Sometimes the small stuff distracts from the big. At a recent press conference, George W. Bush suggested the White House had nothing to do with the “Mission Accomplished” banner that was hung on the USS Abraham Lincoln for his triumphant May 1 speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq. Journalists quickly checked, and it turned out the White House had produced the banner. Bush-bashers decried his remark as a shameless lie that sought to shift blame to crewmembers, and White House defenders dismissed the matter as trivial. But during the same press conference, Bush tossed out other truth-challenged statements that were arguably more important than the banner business. But they have drawn little notice.
Bush claimed that he was the first president to advocate a Palestinian state. No, Bill Clinton had done so. (From a January 7, 2001 Clinton speech: “There can be no genuine resolution to the [Middle East] conflict without a sovereign, viable Palestinian state that accommodates Israel’s security requirements and demographic realities.”) And when a reporter asked how Bush could make up the $23 billion gap between the $33 billion pledged for Iraq reconstruction and the estimated $56 billion pricetag for rebuilding, he said “Iraqi oil revenues…coupled with private investments should make up the difference.” Yet Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, has noted that in the near-term oil industry revenues will cover only the industry’s costs. That is, there will be no oil revenues available to pay for reconstruction. More importantly, in response to a pointed question about the MIA WMDs–“Can you explain…whether you were surprised those weapons haven’t turned up, why they haven’t turned up, and whether you feel that your administration’s credibility has been affected in any way by that?”–Bush countered, “We took action based upon good, solid intelligence.”
Good, solid intelligence–that sounds like a subjective evaluation. But a statement of opinion can be deceptive if it is sufficiently divorced from facts. And a series of postwar findings indicate that Bush was not being truthful when he characterized the prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as “good” and “solid.”
Since the major combat concluded, several official and credible sources have publicly noted that the prewar intelligence on Iraq and its supposed WMDs was neither strong nor reliable.
* In interviews with reporters in July, Richard Kerr, a former CIA deputy director conducting a review of the CIA’s prewar intelligence, said that intelligence had been somewhat ambiguous. He noted that US intelligence analysts had been forced to rely upon information from the early and mid 1990s and had possessed little hard evidence to evaluate after 1998 (when UN inspectors left Iraq). The material that did come in following that, he said, was mostly “circumstantial or “inferential.” It was “less specific and detailed” than in previous years. Kerr maintained that the CIA analysts had attached the “appropriate caveats” to this “scattered” and less-than-definitive intelligence.
* In late September, Representative Porter Goss, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, and Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the panel, sent a letter to CIA chief George Tenet that criticized the prewar intelligence for relying on outdated, “circumstantial” and “fragmentary” information, noting that the intelligence contained “too many uncertainties.” This conclusion was based on the committee’s review of 19 volumes of classified prewar intelligence. Goss, a former CIA case officer, and Harman maintained the committee’s review had found “significant deficiencies” in the intelligence community’s collection of intelligence after 1998. They cited a “lack of specific intelligence” on Iraq’s WMDs and the alleged tie between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The CIA challenged this assessment. In early November, Goss reiterated that there had been fundamental shortcomings in the prewar intelligence, but he nonetheless defended the administration prewar warnings about Iraq’s WMDs. Still, he could offer but a lukewarm endorsement of the intelligence agencies, commenting that they “did the best they could with what they had.”
* When David Kay, the chief WMD-hunter in Iraq, testified before Congress on October 2, he said that the intelligence community from 1991 to 2003 had a tough time gathering accurate information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “The result,” he said, “was that our understanding of the status of Iraq’s WMD program was always bounded by large uncertainties and had to be heavily caveated.”
* In late October, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that the prewar intelligence had sometimes been “sloppy” and inconclusive. Bush, he complained, had been “ill-served by the intelligence community.” His committee is continuing its review of the prewar intelligence, but Roberts has been opposing Democratic efforts to examine whether Bush mischaracterized the intelligence in his prewar statements.
So if a former deputy CIA chief, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee, the chief weapons hunter (who works for the CIA and the Pentagon), and the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee each say that the prewar intelligence on Iraq was loaded with doubt, and if most of this group also maintain that it was based on uncertain information, how can Bush call this material “good, solid intelligence”? Who’s not being honest? Of course, Bush has a strong motive to hype the intelligence. If Kerr, Kay, Harman and Roberts are correct, then there are three options: Bush misread the intelligence, he ignored the intelligence (in whole or in part), or the intelligence was misrepresented to him (and he has taken no steps to punish those who did so). Any of these scenarios would be painful for Bush to admit. Yet each would be a far more significant act than fudging the truth about a PR stunt.
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