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Powell Retreats on Iraq-al Qaeda Link

What's wrong with the Democrats in Washington? Why has presidential candidate Howard Dean, who was an establishment sort of Democrat as governor of Vermont, been able to tap into widespread disappointment and anger among grassroots Democrats who are frustrated with what Dean calls "those Washington Democrats"?

Here is a small but telling explanation. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell held a wide-ranging press conference, his first in months. During this session, he was asked about a report produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that concluded there was no evidence of a prewar connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda and no evidence that Hussein had been likely to transfer weapons of mass destruction to Osama bin Laden's network. Powell replied, "There is not--you know, I have not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the connection, but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did."

No concrete evidence? The possibility of such connections? That is not how Bush depicted the supposed link between Iraq's dictator and America's number-one foe. In a press conference in November 2002, he declared that Hussein was "dealing with" al Qaeda. And during his high-profile May 1, 2003, speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln--remember the flight suit, the "Mission Accomplished" banner?--Bush said that Hussein was an "ally" of al Qaeda.

So what did those statements mean if there was no solid evidence tying Hussein to al Qaeda? Prior to the war, Bush had argued that invasion of Iraq was necessary because (1) Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and (2) Hussein maintained an operational alliance with al Qaeda. He claimed that Hussein could at any moment slip WMDs to bin Laden. Consequently, Bush's assertions about the relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda was an essential part of his case for war. Last February, Powell told the United Nations Security Council that there was a "sinister nexus" between Iraq and al Qaeda. Now he was saying his warning of an alliance between Hussein and al Qaeda was based on "prudent" concern, not actual facts. That is not how Bush presented the matter to the American public. Powell's press conference comment offered more--and glaring--evidence of the gap between reality and Bush's rhetoric and was yet another indication Bush (and Powell) had misled the nation on the way to war.

What does this have to do with Dean and the Democrats? As for the latter, apparently not much. After the media reported Powell comments, there was--as far as I could tell--no response from the "Washington Democrats." (Powell's comments about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection--or lack thereof--was reported by the New York Times, but The Washington Post's piece on the press conference did not note this exchange.) A day later, the anti-Bush news focused on the revelations contained in Ron Suskind's new book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill (Bush was disengaged in Cabinet meetings but hell-bent on attacking Iraq from the first days of his presidency). Democratic Party chairman Terry McAullife pounced on these gotcha disclosures, and other Democratic-leaning pundits used O'Neill's much-publicized observations as a club to bash Bush as an out-of-touch president.

But Powell's admission--perhaps more serious--received much less attention and provoked no ire among official Democrats in the capital. Why was that? After all, he was essentially confirming one of the most serious charges leveled against Bush: that he had hornswoggled the nation into war.

In search of an explanation, I called a senior aide to the Democratic leadership in the Senate. Why, I asked, hadn't Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, said anything? Why not Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee? Didn't the Dems know that this story would quickly fade unless a high-profile Democrat made an issue of it? Wasn't it worth asking the foreign relations committee to hold a hearing on the matter?

"This is a sad answer," this staffer replied. "The members aren't here right now, so they are not that focused."

Sad indeed. Such events are not always conveniently timed. Can you imagine, I countered, how the Republicans--say Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich--would have responded had Madeleine Albright, when she was Bill Clinton's secretary of state, had let slip that Clinton had misled the public on a serious national security issue. These guys could have been off on a junket to the Himalayas and they still would have managed to find a television camera with a satellite feed in order to blast Clinton's mendacity. In doing so, they would have been expressing the will of their political base--that is, serving their people.

The "Washington Democrats" gave Powell and Bush a pass on what is the most important topic for a large bloc of their party faithful. No wonder hundreds of thousands of Democrats (new and old) have turned toward Dean. Whatever his liabilities and past positions, he has been representing them--and their concerns and outrage--better than many of the Democrats sent to Capitol Hill to do just that.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

IOWA: Moseley Braun and Dean

DES MOINES -- When the Rev. Al Sharpton tore into Howard Dean's minority hiring record during Sunday's Iowa Black and Brown Forum debate here among the Democratic presidential contenders, Carol Moseley Braun moved immediately to defend Dean. As soon as Sharpton finished pressing Dean to explain why he had not appointed more people of color to top positions during his long tenure as governor of Vermont, Moseley Braun urged the other African-American candidate to tone down his criticisms. "The fact of the matter is, you can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other," she said, in what amounted to a public rebuke for Sharpton. "People cannot afford a racial screaming match."

