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The Emperor Has No Evidence

Call me naive. But I still am occasionally surprised that George W. Bush keeps getting away with his dog-ate-my-homework presidency. The latest example was his press conference a few days ago, his first since March.

The headlines focused on Bush accepting responsibility for the dubious sentence in his state of the union speech, in which he reported that Saddam Hussein (according to the Brits) had been shopping for uranium in Africa. But at the press conference, Bush said nothing about how that line had made it into his speech--whether it had been inserted because his aides were so eager to make a case for war that they were willing to exploit unconfirmed information the CIA had opposed using. Bush quickly shifted to hailing his decision to go to war against Hussein.

During the press conference, Bush several times uttered the most disingenuous statements to defend the war. These were remarks that cannot withstand scrutiny. But it's good to be king (or president). You don't get laughed out of the room--or a rose garden--no matter what you say. Here are three examples:

Question: Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to al Qaeda were a key part of your justification for war. Yet, your own intelligence report, the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate], defined it as--quote "low confidence that Saddam would give weapons to al Qaeda." Were those links exaggerated to justify war? Or can you finally offer us some definitive evidence that Saddam was working with al Qaeda terrorists?

Bush: Yes, I think, first of all, remember I just said we've been there for 90 days since the cessation of major military operations. Now, I know in our world where news comes and goes and there's this kind of instant--instant news and you must have done this, you must do that yesterday, that there's a level of frustration by some in the media. I'm not suggesting you're frustrated. You don't look frustrated to me at all. But it's going to take time for us to gather the evidence and analyze the mounds of evidence, literally, the miles of documents that we have uncovered.

Hold on. The question was not what new evidence Bush had to back up his previous allegations. The question was whether those earlier allegations had been supported by any evidence when Bush was using them to rally popular support for war. For months prior to the invasion, Bush repeatedly charged that Saddam Hussein was directly in cahoots with al Qaeda. That was supposedly why the Iraqi dictator could be considered a direct and imminent threat to the United States. In November 2002, Bush claimed that Hussein was "dealing with" al Qaeda. In February 2003, he said that Hussein was "harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior al Qaeda terrorist planner." Days before the invasion, Dick Cheney cited Hussein's "long-standing relationship" with al Qaeda.

What intelligence did Bush and Cheney have to make such alarming statements? That's the evidence the reporter was asking about. The indications so far are that Bush had bupkis. Richard Kerr, a former deputy CIA director who is leading an internal review of the CIA's prewar intelligence, said a few weeks ago that the agency prior to the war had uncovered no proof of operational ties between al Qaeda and Hussein's government. Representative Jane Harman, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence panel, which is conducting its own inquiry, has noted that the intelligence produced before the war contradicted Bush's claim of a relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda. And The Washington Post has reported that the October 2002 NIE maintained there was no intelligence showing a clear connection between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's outfit. (The White House has released eight pages of that 90-page report, but not--for some reason--the pages on this topic.)

Back to the original question: can you, Mr. President, offer any evidence to support those inflammatory assertions you made before the war? At the press conference, Bush did not respond directly. Instead, he offered a weasel-worded answer about the ongoing search for information in Iraq and the need to be patient. But he should already have evidence to cite because he already has made the charge. It was so Red Queenish ("sentence first--verdict afterward"), except Bush's philosophy is, allegation first--evidence afterward. Asked to prove he had not lied to the public before the war, Bush would--or could--not do so.

* * *

Question: There's a sense here in this country, and a feeling around the world, that the U.S. has lost credibility by building the case for Iraq upon sometimes flimsy or, some people have complained, nonexistent evidence. And I'm just wondering, sir, why did you choose to take the world to war in that way.

Bush: ....In order to placate the critics and the cynics about the intentions of the United States, we need to produce evidence. And I fully understand that. And I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam had a weapons program.

A weapons program? That's not what Bush before the war had said he believed that Saddam possessed. Back then, he referred to "massive" stockpiles of WMDs maintained by Hussein (who could at any moment slip one of his WMDs to his close friends in al Qaeda). A program is much different from an arsenal. A program might include research and development but not production. In fact, that increasingly seems to be what was going on in Iraq. A number of former officials of the Hussein government have claimed since the war that Hussein had ordered the continuation of a covert R&D effort but had not instructed his WMD teams to manufacture actual weapons. The goal apparently was to be ready to roll if UN sanctions were lifted or if Hussein found himself at war with a regional foe, say Iran. A weapons program under Hussein's control would have been worrisome, but not as immediately troubling as the existence of weapons that could be used or transferred. If the assertions of these Iraqis turn out to be true, that would suggest that the inspections-and-sanction campaign against Iraq had succeeded in constraining and containing Hussein.

