Whether Bush lied is a settled issue for all but the most hardened idealogues. It’s time to move beyond it.
On the whole lying thing, Josh Marshall nails it:
Logically speaking, this should be the column where I sound off about the emerging body of evidence that the Bush White House hyped, manipulated and puffed up evidence and generally bamboozled the American people about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But, if it’s all the same, can we just face facts instead?
C’mon. There’s no “emerging body of evidence.”
If you were (a) paying attention to this debate, and (b) not an utterly rabid ideologue, you knew the administration was tossing around all sorts of improbable, unproven or just plain ridiculous stories. All that’s changed is that something else truly unexpected happened: We didn’t find anything — no chemicals, no biologicals, no nothing — at least not yet. And that fact suddenly made it possible to discuss, or maybe just impossible to ignore, what most of us knew all along.
John B. Judis and Spencer Ackerman sensibly move on to the far more important matter of just what these lies mean to our democracy, and what we should do about them. In The New Republic:
Foreign policy is always difficult in a democracy. Democracy requires openness. Yet foreign policy requires a level of secrecy that frees it from oversight and exposes it to abuse. As a result, Republicans and Democrats have long held that the intelligence agencies–the most clandestine of foreign policy institutions–should be insulated from political interference in much the same way as the higher reaches of the judiciary. As the Tower Commission, established to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal, warned in November 1987, “The democratic processes … are subverted when intelligence is manipulated to affect decisions by elected officials and the public.”
If anything, this principle has grown even more important since September 11, 2001. The Iraq war presented the United States with a new defense paradigm: preemptive war, waged in response to a prediction of a forthcoming attack against the United States or its allies. This kind of security policy requires the public to base its support or opposition on expert intelligence to which it has no direct access. It is up to the president and his administration–with a deep interest in a given policy outcome–nonetheless to portray the intelligence community’s findings honestly. If an administration represents the intelligence unfairly, it effectively forecloses an informed choice about the most important question a nation faces: whether or not to go to war. That is exactly what the Bush administration did when it sought to convince the public and Congress that the United States should go to war with Iraq.
From late August 2002 to mid-March of this year, the Bush administration made its case for war by focusing on the threat posed to the United States by Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and by his purported links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Officials conjured up images of Iraqi mushroom clouds over U.S. cities and of Saddam transferring to Osama bin Laden chemical and biological weapons that could be used to create new and more lethal September elevenths. In Nashville on August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney warned of a Saddam “armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror” who could “directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.” In Washington on September 26, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed he had “bulletproof” evidence of ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda. And, in Cincinnati on October 7, President George W. Bush warned, “The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons.” Citing Saddam’s association with Al Qaeda, the president added that this “alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.”
Yet there was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam represented such a grave and imminent threat. Rather, interviews with current and former intelligence officials and other experts reveal that the Bush administration culled from U.S. intelligence those assessments that supported its position and omitted those that did not. The administration ignored, and even suppressed, disagreement within the intelligence agencies and pressured the CIA to reaffirm its preferred version of the Iraqi threat. Similarly, it stonewalled, and sought to discredit, international weapons inspectors when their findings threatened to undermine the case for war.
Three months after the invasion, the United States may yet discover the chemical and biological weapons that various governments and the United Nations have long believed Iraq possessed. But it is unlikely to find, as the Bush administration had repeatedly predicted, a reconstituted nuclear weapons program or evidence of joint exercises with Al Qaeda–the two most compelling security arguments for war. Whatever is found, what matters as far as American democracy is concerned is whether the administration gave Americans an honest and accurate account of what it knew. The evidence to date is that it did not, and the cost to U.S. democracy could be felt for years to come.
Even some politicians now feel they can bring up the obvious. Washington Post:
One measure of how deeply the issue is felt on Capitol Hill came at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was appearing on a different matter. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said that he voted to support the war only after speaking to Wolfowitz, but that now he needed to know if the intelligence about the threat from Iraq’s weapons was wrong.
“A person is only as good as his word,” Taylor said. “This nation is only as good as its word. And if that’s the reason why we did it — and I voted for it — then we need some clarifications here.”
