September 19, 2008

How Did Bush Lie to Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Bill Clinton famously explained to the grand jury. And by certain standards, he actually had a point.

Let’s recall the context. Clinton had just been asked whether his lawyer had issued a “false statement” when declaring, “There is absolutely no sex of any kind” between the president and Monica Lewinsky. As Slick Willie explained, if one were to interpret “is” in the present tense, then the statement would be true. In other words, if his lawyer meant “there is (currently) absolutely no sex between the president and Monica,” then he was telling the truth. After all, it’s not like Bill was being fellated by Monica at the exact moment his lawyer issued the statement. So, you see, his lawyer wasn’t lying after all…

I’m being facetious, of course. Bill Clinton’s lawyer obviously lied. It’s true that he might not have said anything that was untrue, but he nevertheless intentionally created a false impression in the minds of his listeners. And as far as I’m concerned, as far as anyone should be concerned, this makes him as much of a liar as if he’d made a false statement. The ends of both actions (deceiving others) are the same, even if the means are not.

Although Clinton excelled at such trickery, he had nothing on his successor. Of course, whereas Slick Willie lied about a blowjob, George W. Bush lied about war. As the bumper sticker puts it: “Clinton Ruined a Dress. Bush Ruined a Nation.”

A good example of Bush’s deception can be found in the following statement from his 2003 State of the Union address: “The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.”

Although I believe Bush’s second and third claims were blatantly false,[1], [2] I want to focus here on his first claim, which fits into the pattern of deception described above. Now the president was certainly telling the truth when he said that the IAEA had declared in the 1990s that Iraq had an advanced nuclear program. What the president failed to mention, however, was that the agency had since reached a new opinion. In fact, just a day before Bush’s speech, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei had declared that Iraq’s nuclear program had been eliminated in the 1990s and not revived since. Thus, by stating the agency’s old opinion without noting that it had since been abandoned, Bush created the false impression that the IAEA still believed Iraq had an advanced nuclear weapons program.

More examples of such Clintonian deceit can be found in many of the pre-war speeches in which Bush implied that America was in imminent danger of a Saddam-sponsored terrorist attack. Although it’s true that the October 2002 NIE concluded that Iraq probably had WMDs, it did not believe that Iraq was likely to use these weapons. Nor did it believe that it was likely to give these weapons to al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organizations. Noting that they had “no specific intelligence information that Saddam’s regime has directed attacks against US territory,” the report stated that “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger cause for making war.” However, the estimate cautioned that Iraq might “attempt clandestine attacks against the US Homeland if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime were imminent or unavoidable.”

Despite these conclusions, Bush went around saying things like:

* “This is a man [referring to Saddam] that we know has had connections with al Qaeda. This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army. And this is a man that we must deal with for the sake of peace, for the sake of our children’s peace.”

* “Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people, and to all free people. If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, refusing to use force, even as a last resort, free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks. The attacks of September the 11th, 2001 showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction.”

* “It used to be that we could think that you could contain a person like Saddam Hussein, that oceans would protect us from his type of terror. September the 11th should say to the American people that we’re now a battlefield, that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist organization could be deployed here at home.”

* “We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy—the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader…who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America. Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.”

Such statements, of course, created the impression that a Saddam-sponsored al Qaeda attack was, not just possible, but in fact imminent. Creating such an impression was undoubtedly deceitful. As journalist Paul Sperry notes, “By telling Americans that Saddam could ‘on any given day’ slip unconventional weapons to al-Qaida if America didn’t disarm him, the president misrepresented the conclusions of his own secret intelligence report, which warned that Saddam wouldn’t even try to reach out to al-Qaida unless he were attacked and had nothing to lose—and might even find that hard to do since he had no history of conducting joint terrorist operations with al-Qaida, and certainly none against the U.S.”[3]

The above statements, and many others in which Bush claimed that removing Saddam was important for winning the “war on terror,” are all the more troubling in light of a January 2003 National Intelligence Council report. The report, entitled “Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq,” predicted that a war against Iraq, far from advancing the war on terror, would actually bolster anti-American terrorists. According to the report, which was delivered to the administration before the war, a U.S. invasion would both serve as a rallying cry for Islamic extremists in the region and attract foreign Islamic fighters to Iraq.[4] Three years later, a National Intelligence Estimate revealed that the NIC prediction had come true: “The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

From all this, we can conclude that, contrary to popular opinion, George W. Bush is not a simple idiot. Rather, he is clever. Not brilliant. Not all that knowledgeable about military strategy or world history. But he is clever. Clever like a lawyer. Clever like a car salesman. Clever—alas—like an American president.

* * * * *

[1] When Bush claimed that the British government had learned that Saddam sought uranium from Africa, he implied that such was in fact the case: after all, you can’t learn something that’s not true. The problem is that U.S. intelligence agencies did not agree with the Brits. In February 2002, the CIA sent Joe Wilson, former ambassador to Iraq, to Africa to investigate whether Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq in the 1990s. As Wilson later wrote, “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.” After returning to Washington, Wilson shared his findings with both the CIA and State Department. It is, therefore, not surprising that the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate stated that the British claim could not be confirmed. Moreover, the NIE included the view of INR (the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research) that “the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are…highly dubious.” The Bush administration had access to the NIE, of course. Moreover, they were warned on numerous other occasions about the uncertainty of the African-uranium allegation. For instance, the same month that the NIE was released, CIA Director George Tenet called National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and told him to remove the African claim from Bush’s October 7 speech. Soon thereafter, the CIA sent two letters to the White House stating that it doubted the African claim. Finally—although there’s no specific evidence that such was the case—it’s difficult to believe that the CIA wouldn’t have given the administration a final warning after reviewing portions of Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003.

[2] Bush’s claim that Saddam attempted to purchase the aluminum tubes is troubling for two reasons. First, to say “our intelligence sources” tell us X implies that all our intelligence sources tell us X. But in the case at hand, not all intelligence sources were in agreement. As the 2002 CIA report which Bush seemed to be referencing had noted, some intelligence specialists believed Iraq intended to use the tubes for conventional weapons programs. The second point to be made is that Bush’s claim was repudiated by the IAEA just a day before Bush’s speech. As ElBaradei had stated, “From our analysis to date it appears that the aluminum tubes would be consistent with the purpose stated by Iraq [that they were part of a conventional rocket program] and, unless modified, would not be suitable for manufacturing centrifuges.”

[3] It shouldn’t be surprising that a few months after the war began, nearly 7 in 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.

[4] According to the Washington Post: the report “discussed ‘political Islam being boosted and the war being exploited by terrorists and extremists elsewhere in the region,’ one former senior analyst said. It also suggested that fear of U.S. military dominance and occupation of a Middle East country—one sacred to Islam—would attract foreign Islamic fighters to the area.”

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