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.
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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?
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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.