Reality Check

Charges and counter-charges

Did Bush knowingly mislead the U.S. into war with Iraq?

By David Corn

Former President George W. Bush delivers his second State of the Union address as former Vice President Dick Cheney looks on, 01/28/03. (Photo: Getty Images.)
Former President George W. Bush delivers his second State of the Union address as former Vice President Dick Cheney looks on, 01/28/03. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Peter Wehner, a Politics Daily colleague, was quite gracious to accept my challenge to defend his old boss, George W. Bush — that is, to partially accept it.

Regular readers of this column might recall that in a March 17 article, I insisted that the evidence is quite clear that Bush and his crew misled the American public into the Iraq war. I noted that in the months prior to the March 2003 invasion they had "waged a willful campaign of misrepresentation and hyperbole" about the supposed WMD threat posed by Iraq. It wasn't merely a matter of Bush, Dick Cheney and the others repeating in good faith intelligence that later proved to be wrong. They incessantly made provocative (and false) assertions overstating the lousy intelligence, and, on other occasions, they simply made stuff up. I offered a sampling of eight false statements that characterized this endeavor. (The Center for Public Integrity has put together a list of 532 false Bush administration statements about Iraq's WMD capability.) And I dared Wehner, who worked in the W. White House, Karl Rove, Bush's uber-strategist, and Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist — each of whom had recently dismissed the notion that Bush had misguided the nation — to provide a line-by-line response. Wehner was the sole member of this Bush-backing trio willing to give it a shot. But he has only managed to put up half a fight.

Though some people by now may consider this back and forth tiresome, it's an important debate, and I'm going to engage in one more round, without expecting any converts, least of all Wehner.

In his reply, Wehner addresses merely five of those eight statements. Should we assume he's conceding on the others? Let me remind readers — those who are not weary of all this — about the statements Wehner declines to confront. In August 2002, as the Bush White House was ramping up its sales campaign for war in Iraq, Cheney delivered a high-profile speech in which he declared that there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein was "amassing" WMDs "to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Yet a few months earlier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency had testified to Congress that Saddam was only maintaining "residual" amounts of WMDs (which, as it turned out, was itself an overstatement). Perhaps more important, at the time of Cheney's speech, there was no intelligence indicating that Hussein intended to use WMDs against the United States, which would have been suicidal. In fact, intelligence reports suggested he was not interested in a WMD showdown with Washington. That is, there was no factual basis for Cheney's dramatic statement. No wonder Wehner avoids dealing with it.

Wehner also ducks addressing Bush's pre-war attempt to link Hussein to al-Qaeda. That was a key part of the administration's pitch for war. On Nov. 7, 2002, Bush proclaimed that Hussein "is a threat because he's dealing with al-Qaeda." Yet as the 9/11 Commission later noted, there was no intelligence confirming an operational relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, in March 2003, Cheney insisted that Hussein had a "long-standing relationship" with al-Qaeda. Moreover, Cheney again and again tried to tie Hussein to al-Qaeda by referring to an unconfirmed intelligence report indicating that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. The CIA and FBI, though, had discounted this report, and the 9/11 Commission later said that it was indeed bogus. So here was the vice president of the United States pushing phony information, after his government's own intelligence experts had said there was no confirmation for it. How reckless was that? It's not surprising that Wehner ignored this part of the challenge.

And Wehner overlooks one of Bush's biggest whoppers. At a Dec. 31, 2002, press conference, Bush maintained, "We don't know whether or not [Hussein] has a nuclear weapon." This comment suggested that Hussein — oh my God! — might already possess these dangerous weapons. The faulty intelligence available at the time had errantly declared that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, but it had also concluded Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon for years. There was no basis for Bush to say that Hussein already could be nuclear-armed. Clearly, Bush was doing so to rile up the public. Wehner is silent on this point.