Michael Kinsley in Slate:
Why are we even bothering to keep looking for those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? At this point, what difference does it make whether we find them or not? Trying to find them serves two ostensible purposes: One is to prevent them from being used, and the other is to settle the argument about whether they exist. But neither purpose really applies any longer.
As we are belatedly noticing, other nations are closer to having a usable nuclear weapon than Iraq. The claim was that nuclear and other weapons were especially dangerous in the hands of a malevolent madman like Saddam Hussein. Now Saddam is gone. Iraq is not quite yet the gentle, loving democracy promised by Bush administration propaganda. But its government, or lack of one, is hardly the rogue nuclear power we must fear the most.
As for settling the argument about WMD as a justification for the war, that argument is already settled. It’s obvious that the Bush administration had no good evidence to back up its dire warnings. And even if months of desperate searching ultimately turn up a thing or two, this will hardly vindicate the administration’s claim to have known it all along. The administration itself in effect now agrees that actually finding the weapons doesn’t matter. It asserts that the war can be justified on humanitarian grounds alone, and that Saddam may have destroyed those weapons on his way out the door. (Exactly what we wanted him to do, by the way, now repositioned as a dirty trick.) These are not the sorts of things you say if you know those weapons exist. And if it doesn’t matter that they don’t seem to exist, it cannot logically matter if they do.
In case you don’t recall just how clear and specific George W. Bush was with regard to the intelligence he claimed to have, here are some selections from the prologue to John Dean’s excellent article. All of these are by President Bush:
“Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons.”
-United Nations Address, Sept. 12, 2002
“Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons.”
“We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons — the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have.”
-Radio Address, Oct. 5, 2002
“The Iraqi regime… possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.”
“We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas.”
“We’ve also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States.”
“The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his “nuclear mujahideen” — his nuclear holy warriors. Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past. Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.”
-Cincinnati, Ohio Speech, Oct. 7, 2002
“Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.”
-State of the Union Address, Jan. 28, 2003
“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.”
-Address to the Nation, March 17, 2003
Does anybody remember that the Republicans swept the mid-term elections by exploiting the war issue–specifically the WMD issue? It was URGENT that we get a resolution in Congress before November, the White House and the Republicans claimed, because Saddam had tons of WMD ready to use. Just look at how bold and confident those statements of Sept. 12, Oct. 5 and Oct. 7 are. They aren’t general justifications for action–they’re a declaration of extreme urgency.
Now, as it “emerges” that Bush manipulated intelligence to make it appear that the situation was far more dire than it really was, this scandal is looking a lot like Watergate–another case in which a sitting President abused intelligence agencies to achieve an advantage in an election.
At some point, I think it will be hard for all but the most die-hard of conservative ideologues to deny that the timing of the push for war is suspicious. The assumption back then was that if the President has a sudden sense of urgency, he must know something we don’t. He wouldn’t just emerge from an August pow-wow and start the drumbeat for war, politicizing the issue by demanding a Congressional resolution before the mid-term elections. If he said it just couldn’t wait, well, he must know something we don’t. It must be extremely urgent.
His father, after all, deliberately waited to ask for a Congressional resolution on Gulf War 1, so as not to politicize the issue during the 1990 mid-term elections–and that situation was urgent. Saddam had invaded Kuwait in August. Still, Bush Sr. waited.
So, what did W. know that made things so urgent this time around that he just had to politicize a national security issue by insisting on a Congressional vote just before a mid-term election?
It’s a question that deserves an answer, and so far there isn’t one.
I highly recommend that entire New Republic story. It lays out in detail exactly how the intelligence was abused, how the intelligence community was appalled (and still is), and why this is an extremely dangerous direction for a free country to take.
Allowing a President the power to declare his own reality–to take a set of facts, keep them secret, and misrepresent them to the public to serve his own agenda–is a major step away from freedom. It’s not a left or right issue, just like Watergate really wasn’t, and Iran-Contra really wasn’t. It’s about how much power we give our President. And the power to trick us into a war on false pretenses is too much power.
(UPDATE: Around the Blogosphere on this issue: Daily Kos, CalPundit, Matthew Yglesias. Not many right-wing bloggers to link to on the issue. They prefer not to talk about it. I suppose because it is impossible to defend the proposition, “George W. Bush didn’t lie in the run-up to the war on Iraq.” Better to hope the whole matter just goes away. But Roger L. Simon offers a standard defense, which I’ll paraphrase as, “It doesn’t matter that George W. Bush lied because Saddam Hussein tortured people.” While that last part is true, I don’t see how it follows from the first part.)