In responding to this question, Bush was rewriting history--which he frequently accuses his critics of doing--and lowering the bar. It presumably will be far easier for the WMD hunters in Iraq to uncover evidence of weapons programs than of actual weapons. If they do locate proof of covert R&D projects, Bush, no doubt, will say, Told you so. But no, he did not. He said weapons. He said it over and over. What was the evidence stockpiles existed? Where is the evidence now?

* * *

Question: You often speak about the need for accountability in many areas. I wonder, then, why is Dr. Condoleeza Rice not being held accountable for the statement that your own White House has acknowledged was a mistake in your State of the Union address regarding Iraq's attempts to purchase uranium. And, also, do you take personal responsibility for that inaccuracy?

Bush: I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course. Absolutely, I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace. And I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence--good, solid, sound intelligence--that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Note Bush's claim that he personally analyzed a "thorough body of intelligence." Two points. First, on July 18, White House officials, during a background briefing for reporters, said that Bush did not entirely read the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. This report was the most substantial prewar assessment produced by the intelligence agencies. What sort of analysis did Bush conduct if he did not read all 90 pages of this report? Second, as Harman and Kerr have said, the intelligence reporting on Iraq's WMDs were full of caveats and qualifiers. (Two Defense Intelligence Agency reports produced in the fall of 2002 said that there was no "reliable" information on chemical weapons stockpiles in Iraq.) How did Bush's analysis take the ambiguities into account? If he had read through this "thorough body" loaded with qualifiers, how could he say--as he did on March 17, 2003--that "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." (My italics--but they could just as easily have been Bush's, but for different reasons.) Cosnidering what has emerged from the reviews under way and what has been leaked to the public, it seems clear there had been plenty of doubt. It is true that the NIE Bush didn't read all of did say that "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons." But it added, "We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs." And Kerr has said that, overall, intelligence analysts did underscore the uncertainty of their findings.

So Bush dodged a straightforward question about the evidence (or lack thereof) underlying his Hussein-and-al Qaeda assertions by discussing the search for new evidence, he engaged in transparent revisionism (referring to weapons programs rather than weapons stockpiles), and he claimed to have conducted an extensive review of intelligence, though his aides say he did not fully read the major document on matter. All in one press conference. That was quite a performance--above and beyond the normal call of spin. To top it off, he declared that he takes responsibility for everything he says, "of course." How nice. He may take responsibility. But he is not held accountable.

______Watch for David Corn's forthcoming The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception, due out from Crown Publishers this September.

Taking Back the Tax Debate

Maybe it's the summer heat, but I thought I was hallucinating when I picked up Monday's Washington Post and read the headline, "Democrats Not Shying Away from Tax Talk."

It seems like common sense to me, but for decades Dems have shied away from the T-issue for fear of being called soft on tax increases. But it turns out that Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has recent numbers suggesting that taxes can be a good issue for Democrats.

While voters still are likely to believe that Republicans have a more favorable position on taxes generally, they support Democratic efforts to close corporate loopholes and to make the tax system fairer.

If the issue is fairness, Democrats should have a field day. Take July 24, when the Republican's chief tax man, Representative Bill Thomas, introduced a budget-busting tax break for corporations. (It would reduce the top rate from 35 percent to 32 percent--and add a whopping $120 billion to the deficit over the next ten years.) Compare this to the Republicans' refusal to expand the child tax credit for low income families--a step whose ten-year cost of $3.5 billion seems paltry compared to the tax breaks being doled out to the super-rich.

In a recent survey, a majority of Americans (57 percent) say they want to move in "a significantly different direction" on the economy. What puzzles me is that Democratic stimulus programs, with few exceptions, have been uniformly tepid--focused more on targeted tax cuts than on necessary public spending.

What about the evidence that shows that voters see a more direct connection between government spending on streets, highways, bridges and school construction and the creation of jobs than the connection between tax cuts and job creation. As Jeff Madrick pointed out in a recent column in the New York Times business section, these are times that cry out for bold proposals from the Democrats. A bold--and sensible--new economic program, according to Madrick, would reject individual tax cuts and stress government spending that creates jobs.

