resumed nuclear weapons development at some future point….

"Despite evidence of Saddam's continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material….

"Saddam, at least as judged by those scientists and other insiders who worked in his military-industrial programs, had not given up his aspirations and intentions to continue to acquire weapons of mass destruction."

Compare this assessment to what Bush and Dick Cheney had said before the war. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush declared that Hussein was a threat because he had "an advanced nuclear weapons development program" in the 1990s. (Bush had failed to mention that the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported in 1998 that it had demolished this "advanced" program.) And Cheney on March 16 said, "we believe [Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." His aides later said Cheney had meant to say "nuclear weapons programs."

But, according to Kay, the evidence so far collected indicates only that Hussein maintained a desire to acquire nuclear weapons and had not developed a program to satisfy that yearning. Kay later added that it would have taken Iraq five to seven years to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. So what was the evidence for Bush's and Cheney's assertions that the program was already revved up? By the way, Kay says his team has found "no conclusive proof" Hussein tried to acquire uranium in Niger. In fact, he reported that one cooperating Iraqi scientist revealed to the ISG that another African nation had made an unsolicited offer to sell Iraq uranium but there is no indication Iraq accepted the offer.

Kay also reported, "Our efforts to collect and exploit intelligence on Iraq's chemical weapons program have thus far yielded little reliable information on post-1991 CW stocks and CW agent production, although we continue to receive and follow leads related to such stocks." But before the war, the Bush administration had said flat-out that Iraq possessed chemical weapons. Did it neglect to pass along to Kay the information upon which it based this claim? (Actually, the Defense Intelligence Agency in September 2002 concluded there was no "reliable information" on whether Iraq had produced or stockpiled chemical weapons, but that did not stop Bush and his aides from stating otherwise.)

How did Bush respond to Kay's interim findings? He proclaimed they proved that he had been correct all along. The "interim report," Bush remarked, "said that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program spanned more than two decades. That's what [Kay] said....He's saying Saddam Hussein was a threat, a serious danger."

Reality check: Bush had said that the main reason to go to war was because Hussein possessed "massive" stockpiles of unconventional weapons and at any moment could hand them off to al Qaeda (with whom Bush claimed Hussein was "dealing"--even though the evidence on that point was and continues to be, at best, sketchy). Now Bush is asserting that Hussein was a threat that could only be countered with invasion and occupations because he had weapons research programs that indeed violated United Nations resolutions but that had not produced any weapons. That's a much different argument. Bush, Cheney, McClellan, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and others continue to deny they overstated (or misrepresented) the case for war. But the evidence is incontrovertible, and it keeps on piling up.

So all they have is spin. Bush changes the terms. McClellan, Rumsfeld, Rice insist that before the war everybody knew that Iraq had WMDs. Everybody, that is, except the folks putting together the intelligence assessments chockfull of uncertainties. When it comes to the Wilson affair, the White House ducks and covers, claiming it had no reason to react to the original anonymous-source leak, even though its officials (at the least) considered the leak solid enough to talk up to other reporters. And instead of confronting the ugly (and perhaps criminal) implications of the leak, the White House's allies in Washington lash out at Wilson, in a vicious blame-the-victim offensive, while Mister Change-the-Tone has nothing to say publicly about this. What if Wilson is a Democratic partisan? That does not excuse what was done to his wife.

Leaking and lying--these are not actions easy to explain away. Drip, drip, drip--that's the sound often associated with Washington scandals. But now it may also be the sound of the truth catching up to the propagandists and perps of the Bush White House.

JUST RELEASED AND AN AMAZON.COM BESTSELLER: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

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