So Wehner has nothing to say about (1) Cheney hurling an intelligence-free claim that Saddam was developing WMDs so he could attack the United States; (2) Bush and Cheney hyping the connection between Saddam and the mass murderers of 9/11; or (3) Bush resorting to scare-'em rhetoric about a nuclear Iraq that had no foundation in the available intelligence. On these fronts, Bush, Cheney, and their aides exhibited a reckless disregard of the facts as they tried to whip up public support for their war. But none of that is on Wehner's radar screen. Which calls into question his entire attempt to beat back the proposition that Bush bamboozled the public.

But let's turn to the five areas where Wehner does mount an argument.

1. The Case of the "Massive Stockpile of Biological Weapons." Wehner's first point of rebuttal concerns an Oct. 7, 2002, Bush speech. I had written that Bush had declared in that speech 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." And I had pointed out that Bush had described this as "a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions." The problem, I had noted, was that U.N. inspectors had not concluded that such a terrifying stockpile existed. They had only reported that due to discrepancies they had encountered in Iraq's accounting of WMD-related materials it was possible that Iraq could have produced more weapons than the inspectors had uncovered in the 1990s. In other words, Bush had slyly transformed a disturbing possibility into an actuality.

Wehner insists that I went overboard when I criticized Bush for stating that Iraq had actually produced this massive stockpile. He notes that in this speech Bush had said that the inspectors "concluded" only that "Iraq had likely produced" this stockpile. (Emphasis added.) And that means, Wehner argues, that Bush didn't declare that such a stockpile existed for sure. My supposed sin: falsely accusing Bush of having turned a possibility into an actuality.

Wehner's throwing up smoke to cover up what Bush did. No matter how I characterized it, Bush overstated the U.N. findings. The inspectors had not concluded that this "massive stockpile" had been "likely produced." They had only said that because of the accounting discrepancies it was possible that a large amount of biological weapons might have been produced. They did not assert it was "likely" that this had happened. Bush ignored this critical distinction — to make it seem as if these stockpiles were real. And elsewhere in the speech, Bush stated flat-out — using the present tense — that Iraq "possesses and produces" biological weapons. There was no use of the "likely" qualifier. He also claimed that on "any given day," Hussein could reach into his stockpile and hand a biological weapon to a "terrorist group," allowing "the Iraqi regime to attack America." Bush did not, as Wehner claims, convey the "element of uncertainty" in the U.N. inspectors' findings; he mischaracterized them and falsely cited them as the basis for unambiguous declarations.

2. The Case of the Nonexistent Report. I noted that at a Sept. 7, 2002, press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush said that when the U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors "first went into Iraq and were denied — finally denied access, a report came out of the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need." Right after that press conference, though, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that there had been no such report issued in 1998, when its inspectors had been forced out of Iraq. Moreover, the IAEA in 1998 reported that it had successfully dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program by that point. ("There are no indications that there remains in Iraq any physical capability for the production of weapon-usable nuclear material of any practical significance," IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei declared at that time.) In other words, Bush had completely flipped the IAEA's 1998 conclusion. The agency had said Hussein's nuclear program was dead; Bush was citing the agency to contend Iraq was near to possessing nuclear weapons.

How does Wehner wiggle out of this one? He cites a White House clarification that came days after the Bush-Blair press conference and that maintained that Bush had actually been referring to a 1991 IAEA report. Supposedly that IAEA report had concluded that Iraq at that time had been six months away from building nuclear weapons. Guess what? After the White House tried that spin, the IAEA told reporters that no report of this sort existed in 1991. The Bush gang got it wrong twice. And seven years later, Wehner is recycling its spin.

3. The Case of the DIA Report. Throughout the run-up to the war, Bush and his aides repeatedly asserted that Iraq was loaded with chemical weapons. And indeed the flawed National Intelligence Estimate — a summary of available intelligence produced in a rush by the intelligence community at the insistence of the Democrats in Congress, not the Bush White House — did say that Iraq possessed chemical weapons. But other intelligence indicated that the United States intelligence community had no good idea of what Hussein did possess. And I pointed to a September 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency report that declared, "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." This suggested that the intelligence Bush and the others were relying upon was iffy. Yet at no time did Bush and his subordinates indicate they were issuing statements predicated on uncertain intelligence.

