Washington hath no fury like a Henry Waxman scorned. On March 17, as President Bush made final preparations to order the invasion of Iraq, the veteran Democratic Congressman from California asked the White House to explain how forged evidence claiming Iraq had sought nuclear material from Niger featured in the State of the Union address. Waxman had supported the October 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. But with the revelation that the CIA did not believe to be credible the intelligence Bush had used, Waxman says, “I wanted an explanation.”
Waxman got no answer from the White House–nor much attention from the docile media or his Congressional colleagues. But he persisted, dispatching letters to the President and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, raising the issue in hearings and floor speeches, and finally, in late June, convincing more than twenty House Democrats who had also supported the war resolution to co-sponsor legislation to establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate “an inexcusable breakdown in our intelligence system prior to the Iraq war.”
Even that action rated little notice. But barely ten days later, reporters and members of Congress were asking whether the President had employed deceit to lure the country into an unwarranted “pre-emptive” war. It was more than just mounting death tolls, troubling calls for more troops and questions about whether weapons of mass destruction would ever be found that inspired previously silent sections of the Washington establishment to follow Waxman’s lead. Simmering frustrations within the intelligence community boiled over into open complaints–and back-channel leaks–that suggested the Administration had inflated intelligence to identify threats that may never have existed. Meanwhile, pollsters saw the number of Americans who were pleased with Bush’s management of the conflict dip below 50 percent for the first time since the fighting began, with growing numbers wondering whether the threat posed by Iraq had ever been as serious as Bush claimed.
How far this questioning will take journalists, elected officials and the American people remains to be seen. Karl Rove’s White House political machine is hoping a tepid acknowledgment by Bush of “personal responsibility” for his speech and the emptying of Washington for August’s Congressional recess will deflate the discussion. But if members of Congress get an earful from constituents and the media stay on the story, Rove could be in for a hot month. “If members of Congress hear in August that the people want a real investigation, I think we’ll have it,” Waxman says. Representative Jan Schakowsky noted, “The White House says this is just an inside-the-Beltway issue, but I think that when members go home they are going to find that it is a big issue across America.”
The shift in the debate came in time-honored Washington fashion: when someone on the inside started talking. With a July 6 New York Times op-ed column and an appearance that day on NBC’s Meet the Press, in which he detailed how his investigation had exposed the Niger uranium claims as false almost a year before Bush repeated them in the State of the Union address, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson broke the dam Waxman and others had pounded on for months. Not even a fall-on-his-sword performance by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was enough to halt the questioning. As more members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities stepped forward to express outrage, former CIA Director John Deutch explained, “If, however, no weapons of mass destruction or only a residual capacity [is] found, the principal justification enunciated by the US government for launching this war will have proven not to be credible.”
Washington insiders marveled at how one retired diplomat’s discussion of sixteen words in a five-month-old speech had worn the Teflon off Bush’s presidency. “I’m not sure they’ve totally gotten their act together,” former Arkansas Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt, a member of the Republican National Committee, said as the Administration’s spin machine sputtered. Detailing the negative press the White House received on a single day, Washington Post political writer David Broder, the Miss Manners of official Washington, declared July 10 “Black Thursday for Bush” and wrote of “the shadow that now hangs over Bush’s bright hopes for a second term.”
Readers who flipped through Broder’s newspaper could see one media outlet abandon cheerleading for reporting; the Post, which followed the Administration’s script slavishly before the war, actually committed several acts of journalism aggressive enough to recall the paper’s approach to another presidential scandal, Watergate. And it doesn’t stop with the Post. New White House press secretary Scott McClellan must have wondered whether he had replaced Ari Fleischer or Nixon’s Ron Ziegler on the day he took nine questions in a single briefing about the State of the Union fiasco and presidential credibility. Ironically, one of the first serious suggestions that Bush’s mishandling of intelligence, if deliberate, could be an impeachable offense came from former Nixon aide John Dean. Recalling in his column for FindLaw that some of the most serious charges against Nixon involved misuse of the CIA and the FBI, Dean argued, “[If] Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be a ‘high crime’ under the Constitution’s impeachment clause.”
Pollsters quickly quantified the decline in the President’s fortunes. Between late June and mid-July, Bush’s approval rating fell nine points in Washington Post/ABC News polling. By July 20 a Time/CNN poll found his approval rating dipping to 55 percent, where it stood before September 11, 2001. His unfavorable rating, now 42 percent in pollster John Zogby’s latest survey, is the highest since he assumed the presidency. Of course, broader worries about US troop casualties in Iraq, as well as domestic economic concerns, figure into the numbers. But it is worth noting Zogby’s finding that in June Americans favored Bush’s re-election by a 49-38 margin but by July opposed it by a 47-46 margin.
As Bush’s poll numbers dropped, so too did the level of Congressional deference to the White House. Perhaps reflecting this, on the eve of the recess House GOP members broke with the Administration on issues including media ownership, drug imports and elements of the Patriot Act. “You could hear the language shifting in the institution,” said Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Democratic presidential candidates who’d supported the war, like Senator John Kerry and former House minority leader Dick Gephardt, joined antiwar candidates like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich in asking whether Bush lied America into war. California Democrat Jane Harman, a solid backer of the invasion who is the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, asked, “Did the President’s advisers pressure intelligence analysts to overstate the ‘grave and growing’ danger from Saddam’s WMDs?… Were we misled?”