At the time, Moseley Braun's intervention sounded like nothing more than one of the grace notes she regularly added to the debates between the Democratic contenders. Though her campaign never had the money or the organization needed to be a serious competitor -- even her own campaign manager acknowledged that she would not win the nomination -- the former US Senator from Illinois and US Ambassador to New Zealand won consistently high marks for her command of the issues and for her determination to keep the contest focused on the task of beating George W. Bush.

While the defense of Dean last Sunday was in character for Moseley Braun, who has often played a peacemaker role during the campaign, it also provided an indication of Moseley Braun's regard for the man who once shared her low poll numbers but then took off to become the race's presumed frontrunner. Behind the scenes, that regard was flowering into a decision by Moseley Braun to fold her campaign and make a high-profile endorsement of Dean.

According to aides to Moseley Braun and Dean, the former senator took the former governor aside after Sunday's debate and indicated that she was thinking about dropping out and throwing her support to Dean. It was a good fit ideologically, as the two candidates have taken similar stands against the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration's economic agenda. And Moseley Braun has noted the success of Dean's efforts to attract support from leading political figures in the African-American community.

Conversations between the two candidates continued over the next several days, leading up to Moseley Braun's decision on Wednesday to leave the race. On Thursday, she flew to Iowa to appear with Dean at a rally on his last major swing through the state before Monday's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Asking her backers to instead stand with Dean supporters at the caucuses, Moseley Braun declared, "Governor Dean has the energy to inspire the American people, to break the cocoon of fear that envelopes us and empowers president Bush and his entourage from the extreme right wing, and he has a program to put our country back on track to tax fairness, job creation, balanced budgets and an economy that works for everyone regardless of sex or race. He has the experience to know that state and local and national government have to cooperate and collaborate, and end the destructive game of monetary musical chairs that creates unfunded mandates and failing schools. He understands that a real war on terrorism starts with putting the domestic security of the American people first. He can "work well with others" around the world and craft a foreign policy that is neither arrogant nor preemptive, but that begins with respect and builds on alliances. He takes seriously our stewardship of the planet and our environmental responsibilities."

For his part, Dean was full of praise for Moseley Braun. "She's a principled person. We just hit it off. I like her a lot," he told reporters as he finished the first leg of a statewide bus tour of Iowa that he hopes will help him prevail in the caucuses that kick off the process of selecting the delegates to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Dean is locked in what looks to be an increasingly tight four-way race in Iowa, with a new Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll showing him in a statistical tie with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and North Carolina Senator John Edwards – the poll has Kerry at 22 percent, Dean at 21 percent, Gephardt at 21 percent, and Edwards at 17 percent, with a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Dean declared that the Moseley Braun endorsement was "going to be a big help to us." On the face of it, that sounds like an empty boast. Moseley Braun has little organizational strength in Iowa, and has only been polling at around 1 percent there. However, in a race as close as the Iowa contest appears to be, it certainly will not hurt Dean to gain the support of the only woman and one of only two African-American contenders in the race. At a point when many Democrats in Iowa are trying to determine which candidate would be the strongest contender nationally, the Moseley Braun endorsement serves to highlight the significant support Dean has attracted from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other prominent players in states where, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, support from African-American voters is critical to winning not just the nomination but the presidency.

Beyond Iowa, Moseley Braun's endorsement could help Dean as he continues to line up support among core constituencies of the party. Moseley Braun, who promised to take the "Men Only" sign off the White House had the endorsements of the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus; her exit may free up support for Dean from some feminists who had held back from making a public endorsement while there was still a woman in the race. Additionally, Moseley Braun retains better name recognition in her home state of Illinois than a number of the Democratic contenders. While there were few predictions that she would win the March 16 Illinois primary, Moseley Braun could well have attracted her largest measure of support on her home turf, especially in the predominantly African-American precincts of Chicago where she has been politically active for three decades.

With the former senator now backing the Vermonter, and with endorsements of his campaign rolling in from prominent Illinois progressives like US Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson Jr., Dean's prospects are looking better and better in Illinois, which will hold one of the last big contests on the road to the nomination. If the Democratic competition turns into a long haul, the late-in-the-game primary in Illinois--which will send one of the largest delegations to the Democratic National Convention in Boston--could prove to be a significant test. And it is there, as much or more than in Iowa, where Moseley Braun's endorsement could turn out to be the "big help" Dean declared it to be.

Fire Chaney!

No, it's not a typo or misspelling. In my house, it often seems like we've spent more time lately talking about the other Chaney--that's Don, the just-fired coach of the New York Knicks, not Dick, the should-be-fired-Vice president.

