The White House is taking umbrage over new press reports that George W. Bush misled the American people on a key justification for invading Iraq. But Bush’s latest excuse – that he was just an unwitting conveyor of bad information, not a willful purveyor of lies – has been stretched thin by overuse.
Nevertheless, White House spokesman Scott McClellan lashed out at a Washington Post report that in May 2003, Bush described two Iraqi trailers as mobile biological weapons labs although two days earlier a Pentagon field investigation had debunked those suspicions in a report to Washington.
“The lead in the Washington Post left the impression for the reader that the President was saying something he knew at the time not to be true,” McClellan said on April 12, 2006. “That is absolutely false and it is irresponsible, and I don’t know how the Washington Post can defend something so irresponsible.”
But the truth is that Bush has been caught, again and again, relying on lies and distortions to confuse the American people about the Iraq War. Sometimes, he can blame U.S. intelligence agencies for the false information, but other times, he simply lies about facts that he personally knows.
For instance, just weeks after Bush made his false statement about the bio-labs, he also began rewriting the history of the Iraq War to make his invasion seem more reasonable.
On July 14, 2003, Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had barred United Nations weapons inspectors from Iraq when, in fact, they were admitted in November 2002 and given free rein to search suspected Iraqi weapons sites. It was Bush who forced the U.N. inspectors to leave in March 2003 so the invasion could proceed.
But faced with growing questions about his justifications for war in summer 2003, Bush revised this history, apparently trusting in the weak memories of the American people and the timidity of the U.S. press. At the end of an Oval Office meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Bush told reporters:
“We gave him (Saddam Hussein) a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
In the following months and years, Bush repeated this claim in slightly varied forms as part of his litany for defending the invasion on the grounds that it was Hussein who “chose war,” not Bush.
Meeting no protest from the Washington press corps, Bush continued repeating his lie about Hussein showing “defiance” on the inspections. Bush uttered the lie as recently as March 21, 2006, when he answered a question from veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
“I was hoping to solve this (Iraq) problem diplomatically,” Bush said. “The world said, ‘Disarm, disclose or face serious consequences.’ … We worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny the inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did. And the world is safer for it.”
The significance of this lie about the inspectors – when judging Bush’s proclivity to lie – rests on the fact that he can’t simply blame his advisers when cornered. Bush was fully aware of the U.N. inspectors and what happened to them.
'Downing Street Memo'
Indeed, documentary evidence shows that Bush was determined to invade Iraq in 2002 and early 2003 regardless of what U.S. intelligence could prove or what the Iraqis did.
For instance, the so-called “Downing Street Memo” recounted a secret meeting on July 23, 2002, involving British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top national security aides. At that meeting, Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, described his discussions about Iraq with Bush’s top advisers in Washington.
Dearlove said, “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
At an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 31, 2003, Bush and Blair discussed their determination to invade Iraq, though Bush still hoped that he might provoke the Iraqis into some violent act that would serve as political cover, according to minutes written by Blair’s top foreign policy aide David Manning.
So, while Bush was telling the American people that he considered war with Iraq “a last resort,” he actually had decided to invade regardless of Iraq’s cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors, according to the five-page memo of the Oval Office meeting reviewed by the New York Times.
The memo also reveals Bush conniving to deceive the American people and the world community by trying to engineer a provocation that would portray Hussein as the aggressor. Bush suggested painting a U.S. plane up in U.N. colors and flying it over Iraq with the goal of drawing Iraqi fire, the meeting minutes said.
“The U.S. was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours,” the memo said about Bush’s scheme. “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Time to Talk War Crimes.”]
Regardless of whether any casus belli could be provoked, Bush already had “penciled in” March 10, 2003, as the start of the U.S. bombing of Iraq, according to the memo. “Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning,” Manning wrote.
According to the British memo, Bush and Blair acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, nor were they likely to be found in the coming weeks, but that wouldn’t get in the way of the U.S.-led invasion. [NYT, March 27, 2006]
Ousting the Inspectors
So, Bush clearly knew that Hussein had permitted the inspectors into Iraq to search suspected weapons sites. Bush also knew that he was the one who forced the inspectors to leave so the invasion could proceed in March 2003.
“Although the inspection organization was now operating at full strength and Iraq seemed determined to give it prompt access everywhere, the United States appeared as determined to replace our inspection force with an invasion army,” the UN’s chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, wrote in his memoir, Disarming Iraq.
In other words, neither the U.N. inspectors’ negative WMD findings nor the Security Council’s refusal to authorize force would stop Bush’s invasion on March 19, 2003. [For more on Bush's pretexts for war in Iraq, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
By late May 2003, however, the failure of Bush's own inspectors to find any WMD, compounded by the stirrings of a bloody Iraqi insurgency, left Bush and his advisers scrambling to refurbish old justifications for the war and to cobble together some new ones.
The two trailers came in handy, even though the evidence was always clear that the equipment was to produce hydrogen for weather balloons, not biological agents.
Like other WMD evidence, however, the case of the trailers was stretched to serve Bush’s political needs. Despite the field report debunking the bio-war claims – sent to Washington on May 27, 2003 – the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a misleading “white paper” on the alleged bio-labs on May 28.
