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Can the 'Bush Lied' Deniers Handle the Truth?

5 years ago
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Bring it on.

Conservative apologists for the George W. Bush crew are swinging hard these days to defend their man -- and themselves -- from the charge that W. and his gang misled the nation into war. They must worry that they are going to end up on the wrong side of history. After all, a 2008 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans believed that the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction." (This was a big change from a poll taken two months after the 2003 invasion that noted that 67 percent believed that Bush had played it straight.)

Still, my colleague, Peter Wehner, who worked in the W. White House, wants to mix it up over this. In a recent column, he took issue with a piece I had written decrying Iraq war triumphalism. Wehner disagreed on several fronts, but he zeroed in on what he derisively called the " 'Bush lied' mantra"-- meaning the assertion that his former boss bamboozled the public about Iraq's WMD capabilities. He scornfully wrote, "I fully understand that this remains an article of religious faith among many of those on the left. But there is no real evidence for it." And Karl Rove, who claims in his new book that Bush did not "lie us" into war, cheered on Wehner, tweeting on Tuesday, "Fantastic piece by fmr WH colleague Pete Wehner responding to @DavidCornDC on Iraq." Moreover, in a column this week, New York Times op-edder Ross Douthat, while assailing Matt Damon's "Green Zone," scoffed at "the comforts of a 'Bush lied, people died' reductionism." Accusing Bush of misrepresenting the case for war, Douthat huffs, is "glib" and "lame" scapegoating; the real explanation for what went wrong in Iraq, he asserts, is, well, more Shakespearean.

So let's get down to it. Wehner rests much of his case on a classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a summation of the intelligence community's assessments. It stated:
We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of U.N. resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions. If left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.

This NIE was, of course, wrong. Iraq had no active WMD programs, no stockpiles. But Wehner and others point to it as a holy writ that justifies everything Bush, Dick Cheney and other administration officials said. Which is odd, because the Bush White House admitted after the war began that Bush had not bothered to read the entire 93-page document. Had he done so, he would have seen that the report contained important caveats regarding key aspects of the case -- particularly Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein was actively pursing nuclear weapons and close to possessing them.

But Bush needed to read the intelligence only if he cared about presenting a bound-by-the-facts argument. Instead, he and his aides consistently overstated the iffy intelligence (which itself overstated Saddam's WMD capacities) and they made stuff up. Really. They repeatedly issued provocative assertions that were not backed up by even the flawed intelligence.

Here's a far-from-comprehensive sampling.

- In August 2002, as the administration was preparing to kick-off its campaign for war against Iraq, Cheney said in a speech, "Simply stated, there's no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Yet a few months earlier, Vice Adm. Thomas Wilson, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had testified in Congress that Iraq possessed only "residual" amounts of WMD. And there was no intelligence suggesting Saddam's intention was to build up a WMD arsenal so he could deploy it against the United States -- which would have been a suicidal act. In fact, the existing intelligence indicated Saddam was not interested in a WMD showdown with the United States. As the NIE would later state, Saddam was not likely to mount "terrorist attacks with conventional or [WMD] against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger cause for making war" against Iraq. What was the factual basis for Cheney saying Saddam was beefing up his WMD so he could attack the United States? There was none.

- At a Sept. 7, 2002, joint news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Bush declared that a 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency report had found that Iraq had been "six months away from developing a [nuclear] weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need." One problem: There was no such IAEA report. In 1998, the IAEA actually had reported there were "no indications" that Iraq was producing nuclear weapons. Bush wasn't citing bad intelligence. He had concocted a nonexistent report to bolster the case for war.

- That same month, Cheney claimed there was "very clear evidence" that Saddam was trying to build nuclear weapons: Iraq's acquisition of aluminum tubes to be used to enrich uranium for bombs. But at the time, there was a heated dispute within the intelligence community concerning these tubes. One CIA analyst claimed they had no other purpose other than for uranium enrichment, but scientists at the Department of Energy, the nation's top experts on nuclear weapons, disagreed. Guess who the White House listened to? (The NIE, which neither Bush nor national security adviser Condoleezza Rice would read, reported this dispute.) The aluminum tubes episode offers strong evidence that the White House was cherry-picking its intelligence to build a political case, not assessing the available information to determine what was true.

- Bush and his aides repeatedly asserted Iraq was loaded with chemical weapons. In a Rose Garden speech on Sept. 26, 2002, Bush insisted that "the Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi regime is building the facilities necessary to make more biological and chemical weapons." Yet a September 2002 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was widely distributed to government policymakers, said, "There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has -- or will -- establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities."

- During an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, Bush said that U.N. inspectors had "concluded" that Iraq in the 1990s had actually produced "two to four times" the 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents than it had acknowledged making. Bush continued: "This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions." But U.N. inspectors had concluded no such thing. They had reported destroying key facilities Iraq had used to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The inspectors had encountered discrepancies in the accounting of Iraq's weapons and WMD material and had noted that Iraq could have produced more weapons than the inspectors had uncovered. Bush was misstating the facts to turn a possible stockpile of WMD into an actual arsenal.

- On Nov. 7, 2002, Bush said Saddam "is a threat because he's dealing with al-Qaeda." Yet as the 9/11 Commission later noted, there had been no intelligence confirming significant contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda that added up to an operational relationship. And this was not a one-off claim. On Sept. 26, 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had said that he had "bullet-proof" evidence that Saddam was tied to Osama bin Laden. He never produced that evidence. In March 2003, Cheney claimed Saddam had a "long-standing relationship" with al-Qaeda. But that was not so. (Cheney also repeatedly referred to an intelligence report that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague -- even though the CIA and FBI had discounted this report. The 9/11 Commission later said this report was bunk.)

- At a Dec. 31, 2002, press conference, Bush asserted, "We don't know whether or not [Saddam] has a nuclear weapon." This made it seem that perhaps Saddam already had these dangerous weapons. But there was no intelligence at the time suggesting that the Iraqi dictator might possess nuclear weapons. The faulty NIE had errantly declared that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, but it had concluded Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon for years. (The NIE also reported that the State Department's intelligence outfit had concluded there was no "persuasive evidence" that Saddam had an active nuclear-weapons program.) Bush had no basis for hinting that Saddam could already be nuclear-armed. Yet that's what he did.

- When Bush issued his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on March 17, 2003, he proclaimed, "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." But there was doubt -- and plenty of it. Intelligence analysts had registered uncertainty regarding central elements of Bush's case for war. These doubters had been correct.

So let's review. Bush and Cheney again and again made statements that were not true and that were not supported by the available intelligence. Moreover, once U.N. inspectors entered Iraq in late 2002 and eventually began reporting that there was no evidence of significant WMD programs, Bush and Co. ignored these experts and continued to claim that Saddam was up to his neck in WMD. They insisted Saddam had been shopping for uranium in Africa, even though the intelligence on this point was dubious. All together, they waged a willful campaign of misrepresentation and hyperbole. And to such an extent, it can be branded a lie.

Or let's put it this way: Can Wehner, Rove and Douthat state that Bush carefully reviewed the intelligence in order to present to the public an accurate depiction of what was known and not known about the WMD threat possibly posed by Saddam? Bush and his aides were looking for ammo. They wanted this war -- and they made unsubstantiated claims to get it. The truth was not a priority.

Much of the American public has come to understand this. But if Wehner, Rove and Douthat insist on defending Bush, let them explain the pattern detailed above. I dare any of them to attempt a line-by-line response. The evidence is clear: Bush, Cheney and other administration aides engaged in reckless disregard of the truth to sell a war. That is not an article of faith or a Hollywood fantasy -- it's what happened.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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