(My daughter is a basketball junkie. Like her father, she knows stats I've never heard of; she can tell you where some NBA player played college ball; who famously failed in what playoff series or who coached which championship team in 1986. In the mornings, as I scan the news pages, she's got her nose buried in the New York Times sports section. She frequently ends her days with Pete Vecsey's New York Post column "Hoop du Jour." In between, she plays small forward for her JV team. Her ambition is to be the first woman coach in the NBA.)

Irate Knicks fans have been recently calling for Chaney's scalp for misleading the team into one too many losses. At last Friday's blowout home game against the Houston Rockets, the unforgiving crowd began chanting "Fire Chaney" before the first quarter even ended. The taunts re-surfaced this past Monday toward the end of an overtime loss to Dallas. Then, today, the axe finally fell (even though, as my daughter stresses, any coach needs a couple of weeks after a team gets new players, as the Knicks just did, before they can be fairly judged.)

So, if this Chaney can be fired for misleading a basketball team, shouldn't the other Cheney go as well for a far more serious offense--misleading the country?

Let's take a cue from Knicks fans and start calling for the other Cheney's scalp. Hell, isn't it time that America had some new coaches?

DC VOTE: Dean's Real; So Is Sharpton

While the fact was little noted, voting has finally begun in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. More than 43,000 voters in Washington, DC, participated in a non-binding primary Tuesday and, though most of the leading Democratic contenders chose to skip the contest, the results still provided some important insights regarding the race. To wit:

1.) HOWARD DEAN'S APPEAL IS FOR REAL. The former Vermont governor won 43 percent of the vote in a primary that saw a higher turnout than past presidential primary voting in the District of Columbia. Dean easily outdistanced other candidates who put more time and energy into the DC contest. And he showed strength across a city where African-American voters form a substantial majority, offering him an opportunity to counter the claims that he lacks the record and the style to appeal beyond his initial base of support among young, white, middle-class activists. Dean made note of that fact in a call Tuesday night to a gathering of several hundred enthusiastic supporters at the Lucky Bar in Northwest Washington. Echoing the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign theme from insurgent races for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, Dean told his cheering backers, "We're going to build a rainbow coalition to take over this country for the people who own it."

Dean's win in the DC vote has meaning beyond the fact that the former governor of a small, rural state collected significant support from urban voters. Dean was the only one of the supposed frontrunners in the race who allowed his name to remain on the DC ballot. That was a risk, because party leaders succeeded in pressuring Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman to pull out of a DC primary that would choose no delegates but that was condemned by officials in Iowa and New Hampshire as an affront to the carefully guarded "first-in-the-nation" status of those two states. It was also a risk because, with the Iowa vote coming next Monday, Dean was not going to be able to do much personal campaigning in the district as "advisory" primary approached.

Dean chose to remain in the running in DC as part of a 50-state strategy that puts an uncommon level of faith in prominent local backers and volunteers to deliver the votes on election day.

In DC, as Dean strategists had hoped, the campaign's much-vaunted volunteer army took up the slack and put on a genuine campaign. Prominent members of the city council – including Jack Evans, who fought to assure that voters in the nation's capital would cast the first ballots in this year's presidential race -- endorsed Dean. More than 30,000 Dean appeals were mailed to the most likely voters. Blue-and-white "Dean for President" signs appeared on utility polls and vacant building fronts. Congressional Black Caucus chairman Elijah Cummings, a Democratic representative from neighboring Maryland, headlined a rally that drew several hundred people to a downtown church on the Saturday before the voting. And on election day, at many polling places in the city, the only person handing out leaflets was a Dean backer.

The Dean campaign's ability to translate enthusiastic volunteers into an effective campaign organization was on display in DC. That fact is not to be underestimated as the former governor, who is battling to hold onto poll leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, ponders the prospect of a long campaign that will be fought out in many states that will not get the same level of candidate face time that is accorded to early caucus and primary states.

2.) THE REV. AL SHARPTON, THOUGH HE HAS LITTLE MONEY AND ORGANIZATION, COULD YET END UP INFLUENCING THE COURSE OF THE CONTEST FOR THE DEMOCRATIC NOD. The New York civil rights activist campaigned hard in DC, and he did well. Sharpton ran second to Dean, trailing the frontrunner by only about 3,500 votes. Sharpton secured more than a third of the vote, and easily won many of the city's most economically disadvantaged precincts. As in his previous races for US Senate in New York state and for mayor of New York City, Sharpton showed that he knows how to parlay free media and energetic street campaigning into a solid showing in urban areas.