Bush began citing the trailers as the conclusive WMD proof on May 29, 2003. “Those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons are wrong,” Bush declared, referring to the mobile labs. “We found them.”
By June 1, 2003, after simply reading the “white paper,” I was able to post an analysis showing how shoddy and flimsy the CIA/DIA claims were. At the time, I was not aware of the field report, which had been stamped secret and shelved. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Matrix, Revisited.”]
The Plame Case
But even worse challenges to Bush’s credibility lay ahead. In June 2003, a former U.S. ambassador, Joseph Wilson, was briefing a few reporters about what he considered the administration’s twisting of intelligence on Iraq’s supposed pursuit of enriched uranium from Niger.
Bush had included the bogus Niger claim in his State of the Union Address in January 2003. But Wilson’s first-hand account of his assignment in 2002 to check out the Niger suspicions – and his conclusion that the evidence was weak – represented the first major assault on Bush’s pre-war intelligence from a mainstream government figure.
The White House struck back, organizing anti-Wilson leaks to friendly reporters. Privately, Bush declassified information that tended to bolster his Niger claim – even though by then its truthfulness had been discredited by U.S. intelligence agencies.
With President Bush’s clearance, Vice President Dick Cheney dispatched his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, to leak information to Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward on June 27, 2003. Libby approached New York Times correspondent Judith Miller on July 8 and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper on July 12.
On July 14, 2003, the behind-the-scenes attack on Wilson surfaced in a column by conservative writer Robert Novak, who divulged that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer who had a hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Africa, implying that Wilson’s investigative work in Niger had resulted from nepotism.
In a court filing nearly three years later, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald described the anti-Wilson campaign as a “concerted” effort by the White House to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” a troublesome critic.
Ironically, the same day of Novak’s column, Bush introduced a new rationale for the war – his revisionist history that he was forced to invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let the U.N. inspectors in. The White House apparently saw little danger in deceiving the Washington press corps about Iraq War intelligence, no matter how blatantly.
When the Plame affair exploded as a scandal in September 2003 – after the CIA complained that her exposure violated a law designed to protect the identity of intelligence agents – Bush escalated the deceptions.
Bush knew that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets on the Niger uranium from a National Intelligence Estimate and that those secrets were given to reporters to undercut Wilson. But Bush acted like he was clueless when the investigation began into how Wilson’s wife was exposed.
If Bush had wanted to be honest, he would have disclosed immediately that he had approved a plan to release information to reporters in order to discredit Wilson’s claims. Bush might have explained that he never intended that Plame’s identity be divulged, but he nevertheless had information that would help investigators solve the mystery.
Instead, Bush went out of his way to play dumb, while telling the American people that he wanted to get to the bottom of the story.
“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business.”
Perhaps, having gotten away with even more brazen lies – like claiming the U.N. inspectors were kept out of Iraq – Bush may have judged that he could pretty much tell the American people whatever came into his head.
Sometimes, Bush lied even without a clear reason. For instance, during a campaign stop in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 20, 2004, Bush went out of his way to mislead his listeners on the question of whether he always got warrants when he conducted wiretaps.
“By the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order,” Bush said. “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”
Two years earlier, however, Bush had approved letting the National Security Agency use warrantless wiretaps to intercept international calls and other communications made by some Americans.
When Bush’s wiretap lie was exposed in December 2005, the White House insisted that Bush had not lied, that his comments related only to roving wiretaps under the USA Patriot Act, an excuse that Bush adopted as his own on New Year’s Day 2006.
“I was talking about roving wiretaps, I believe, involved in the Patriot Act. This is different from the N.S.A. program,” he said.
However, the context of Bush’s 2004 statement was clear. He broke away from a discussion of the USA Patriot Act to note “by the way” that “any time” a wiretap is needed a court order must be obtained. He was not confining his remarks to “roving wiretaps” under the Patriot Act. [For Bush’s 2004 speech, click here.]
Despite this history of Bush’s deceptions, White House spokesman McClellan still flies into a rage whenever news organizations note that Bush has said something that turned out not to be true.
After the Washington Post’s disclosure about Bush’s bogus bio-war claims, McClellan called the article unfair and noted that Bush made his comments in response to a question, not in a formal speech.
“I saw some reporting saying he had gone out and given a speech about it, and that’s not true,” McClellan said. “I saw some reporting talking about how this latest revelation … was an embarrassment for the White House. No, it’s an embarrassment for the media that is out there reporting this.”
McClellan said the White House also demanded and got an apology from ABC News for suggesting that Bush touted the supposed bio-lab findings while knowing that the CIA/DIA “white paper” was bogus.
“I talked to one network about it and they have … expressed their apologies to the White House,” McClellan said. “I hope they will go and publicly apologize on the air about the statements that were made, because I think it’s important, given that they had made those statements in front of all their viewers.”
Right-wing bloggers also rallied to Bush’s defense.
Yet, while it may be impossible to know exactly what’s in a person’s head when something false is stated – whether the person thinks it’s true or knows it’s false – Bush’s record of deception shouldn’t earn him much benefit of the doubt from the American people.
When apologies start for misleading the public on matters of war and peace over the past several years, George W. Bush should be standing near the front of the line.