A new program could include "adequate transfer of money to the states--as much as $100 billion. It could also include seriously financing the president's new education bill, which has been neglected...and innovative investment in transportation infrastructure." Given the dire state of the economy, what the nation needs is a jobs program. It might even be a winning ticket.

Parenting in 2003

On the eve of the Clinton Impeachment hearings in 1998, The Sexuality Information and Education Council (SIECUS) sent out "Ten Tips for Talking about the Starr Report with Your Children."

"The upcoming impeachment hearing," SIECUS president Debra Haffner advised, "provides parents with a special opportunity to talk to their children about sexuality issues...The question parents need to ask is 'Who do I want to tell my children about this sad situation?' Another child on the playground? An acquaintance on the school bus? They are unlikely to tell your children the facts in a clear way. And only YOU can give YOUR children YOUR values."

It's now 2003 and if the events of these last weeks don't provide parents with that special opportunity to talk to their children about the president and values like truth, lies and consequences, then I don't know what does.

So, with all due credit to SIECUS, here are Tips for Talking about President Bush with Your Children:

*1) Think about your values as they relate to this situation. What are your family's values about telling the truth? What would you do if your child lied to you and when you scolded him or her, s/he replied: "I am not a fact-checker." Or added, "Isn't it time to move on?"

*2) Ask your children to tell you what words mean to them. Explain that words have consequences and lies can come in two, six or sixteen words.

*3) Clarify facts. Give short, age-appropriate answers. Explain that shifting strategies at damage control only lead to more unanswered questions. Make clear that even if facts are malleable for President Bush, they're not malleable in your home. Explain that even though the White House strategy may be to say whatever is necessary, even if they have to admit later that what they said the first time wasn't exactly true, you don't do it that way yourself.

*4) Use these talks with your child to encourage good decision-making. Let them know that if they grow up to become president and lead a nation into war, the right thing to do is take responsibility for their words and acts. (This is a good opportunity to explain what the saying, "The buck stops here" means.)

*5) Use television news as a springboard for discussion. However, do not let children younger than thirteen watch this coverage alone. It can be ugly and disturbing for children to watch the President and his aides scapegoat their subordinates with so little compunction.

*6) Help your children understand the larger issues. Let them know that it's not just about sixteen words. You could explain that there appears to be a pattern of dishonesty well beyond the uranium scandal that is extremely worrisome. Explain that the American people are entitled to the truth and they have a right to know if President Bush, Vice President Cheney or any White House officials misrepresented the facts to justify war.

*7) Keep the lines of communication open. Talk. Remember that this is not a one-time or a one-way discussion. Your children need your ongoing support in dealing with their President's tenuous relationship to the truth. Unfortunately, this sad situation is currently a fixed element of the political landscape they are growing up in.

A version of this weblog was published on the op-ed page of yesterday's Boston Globe.

The Diplomat Who Resigned in Protest

Remember diplomat John Brady Kiesling's powerful resignation statement last February?

Kiesling, who was serving as political counselor at the US Embassy in Athens, played a noteworthy role in strengthening opposition to war against Iraq. His resignation letter to his boss Colin Powell, a searing indictment of Bush Administration policies, was published by the New York Times, and pasted into e-mails that flew around the US foreign policy establishment, the US press and the world.

A twenty-year veteran of the US Foreign Service, Kiesling is a charter member of the Coalition of the Rational, an embryonic idea to bring a broad, transpartisan group of concerned citizens together to mobilize Americans in informed opposition to the Bush Administration's undermining of US security in our name. (Click here for more on the Coalition.)

And read last week's riveting Washington Post portrait of Kiesling by veteran investigative reporter Bob Thompson in the newspaper's (undervalued) Sunday magazine for more on how and why the extremism of the Bush foreign-policy agenda drove Kiesling out of government. Kiesling also offers valuable insights into the current postwar disaster.

The chaos of postwar Iraq, Kiesling argues, was easily predictable, and there's no guarantee that what comes out of it will serve US interests. As Thompson writes, "the idea that the war will produce American-style democracy in the Middle East seems to him [Kiesling] the equivalent of dynamite fishing: You toss explosives in a pond and hope the right thing floats to the surface. As for Iraqi's elusive weapons of mass destruction, Kiesling says, even if they are found, it's now clear that the intelligence on which we based our attack was worthless. This is no small problem."