Sharpton, who has aggressively criticized Dean's weak record of hiring people of color during his years as governor of Vermont and who has challenged African-American elected officials for jumping on the Dean bandwagon, was a serious competitor in DC. By investing a small amount of money, $50,000, in radio advertising on stations with large African-American audiences, and by investing a substantial amount of his own time – Sharpton campaigned across the city until the polls closed Tuesday -- he ran up a more-than-respectable vote total. Indeed, if he had been able to attract the 12 percent of the vote that went to the other prominent African-American candidate, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Sharpton could have upset Dean in Tuesday's voting. That would have proven to be embarrassment to the frontrunner in the run-up to Monday's Iowa voting.

Don't underestimate that Sharpton, a dogged competitor who can keep running with only a fraction of the money other campaigns require, could yet embarrass Dean and other leading contender as the campaign moves to states with large minority populations. The first test will be in South Carolina, where Sharpton continues to poll well in advance of that state's Feb. 3 primary. But Sharpton's real show of strength is likely to come in New York's March 2 voting, when he could tip the balance in a race between Dean and another candidate, perhaps retired Wesley Clark or John Edwards, who emerges as the "anti-Dean" for which much of the Democratic party establishment has been searching.

"For someone who never held political office to get a third of the vote in the nation's capital is a huge story," Sharpton declared Tuesday night. Actually, it didn't turn out to be that huge a story. Most of the media attention remained focused on the fight for Iowa. But Sharpton's showing serves as a reminder that his run could yet shape the story of the 2004 race.

Lost in Space

So, we're destroying our own way of life on earth but Bush wants to establish a permanent base on the moon as a prelude to sending humans to Mars?

Isn't this just another sign, as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill reports in Ron Suskind's new book, The Price of Loyalty, that we have a space cadet as President? And don't these neocons have enough bases ringing the earth? Or is their desire for world domination so unquenchable that they're using this new initiative, as some believe, as a stealth program to speed up the militarization of space? And, not to be too visionless, but at a time of record budget deficits and massive tax cuts for the rich, where's the money going to come from for these adventures in outer space?

While the New York Times reports that Bush's space initiative "would allow the president to be portrayed as an inspirational leader whose vision goes beyond terrorism and tax cuts," it seems more wasteful indulgence than "inspirational" when our own planet is in such danger. Just last week, more evidence (if it was needed) came in a major scientific report showing that more than a million species will become extinct over the next fifty years as a result of global warming. Other recent studies show that the planet's rainforests are disappearing at a rate of one acre per minute.

And, just the other day, in the prestigious journal Science, the British government's chief scientific adviser launched a withering attack on the Bush Administration for failing to tackle global warming. "In my view," he warned, "climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than terrorism."

Bush may think it's good politics to invoke the image of John Kennedy, challenging the nation to send a man to the moon. But these are times that call for a different kind of Apollo Project--on earth, not in space. We desperately need to harness the best scientific R&D in a crash effort to achieve energy independence from fossil fuels and to address the devastating impact of global warming.

For one terrific proposal, check out the Apollo Alliance, a new coalition of unions, environmental groups, consumer advocates and socially responsible businesses, whose bold program would advance energy efficiency and promote renewable energy, drive investment in new technology and public infrastructure and offer real stimulus to our flagging economy through long-term job creation. (Click here for info.)

In 1989, Mr. Bush's father proposed that America begin "the permanent settlement of space." If this President vowed to send all the neocons on a mission to colonize some distant planet, I just might reconsider my opposition to space exploration. But, short of that, let's put earthly needs first.   

IOWA: John Edwards' moment

DES MOINES -- The big news story out of Iowa last week told of the endorsement by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. Harkin, Iowa's senior Democrat, has a record of picking winners in the caucuses -- he was Al Gore's most prominent backer in 2000 -- and his support for the frontrunner was read by many as another indication that Dean may be unstoppable as Iowa's January 19 caucuses approach.

But Harkin's endorsement should not have come as a huge surprise. He's a fiery populist whose style and sentiments pretty much parallel those of Dean's campaign. And he is also a smart politician, who was unlikely to go a different direction than the core of grassroots party activists who form his own base and who have been Dean's most enthusiastic backers.

A more surprising endorsement came to light when Sunday editions of the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, began circulating around the state. The Register, one of the few major daily newspapers that maintains a reasonably consistent left-of-center editorial stance, could easily have gone for Dean. But it didn't. Nor did the paper back former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who hails from neighboring Missouri and who polls suggest is running closest to Dean. The Register's editorial board even skipped over the race's "safe" liberal, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who has secured several other newspaper endorsements in recent days.