Wehner accurately notes that the DIA report also said that Iraq "probably possesses bulk chemical stockpiles, primarily containing precursors, but that also could consist of some mustard agent or stabilized VX." This gets to one of the central aspects of this controversy. An intelligence agency reported there was no "reliable information" but that it believed there was a probability. Bush and his aides never told the public that the intelligence was frequently ambiguous. Instead, he asserted these presumptions as well-established facts and did not share the uncertainty.

4. The Case of the Aluminum Tubes. Michael Isikoff and I detailed this caper in our book, "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War." In my March 17 column, I noted that in September 2002, Cheney had cited Iraq's acquisition of aluminum tubes as "very clear evidence" that Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weapons. As national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had put it at the time, the tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." Yet the nation's top experts on nuclear weapons, scientists at the Department of Energy, had long disputed this, contending that the tubes were not destined for a nuclear weapons program. Their conclusions were noted in the flawed National Intelligence Estimate. But there was one CIA analyst, who was not a nuclear weapons expert, who had kept insisting that the tubes were part of an uranium enrichment program. And that was the analysis embraced by the White House in an act of brazen cherry-picking.

Here Wehner has no strong defense. Consequently, he redefines the debate, claiming that my position is that "President Bush and Vice President Cheney must side with dissenting views over the mainstream conclusions in an NIE report or risk being called a liar." That's not what I said — and I suspect Wehner knows that. (By the way, the NIE did not yet exist at the time that Cheney and Rice were claiming the tubes were case-closed evidence of a nuclear weapons program.) My point is clear: when Cheney and Rice said the aluminum tubes could have only one use (uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons), they were simply not telling the truth. And they had reason to know so. After all, the dispute within the intelligence committee concerning the tubes even spilled into news accounts at the time. Cheney and Rice were misrepresenting the data to goose the country toward war.

5. The Case of No Doubt. Wehner takes issue with my assessment that Bush overstated the case when he said, right before launching the Iraq war, "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." There was at the time doubt within the intelligence community about key aspects of Bush's case for the war: the aluminum tubes, the allegation that Hussein had sought uranium in Niger, the whereabouts of any of Iraq's supposed chemical weapons, those "massive stockpiles" of biological weapons that Bush cited. But Bush erased — or ignored — all that doubt. But I'll grant Wehner that doubt can be in the eye of the beholder, and that Bush was not much interested in doubt.

Wehner ends his column by noting that others at the time, including Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy, declared Hussein a WMD threat. This is another dodge. Bush was the man in charge. He made the call to start a war. He had an obligation to have a complete understanding of the risk at hand — and to be sure that whatever he said about the case for war was as accurate as possible. Yet he never even bothered to read the flawed 93-page NIE report that Wehner repeatedly cites.

I closed my column with a question:

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?

It's telling that Wehner does not attempt to concoct a response to that query.

Finally, let me address Wehner's low blow. In scoundrel fashion, he asks why I'm "strangely resistant to placing any of the blame for the Iraq war on Saddam Hussein" and queries, "Why do the words 'Saddam Hussein lied' not pass the lips of David Corn more often (or at all)?" Hussein was a tyrant, murderer, evildoer — and, yes, a liar. But Bush did not launch a war because Hussein was not a truth-teller. Moreover, I reject Wehner's attempt to establish any moral equivalency between Hussein and Bush. I hold the latter, as the leader of the United States, to a higher standard. I don't expect anything out of a dictator. But I do presume that our elected leaders — and their aides — will hold a rigorous regard for the truth, particularly when the issue is war. The bottom line is undeniable: Bush and Cheney repeatedly issued false statements to guide the nation to war, and they made no concerted efforts to guarantee that they were providing the public with the most realistic depiction of the threat. They were not interested in an honest debate; they wanted war.

30 March 2010 — Return to cover.