Harman’s comments were significant, as she works closely with the Republicans who control both the House and Senate. No investigation of White House manipulation of intelligence will go forward without some GOP support. Already, independent-minded Republican senators like Alabama’s Richard Shelby and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel have gone off-message. “There is a cloud hanging over their credibility, their word,” Hagel said of the Administration. “They need to get that dealt with, taken care of, removed.” Überhawk John McCain says it’s time to “find out who is responsible for [the false claims] and fire them.”
But Hagel and McCain are frequent burrs under Bush’s saddle. The reality is that the Republicans best suited to fill the statesman role–for instance, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Richard Lugar, whose discomfort with the Administration’s poor planning for the war is no secret; Representative Jim Leach, a House International Relations Committee member with close ties to the diplomatic community; and Representative Christopher Shays, a member of the same House Committee on Government Reform as Waxman–have thus far avoided joining Democratic calls for an independent investigation.
Guarding against breaks in the GOP stonewall, the White House has distributed “talking points” to Republican members of Congress outlining how they should defend the President. Senate Armed Services Committee chair John Warner of Virginia claims he did not buckle to pressure when he backed off a promise to hold public hearings regarding “hyped” intelligence, but Capitol Hill aides say Vice President Dick Cheney ordered Republican senators to shut down any serious investigation. And there is no question on the Hill that carefully choreographed House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings in July were designed to control the State of the Union speech scandal rather than to answer questions about manipulated intelligence. It is an indication of the reluctance of even moderate Republicans to cross the politically vindictive Bush Administration that when Democratic Senator Jon Corzine tried to amend a defense appropriations bill to create a nonpartisan commission to investigate the use of intelligence in the preparations for war, all fifty-one Republican senators opposed it. And Waxman’s House bill–the most broadly supported of several calls for an investigation–still lacks a Republican co-sponsor. Like Waxman, Corzine says he expects that Republicans will hold the line unless another shoe drops–or unless public pressure becomes overwhelming.
That pressure should mount in August, as members of Congress head home for a month of political fence-mending and grassroots tending. Hometown newspapers are already asking tough questions. “The American people deserve a full accounting of the evidence. Were mistaken assertions based on faulty intelligence or was there a deliberate effort to trump up evidence to make the case for war?” asks the conservative Chicago Tribune, while western New Hampshire’s Valley News declares, “The American public needs, and has a right, to know whether Bush cooked the intelligence data.” If those comments are echoed at county fairs and cookouts where Americans get face time with their representatives, Baldwin says, the Republican reluctance to challenge Bush could dissipate by September. “I think there are Republicans who are waiting to see how deeply the concerns about the war and the President’s statements are penetrating,” she says. “If members hear about this from constituents at home, and I think they will, they won’t be so easily influenced by pressure from the Administration to shut an investigation down.”
Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom now incorporate questions about Bush’s credibility into stump speeches, will keep the issues alive. But the summer’s most significant political initiative could be MoveOn.org’s “Misleader” campaign. The network of more than 2 million online activists is targeting at least seventy Congressional districts, where it plans to use town meetings, petitions and ads to pressure Democratic and moderate Republican US representatives during August to join their 111 colleagues who have already signed on to Waxman’s bill calling for an independent investigation. Local peace groups around the country have picked up on that call. MoveOn is also planning national media ads that highlight not just the State of the Union deceit but other prewar statements by the President and his aides that exaggerated intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Before the recess, a score of House members, led by Schakowsky and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, read some of the 414,000 MoveOn-generated letters to Congress on the subject into the Congressional Record. One of Brown’s constituents, Sandy Fronius of Strongville, Ohio, wrote: “I am just a typical middle-aged, middle-class American, and I am deeply concerned about the possibility that the young men and women of our Armed Forces were sent into danger for no good reason. If we were lied to, I believe Mr. Bush should be relieved of his office.”
To be sure, developments in Iraq could change circumstances dramatically. If Saddam Hussein is captured or killed, or if a credible cache of WMDs is discovered, the Bush team might yet claim justification for presidential exaggerations. But if WMDs remain elusive, if significantly more Americans die, if complaints from soldiers and military families about a war with no exit strategy are amplified, activists will be further energized and journalists should be emboldened to search out new revelations about the credibility of Bush’s case for war. (It’s worth remembering that Watergate was a two-year story, while the truth about the Johnson Administration’s Gulf of Tonkin lies took even longer to emerge.)
The one certainty is that if it gets hot for Congress in August, it will get even hotter for Bush in September. Under increasing pressure before the recess, the GOP chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees promised new hearings when Congress returns. And Waxman’s push for an independent investigation is gaining momentum. “It took a long time for the media to get to that point, but it happened,” says Waxman. “It took a long time for public opinion to get to that point, but it’s happening. I know there are those who don’t believe we can ever get the House and Senate to that point, but I don’t think we dare to stop pushing.”