The Register, which does not always pick the winners of the Democratic caucuses but which always influences the process, gave its endorsement to North Carolina Senator John Edwards. "The more we watched him, the more we read his speeches and studied his positions, the more we saw him comport himself in debate, the more we learned about his life story, the more our editorial board came to conclude he's a cut above the others," declared the Register's editorial, which was the talk of Iowa on Sunday. "John Edwards is one of those rare, naturally gifted politicians who doesn't need a long record of public service to inspire confidence in his abilities. His life has been one of accomplishing the unexpected, amid flashes of brilliance."

The endorsement came at precisely the point when Edwards needed it. His campaign, which never seemed to gain traction during the long run through 2003, has finally started to get good marks. Of all the self-promoting books written by the candidates -- or, in a most cases, ghostwritten for them -- Edwards produced the finest text, an unexpectedly moving recollection of his legal career titled Four Trials. The first-term senator, who did not seem in the early stages of his campaign to be ready for the primetime of presidential politics, has in recent weeks drawn best-of-show reviews for his debate performances. And he is translating his debating prowess to the stump. The former trial lawyer has perfected a closing argument for Iowa voters that is a William Jennings Bryan-style call to arms against corporate agribusiness, free trade deals that lead to shuttered factories in the heartland, and tax policies that redistribute wealth upward to a wealthy few.

Edwards went into the final week before the caucuses touting a plan to raise 10 million working Americans out of poverty, the sort of ambitious and positive policy initiative that has distinguished the senator's campaign in the eyes of observers who were once skeptical. Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, the chair of the Creative Commons project, noted in a review of Four Trails, "Edwards is the rare politician who continues to surprise, the more you learn, and surprise in the best possible way."

While the other major candidates have taken to battering one another with last- minute attacks, Edwards has reserved his fire for the fat cats -- in and out of the Bush administration. As the Iowa campaigns of Dean, Kerry and Gephardt have grown increasingly bitter, Edwards' emphasis on issues rather than personalities has drawn praise. Indeed, in his endorsement of Dean, Harkin paid tribute to Edwards' high-road approach. Harkin isn't the only one who has noticed that Edwards is running a different and, in many ways, more appealing campaign than the other prominent contenders. Indeed, Edwards appears to be making a last-minute connection with Iowa Democrats; a Reuter/MSNBC/Zogby poll released Sunday showed Dean leading Gephardt 25-23 percent, with Kerry in third place at 14 percent. But the real news was that Edwards had moved up to 13 percent, just one point behind Kerry.

If that poll is tracking the race right, the Register endorsement could well move Edwards into the upper tier of candidates, as a 1988 endorsement by the paper of U.S. Sen. Paul Simon did in that year's caucus race. The Register's argument was compelling:

"On issues, the major contenders for the nomination aren't far apart. They differ in emphasis and detail, but all have the same general thrust: Roll back some or all of the Bush tax cuts and redirect the money into health care and education. Conduct a foreign policy that is more collaborative and less bellicose. The underlying theme of the Democrats is that the government under President Bush is serving the interests of wealth and privilege, not of ordinary Americans. Howard Dean's call to "take our country back" is the rallying cry," the editorial explained. "Dean has the slogan, but it is Edwards who most eloquently and believably expresses this point of view, with his trial-lawyer skill for distilling arguments into compelling language that moves a jury of ordinary people. He speaks of there being two Americas: ‘One America does the work, while another America reaps the reward. One America pays the taxes, while another America gets the tax breaks. If we want America to be a growing, thriving democracy with the strongest middle class on Earth, we must choose a different path.'"

The Register concluded its endorsement by painting Edwards as the candidate best able to draw clear distinctions between himself and Bush in a November face-off:

"If Edwards wins the Democratic nomination, voters this fall would have a choice between two men who almost perfectly embody the rival political philosophies in America today. George W. Bush and John Edwards are attractive, likable, energetic. They have about the same level of prior experience in government - and they are polar opposites," argued the Register's editors.

"Bush is from a prominent family, attended Ivy League universities, made his fortune in business and fervently believes the philosophy of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.' His policies flow from the conviction that all Americans will gain if business is largely unfettered and if investors are better rewarded.

"Edwards is from a working-class family, attended public universities, made his fortune representing ordinary people in the courtroom and fervently believes that America does best when doors of opportunity are open to anyone willing to work and get ahead. He says those opportunities are being choked off in an America today that rewards wealth, not work. Emblematic of his approach is his proposal to pay the first year's tuition to a state university or community college for any student willing to work.

"Like all the Democratic candidates, Edwards is strongly critical of Bush, but with him it tends to be a little less personal. He emphasizes his goal is not merely to replace Bush but to change America."

Edwards will not win Iowa. But he does not need to do so. If he can displace Kerry and secure a third-place finish he will get the credit for "exceeding expectations" and be able to carry on at least through the February 3 South Carolina primary, which Edwards must win if he is going to remain in the running. That there is the prospect of an Edwards surge, however, is just the latest unexpected turn in a contest that continues to defy both expectations and conventional wisdom.