'If you're going to talk about preemption or preventive war,' Kiesling explains, 'you have to have some standard, some threshold of action.' If preemptors don't care about that, the precedent is 'terrifying.'"

Who's 'Dangerously Irresponsible'?

Calling them "dangerously irresponsible," US District Judge Robert Blackburn last week sentenced three nuns to prison for up to three years for swinging a hammer at a Minuteman III nuclear missile silo and smearing their blood on it in the form of a cross. Prosecutors said the nuns, all close colleagues of the late peace activist Philip Berrigan, showed a blatant disregard for the law. The nuns argued that the Minuteman is a first-strike weapon prohibited by international law. Peace activists believe the felony convictions are unduly harsh and intended to have a chilling effect on other protestors.

Meanwhile, a few days before the nuns--members of the Sacred Earth Network, a national nuclear disarmament group--were sentenced, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham defended the Bush Administration's growing nuclear weapons programs in the Washington Post. Abraham cloaked the White House's decision to build new nuclear weapons in a haze of euphemism, alternately referring to these unprecedented new killing machines as "new challenges," "low-yield weapons," "advanced concepts" and "weapons concepts."

Nevertheless, even through the haze, it is clear that by reviving the nuclear arms race at home, the Administration's policy shift will dangerously undermine efforts to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

This is one more issue that, despite rational opposition across the political spectrum, the White House seems determined to ram down the country's throat. The American public is opposed to building new nuclear weapons. The military didn't even ask for them. Even, Rep. David L. Hobson,the Republican Chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water expressed concern that the Bush Administration is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars to build new nuclear weapons before there is even a need for them.

So, three Roman Catholic nuns, who want to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction, will report to prison for multi-year sentences on August 25th. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is scrambling to launch a new global nuclear arms race. Who's "dangerously irresponsible"?

Fried Rice?

Sunday's front page Washington Post story about National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is such a powerful indictment of her role in the runup to the Iraq war that for the sake of her country's credibility Rice should immediately resign.

The article by Mike Allen and Dana Milbank (a master exposer of Bush Administration lies) makes clear that Rice is either incompetent or a liar. Listen to Rep. Henry Waxman:

"If the national security adviser didn't understand the repeated State Department and CIA warnings about the uranium allegation, that's a frightening level of incompetence....It's even more serious if she knew and ignored the intelligence warnings and has deliberately misled our nation...In any case, it's hard to see why the President or the public will have confidence in her office."

Even sources described as "generally sympathetic" to Rice question her many shifting and contradictory statements regarding Iraq's alleged uranium purchase and the WMD (non)threat. Several former officials scoffed at the idea that Rice didn't have time to review the National Intelligence Estimate about an enemy on the eve of war. "It's implausible that the national security adviser would be too busy to pay attention to something that's going to come out of the President's mouth," said a former NSC official.

Each time the buck passes, another level of incompetence--or deceit--is exposed. It's a no-brainer that Rice should resign. But that's not enough. So far, President Bush, the man ultimately responsible for taking the nation to war, has refused to take responsibility for his words. The American people deserve the truth. We have a right to know if Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or other White House officials manipulated intelligence to justify taking America to war. That's why we desperately need an independent commission to determine the veracity of other potentially suspect evidence used to convince Americans (and the world) that Iraq posed an imminent threat to our nation.

How you can help:

Click here for contact info for your elected reps. Please ask them to support H.R. 2625, legislation authored by Rep. Waxman to create an independent commission. You can also sign Move.On.org's nationwide petition by clicking here.

Oppose Karen Tandy's Nomination

The Bush Administration has quietly nominated another hard-liner with a questionable past to a high level position in Washington: veteran Justice Department official Karen Tandy, the likely new chief of the Drug Enforcement Agency, who recently made headlines by conducting an aggressive series of federal raids against medical marijuana users in states where the practice has been legalized.

A recent investigation by The Nation's Jason Vest found Tandy's career to be rife with examples of prosecutorial zealotry. She began her career in the 1980s as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, in an office described at the time by US District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr., as "absolutely the worst" he had seen. Tandy was the cause of much of the dissatisfaction directed at the office.