The New York Times says Bush didn’t “lie,” he “exaggerated,” but seems to excuse the deception because Bush needed to do it to get the country to go to war:
When presidents are trying to make fundamental changes in national policy as Mr. Bush is, said Donald F. Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, “they’ve got to find a way that’s powerful and persuasive and politically attractive and tap into what the public can grab.”
Look at what the president said about weapons of mass destruction in two prime-time television speeches–one on Oct. 7, his first big address on Iraq, and the other on March 17, when he declared that Saddam Hussein had to leave Iraq in 48 hours or face an attack.
The October speech was devoted largely to the threat of banned weapons. Iraq, Mr. Bush said, had “a massive stockpile of biological weapons” and “thousands of tons of chemical agents” and was “reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” The president asked, “If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today–and we do–does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?”
In the speech in March, on the eve of war, Mr. Bush declared, “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.”
Sunday morning talk shows like ABC‘s This Week or Fox News Sunday often make news for days afterward. Since prominent government officials dominate the guest lists of the programs, it is not unusual for the Monday editions of major newspapers to report on interviews done by the Sunday chat shows.
But the June 15 edition of NBC‘s Meet the Press was unusual for the buzz that it didn’t generate. Former General Wesley Clark told anchor Tim Russert that Bush administration officials had engaged in a campaign to implicate Saddam Hussein in the September 11 attacks– starting that very day. Clark said that he’d been called on September 11 and urged to link Baghdad to the terror attacks, but declined to do so because of a lack of evidence.
Here is a transcript of the exchange:
CLARK: “There was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001, starting immediately after 9/11, to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein.”
RUSSERT: “By who? Who did that?”
CLARK: “Well, it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, ‘You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.’ I said, ‘But–I’m willing to say it, but what’s your evidence?’ And I never got any evidence.”
Clark’s assertion corroborates a little-noted CBS Evening News story that aired on September 4, 2002. As correspondent David Martin reported: “Barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, the secretary of defense was telling his aides to start thinking about striking Iraq, even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks.” According to CBS, a Pentagon aide’s notes from that day quote Rumsfeld asking for the “best info fast” to “judge whether good enough to hit SH at the same time, not only UBL.” (The initials SH and UBL stand for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.) The notes then quote Rumsfeld as demanding, ominously, that the administration’s response “go massive…sweep it all up, things related and not.”
Despite its implications, Martin’s report was greeted largely with silence when it aired. Now, nine months later, media are covering damaging revelations about the Bush administration’s intelligence on Iraq, yet still seem strangely reluctant to pursue stories suggesting that the flawed intelligence– and therefore the war– may have been a result of deliberate deception, rather than incompetence. The public deserves a fuller accounting of this story.
Matthew Yglesias at Tech Central Station:
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…as conservatives more than anyone ought to realize, one can’t evaluate the merits of a government program by simply looking at whether or not it has accomplished anything good. Rather, one needs to consider whether or not the initiative in question accomplished more good than the available alternatives.
Consider a town where ten houses simultaneously catch fire and the local authorities only have the resources to put out one blaze. Seven of the houses, fortunately, are unoccupied, but one contains a single person trapped inside, while a second house contains a likewise trapped family and a third house has two cats inside. Then the fire marshal arrives on the scene brandishing a stack of evidence purporting to show that hidden behind the walls of the cat house is a secret day care center and dozens of small children will burn alive if the fire isn’t put out. The trucks come, the house is saved while the other nine burn, and then the firefighters come inside only to discover that there was no daycare center after all, just the cats. All of a sudden the sudden the town is in an uproar – the fire marshal got the facts all wrong. Then the marshal turns to his critics, points at the saved cats and asks “would it really have been better if I’d just let these cats die?”
Well, yes and no. We’re glad, of course, that the cats are alive, but the marshal is ignoring the dead people whose lives he could have saved if he hadn’t been acting on bogus information about the day care center (why would he have lied about this? who knows – maybe the cats were stuck in the house because of his father’s carelessness and he felt guilty about it).