Bush's WMD Case Weakens Further

When will George W. Bush say, "We were wrong on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction"?

The evidence--or lack of evidence--continues to mount suggesting that Bush and his aides made false statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the war. Remember all that alarmist rhetoric? In an October 2002 speech, Bush said Iraq had a "massive stockpile" of weapons of mass destruction. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction...that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." In his famous presentation to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq, today, has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent."

Conservative estimate? None of these claims have come close to panning out. And it's not because--as some Bush-backers have suggested--Saddam Hussein was so good at hiding the stuff or because he managed to ship his arsenal to Syria before US troops came knocking. An extensive Washington Post front-page article published on January 7 and written by reporter Barton Gellman (and based on interviews with US weapons hunters and Iraqi weapons scientists and heretofore publicly unavailable Iraqi documentation) details the tremendous gap between the Bush rhetoric and the reality. It's not that Hussein was not interested in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But Gellman found that Iraq's programs in these areas were either in suspension or far from advanced and that--most important of all--they were not even close to producing actual weapons. The two key paragraphs of his piece read:

"[U.S. weapons] investigators have found no support for the two main fears expressed in London and Washington before the war--that Iraq had a hidden arsenal of old weapons and built advanced programs for new ones. In public statements and unauthorized interviews, investigators said they have discovered no work on former germ-warfare agents....The investigators assess that Iraq did not, as charged in London and Washington, resume production of its most lethal nerve agent, VX, or learned to make it last longer in storage. And they have found the former nuclear weapons program, described as a 'grave and gathering danger' by President Bush and a 'mortal threat' by Vice President Cheney, in much the same shattered state left by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s."

"A review of available evidence, including some not known to coalition investigators and some they have not made public, portrays a nonconventional arms establishment that was far less capable than U.S. analysts judged before the war. Leading figures in Iraqi science and industry, supported by observations on the ground, describe factories and institutes that were thoroughly beaten down by twelve years of conflict, arms embargo and strangling economic sanctions. The remnants of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile infrastructures were riven by internal strife, bled by schemes for personal gain, and handicapped by deceit up and down lines of command. The broad picture emerging from the investigation to date suggests that, whatever its desire, Iraq did not possess the wherewithal to build a forbidden armory on anything like the scale it had before the 1991 Persian Gulf War."

This is a far cry from the Bush administration's prewar shout that Hussein was neck-deep in WMDs. And in the months since the fall of Baghdad, White House officials have continued to insist that Hussein had unconventional weapons and that eventually, as Bush put it, "the facts will show the world the truth" about Iraq's WMDs. The facts keep running against Bush.

On January 8, the Carnegie Endowment on International Piece released a report, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications that complements Gellman's article. It notes that Iraq's nuclear arms program had been suspended for years and that Iraq had focused on preserving a dual-use chemical weapons capability and perhaps a similar capability concerning biological weapons. (Preserving a dual-use capability--worrisome, yes--is much different from amassing a stockpile.) The Carnegie paper also reports that Iraqi nerve agents had lost most of their potency and that Iraq's large-scale chemical weapons production capabilities had been destroyed by the Persian Gulf War and U.N. inspections.

Perhaps the Carnegie paper can be dismissed as the I-told-you-so product of policy wonks who were opposed to the war and who had favored more intrusive inspections. But the administration's own actions indicate there isn't much there there in Iraq. Today The New York Times reports that the administration has withdrawn 400 members of its weapons-hunting team in Iraq--a signal there isn't that much work for them. And the chief weapons hunter in Iraq, David Kay, has said he may well leave his job soon--another sign that a big score is not anticipated.

Two nights ago, Stuart Cohen, the vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council who supervised the production of a prewar National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, went on Nightline to defend the CIA's work on Iraq's WMDs. He said he "remained convinced that the work we did was well-grounded." But he also said "we judged that [Hussein] did not have nuclear weapons--indeed, would not have them until very late in the decade." That was not how Bush, Cheney and company depicted the supposed nuclear threat from Hussein. Their remarks made it seem as if Hussein had a major program under way. Cohen did add that the CIA analysts worried they might have been underestimating Hussein's nuclear capabilities (which now seems wrong), but still Bush and his aides turned the analysts' prudent concern into melodramatic assertions, exclaiming that they did not want a mushroom cloud to be the smoking-gun evidence that Hussein had a nuclear weapons program.