In a 1984 case against alleged marijuana traffickers, she read sealed documents protected by attorney-client privilege; in 1994 she ordered the seizure of the property of North Carolina businessman John Wheeler to force him to testify against others despite a lack of any evidence against him. In both cases, she was strongly rebuked by a federal judge for her conduct.

On July 10, Tandy breezed through her confirmation hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee, with only Senator Richard Durbin going on record to oppose her nomination.

But it's not too late to raise questions before a vote to confirm her. Click here to let your Senator know that you're concerned about Karen Tandy's record and that you oppose her nomination as Administrator of the DEA.

David Broder's Tipping Point

You know this is a tipping point moment when veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder, a barometer of conventional wisdom, writes that "the shadow of defeat" is crossing President Bush's "political horizon."

In a recent column Broder--the dean of American political punditry--offered a bleak picture of Bush's reelection chances. Why does this matter? Well, as Eric Alterman points out in his smart and timely book, "What Liberal Media," Broder is "revered by elite journalists for his alleged ability...to speak to what is understood to be the common sense 'middle ground' of American politics."

So, Beltway insiders take notice when Broder pontificates--in this case, he lays out the grim ramifications of AWOL WMDs, mounting casualties in a guerrilla war, and a rotten economy on Bush's reelection chances.

Could this signal that Bush's free ride is over? Let's hope that what one beltway reporter said of Broder still holds true: "There are those the rest of us seek out for guidance...This is particularly true in political journalism where one person stands out--David Broder."

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Boondocks Fantasy

Everyday brings news of the collateral damage inflicted on our democracy and economy by this Administration's war without end. We're no longer on the threshold of building a permanent war economy, which will distort America's priorities at home and abroad--we've crossed the rubicon.

And this week we learn that the US military--with a budget larger than the next fifteen nations combined--may not have enough troops to meet the US's expanding global commitments. Shouldn't that soldier from the Third Infantry, who called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, be honored instead of silenced?

If you fantasize, as I do, about what a sane and decent government, with humane priorities, could do for its citizens, check out a recent episode of Aaron McGruder's Boondocks strip:

Huey listens intently to a TV announcer:

"And in other news, President Bush announced sweeping changes in his administration's domestic policy today. Starting with quadrupling the amount of money spent on education and teacher pay raises...The additional money will come from a massive slashing of the defense budget combined with a complete elimination of corporate welfare programs. Following the changes to education, the President said he would break up media monopolies, guarantee health care to all citizens, and take critical steps to rescue the environment. 'These tasks are critically important to our future as Americans," said President Bush. "And I promise to get started immediately....." As Huey walks away from the TV in shock, Bush continues, "...Just as soon as the war on terror is brought to a triumphant conclusion.""Sigh," groans Huey.

If you're a Boondocks fan, like I am, watch for McGruder's forthcoming book, "The Right to be Hostile," with an introduction by Michael Moore.

The Other Jessica Lynch Story

Despite a boost from the killing of Saddam's two sons, George W looks increasingly vulnerable. As US deaths in Iraq mount, no weapons of mass destruction are found, the costs of unilateral occupation skyrocket, the stonewalling on the Africa uranium issue continues, and the June unemployment rate jumps to a nine-year high, Bush appears to be at an all-time low. Look at the latest Zogby poll, which shows Bush's approval at only 53 percent.

And if you want to know just how vulnerable Bush is, leave the beltway, turn off the talking heads, and listen to what people in Jessica Lynch's hometown had to say on the eve of Lynch's grand homecoming, in a segment on the Newshour with Brian Williams.

Helen Burns, restaurant manager in Palestine, West Virginia: "It's sad. I mean it's just almost sickening to--to think that our--our people is getting killed over there for nothing, as far as I'm concerned."

Thorn Roberts, a businessman: "Where is the light at the end of the tunnel in this situation? Remember, LBJ's remark about the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam. I sort of see the same about this."

Eva Clegg, retired state employee: "Now that they're coming out with things that they didn't have those nuclear weapons and all that, you just wonder if it's worth all that our boys are going through."

Emzy Ashby, businessman: "They keep hollering it's over with, but it will never be over with."

The Administration (and much of the media) sold a story spun to embellish Jessica Lynch's heroism. Selling postwar reality is proving to be a lot tougher. Listen to Lynch's neighbors.