Still, Cohen stuck to the administration line that the WMD hunters need more time in Iraq to pursue those elusive (or illusive?) WMDs of Hussein and that "it's too soon to close the books on this case." One wonders how much time the administration will grant itself before reaching a conclusion.

At the end of the show, Nightline host Ted Koppel asked Cohen "how much of a threat" Iraq had posed to the United States. Cohen replied: "We, as I said, indicated that he did not have nuclear weapons. And that while he was in violation of UN resolutions, his missiles could not have reached that far. We were concerned about unmanned aerial vehicles. And at least theoretically, there was a concern at the possibility that unmanned aerial vehicles could be brought within reach of the United States and used. We were also concerned about unconventional delivery of chemical and biological weapons. The ability of Iraqi intelligence agencies to, perhaps, bring something in undetected and use it." Note that Cohen did not mention that "we" were "concerned" that Hussein would slip a weapon of mass destruction to al Qaeda. That was the heart of Bush's case for war--yet now Cohen does not even refer to it as a worry. Of course, the CIA should have been "concerned" about the theoretical possibilities Cohen mentioned--although U.S. Air Force intelligence had discounted the threat from unmanned aerial vehicles. But Bush presented a dire, concrete threat assessment to the public, not theoretical concerns.

Koppel closed his interview with Cohen by asking whether the "dangers" that may have existed a year ago were greater or lesser now: "What has happened that would make those dangers any less, if those weapons are still in the hands of people who are not well disposed toward the United States?" Put aside for the moment that there remains no proof "those weapons" even existed. Here's how Cohen answered: "We worry about what may have happened to those weapons. Theories abound as to what may have happened....But I still worry about when we might first...come across those weapons is when they're used or when we find them in an arms bazaar some place."

That sounds as if the chief CIA official on the Iraq WMD issue does not believe that the war in Iraq has made the United States safer or that Bush's war has done much to protect the nation from the threat it was supposed to eradicate. The war, Cohen suggests, may have even led to the dispersal of "those weapons"--that is, if they existed in the first place. (Note to Howard Dean: start quoting Cohen.)

As of now there is no clear evidence the weapons were there--and no indication Bush is ready to concede he hyped the threat, knowingly or not. The case continues to grow that the Iraqis' denials about WMDs (as incomplete as they were) were closer to the truth than the assertions of the president of the United States.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

Comparing Bush and a Certain Dictator

It is safe to say that Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie never met a truth he did not seek to distort. So it should come as no surprise that the lobbyist-turned-party leader has been busy this week peddling his own twisted take on the work of the activist group MoveOn.org.

What is surprising is that Gillespie, who is supposedly trying to reelect President Bush, has been working overtime to publicize comparisons of of the Republican chief executive to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Gillespie got all excited when he discovered that MoveOn.org, the highly successful internet activist group, was running a "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest that asked critics of the president to submit television advertisements designed to "engage and enlighten viewers and help them understand the truth about George Bush." MoveOn.org promised to buy airtime for the winning ad during the week of the 2004 President's State Of The Union Address.

Among the hundreds of creative commercials submitted by people from across the US were two that compared Bush to the Nazi dictator. MoveOn.org did not choose those advertisements for airing on television; indeed, the group went so far as to strike the videos of the offending commercials from its website.

But the controversial commercials still went into wide circulation nationally. Why? Because Gillespie and his minions chose to highlight them on the Republican National Committee website. For a time this week, the only place to view the comparisons of Bush with Hitler was on the RNC site. Adding insult to injury, Gillespie made the rounds of cable television talk shows in order to draw more attention to the Hitler-Bush ads. Thus, the commercials got their airing on national television not because MoveOn.org paid to put them up but because the cable networks used them to illustrate Gillespie's rants.

The RNC chief's folly eventually became so evident that the video was scrubbed from the Republican site. But you can still read the texts of the commercials on the RNC site at http://www.rnc.org/moveonvideo.htm. That text is accompanied by a rant from Gillespie, calling for MoveOn.org to apologize for initially allowing the ads to appear on its website, and demanding that the nine Democrat presidential candidates repudiate the ad comparing Bush to Hitler.

In as much as the overwhelming majority of Americans did not know about the Bush-Hitler comparison until Gillespie publicized it, it would seem that the RNC chair is the one who should be apologizing. As for public repudiation, that's not really necessary. The president should just take Gillespie aside and quietly ask the party chair to stop going on national television to highlight comparisons between Bush and a certain dictator.

Willie Nelson sings for peace, Kucinich

Dennis Kucinich still faces an uphill climb in his campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination. But his anti-Iraq war candidacy has already inspired better music than those of contenders who are garnering far more attention and campaign money. The New Year's weekend benefit for Kucinich at the Austin Music Hall was one of the finest campaign concerts in recent memory, and the sentiments of the stellar cast of performers was well summed up by singer Bonnie Raitt, who introduced a bluesy version of the Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth," be declaring, "Here's to free speech. Here's to fair elections. Here's to the possibility that Dennis Kucinich could win."

The Texas concert, which drew a crowd of 4,000 and was expected to raise more than $80,000 for the Kucinich campaign, showcased the success the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair has had in appealing to some of the country's most inspired and independent-minded musicians. The candidate who has been endorsed by artists ranging from Pete Seeger to Ani DiFranco brought some of his best-known backers together for a sold-out concert in Austin. Along with Raitt, a pair of younger artists with Texas roots and national reputations, Michelle Shocked and Tish Hinojosa turned in musically and politically charged performances. Tim Reynolds, guitarist for the Dave Matthews Band, played. So too did Pat Simmons and Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, who performed some of that group's greatest hits before being joined by Raitt for a raucous rendition of "Taking It To The Streets." The highlight of the Saturday night show came when Kucinich's most high-profile musician backer, Willie Nelson, took the stage.

Nelson, who has been talking up Kucinich's candidacy since last summer, says he was attracted to Kucinich first because of the Ohio congressman's passionate defense of family farmers -- a cause close to the heart of the country singer, who has been a core backer of the Farm Aid concerts. But, as he campaigned for Kucinich over the weekend, Nelson picked up on the anti-war message that has been central to Kucinich's run for the White House.

Nelson used appearances with Kucinich to talk about a new song he wrote on Christmas Day, "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?"

"(It's) only the second protest song I've ever written," Nelson said, "but it just came pouring out." Nelson, who performed his earlier protest song, the anti-war ballad "Jimmy's Road," prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said he was inspired to write the new song by Christmas morning news reports of the ongoing violence in Iraq. "There was nothing but bad news and here it was Christmas Day," Nelson recalled. "I said, 'There sure are a lot of babies dying and mothers crying,' and (Nelson's wife) Annie said, 'That sounds like a song.'"

When Nelson sat down to write the song's words, he pulled no punches. "How much oil is one human life worth?" the lyrics ask. "How much is a liar's word worth?"

Nelson joins his critique of the war and the president who launched it with a poke at the media, singing, "Now, you probably won't hear this on your radio/Probably not on your local TV/But if there's a time, and you're so inclined/You can always hear it from me."

Is Nelson, who achieved international fame as a self-described country music "outlaw," trying to stir things up?

"I hope there is some controversy," said Nelson, when a reporter asked whether he feared the song's biting commentary on George W. Bush's war might stir anger among country music fans who have been cheering for songs like Toby Keith's angry, war-cry, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." Added Nelson, "If you write something like this and nobody says anything, then you probably haven't struck a nerve."

The singer hopes to strike that nerve for Kucinich, whose criticism of the rush to war and its pursuit echo the bluntness of the lyrics to "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?"

Nelson, who put his arm around Kucinich during several Austin appearances Saturday, says, "I just like him because he tells the truth. Whether he's electable or not, who knows? But when you've got a guy you can trust, you've got a good candidate." And Kucinich, whose campaign is using pictures of Nelson wearing a "Kucinich for President" t-shirt on posters, has a good supporter in the country star.

On Saturday night, just around midnight, Nelson gave Kucinich a rousing endorsement and debuted "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth," singing:

There's so many things going on in the world/Babies dying/Mothers crying/How much oil is one human life worth?/And what ever happened to peace on earth?

We believe everything that they tell us/They're gonna' kill us/So we gotta' kill them first/But I remember a commandment/Thou shall not kill/How much is that soldier's life worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

(Bridge)And the bewildered herd is still believing/Everything we've been told from our birth/Hell they won't lie to me/Not on my own damn TV/But how much is a liar's word worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

So I guess it's just/Do unto others before they do it to you/Let's just kill em' all and let God sort em' out/Is this what God wants us to do?

(Repeat Bridge)And the bewildered herd is still believing/Everything we've been told from our birth/Hell they won't lie to me/Not on my own damn TV/But how much is a liar's word worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

Now you probably won't hear this on your radio/Probably not on your local TV/But if there's a time, and if you're ever so inclined/You can always hear it from me/How much is one picker's word worth?/And whatever happened to peace on earth?

But don't confuse caring for weakness/You can't put that label on me/The truth is my weapon of mass protection/And I believe truth sets you free

(Bridge)And the bewildered herd is still believing/Everything we've been told from our birth/Hell they won't lie to me/Not on my own damn TV/But how much is a liar's word worth?