When will the president level with America?
By Sydney H. Schanberg
Village Voice, August 19, 2003
Bit by bit, the truth about Iraq seeps out. It’s not a pretty sight — makes one wonder if the American voter will ever get tired of snow jobs.
After the 9-11 attack by Al Qaeda terrorists, most of them citizens of Saudi Arabia, we were told, endlessly, by President Bush and his war cabinet that Iraq, not the Saudi kingdom, posed an “imminent” threat to the security of the United States.
Now that the war has been over for more than three months and our military forces have not yet found any evidence of an imminent nuclear, chemical, or biological threat (though they may still find evidence of such weapons), the White House has changed its story. Dramatically.
The threat, the Bush people now say, may not have been imminent, but 9-11 changed everything about our national security and made a preventative attack on this rogue nation more immediately necessary. We could not wait, goes the new “message,” until Iraq had all these doomsday mechanisms in place.
Thus, their new “message” is that this was not a war of necessity but a war of choice — an opportunity created by the need to prevent a repeat of the 3,000 deaths of 9-11. It was a chance, they say, to excise a vile dictatorship, replace it with a nascent democracy, and thereby bring peace closer in the volatile Middle East. (Doesn’t this sound a great deal like nation-building, a policy previously shunned by the president as anathema? As Anna’s King of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.”)
What would have happened if they had shared this revisionist “truth” with us in the first place? Well, the president might not have received the popular support for a war of “choice” — a preemptive strike. That’s probably why he felt the need to hype the facts and scare Americans into a more jingoistic mood.
Supporters of Bush and the war call this kind of talk the bile of partisan politics. They say that with Saddam Hussein removed from power, Iraq will be a better place, and maybe the democratic urge will spread to other Arab nations. We all hope so, but there’s no way to tell now amid the violent and messy stew of the war’s aftermath.
There’s a lot this president didn’t level with us about. He didn’t acknowledge — and still hasn’t — that his panning for the aftermath was weak, nearly nonexistent. Did the White House think an Eden would magically materialize out of the smoke and debris of “shock and awe”? Though “major combat” has ended, American military personnel are still being killed regularly by snipers and ambushers, at a rate of about two soldiers every three days. (The Pentagon publishes regular casualty figures, but one thing they don’t tell us is how many of the dead are suicides. There are always suicides when troops are sent far from home to where all things are unfamiliar and you don’t speak the language and there is real difficulty — and stress — distinguishing enemies from friends.)
There’s no definitive way to measure whether Bush’s distortions and deceptions are more persistent or serious than those of previous presidents, all of whom at times withheld truths from the public. What is clear is that this president has created an apparatus to control information that leaves his predecessors’ image-making machines in the distant dust. His administration has continually blocked the release of information about everything from how it arrived at its energy policy to the seriousness of the air quality at ground zero in Manhattan after the 9-11 attack.
Perhaps the most written-about episode of information distortion was the shameless game the Bush White House played with those documents that purported to describe an Iraqi attempt to buy fissionable uranium ore from Niger. The documents were forged — and virtually every agency in the intelligence community had confirmed they were forged. In response to a request from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, the CIA and the State Department sent Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Gabon, to Africa to check out the uranium “story.” He returned to Washington in March 2002, and reported that the documents, which had also been obtained by British intelligence, were indeed fakes and that there was no evidence of an Iraqi attempt to purchase uranium from Niger.
Nevertheless, months later, senior Bush officials, in their effort to get a war resolutions from Congress, were reportedly telling closed meetings of congressional committees that the Niger report was genuine and serious. This played a definitive role in overcoming Democratic opposition, and the resolution breezed through Congress on October 10 and 11, 2002.
Then on January 28, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush made the following statement: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Since nothing was known to the public about the Wilson mission to Africa or the documents being fake, there was no immediate reaction to the president’s claim about Iraq and uranium, though in hindsight it was an astonishing 16-word sentence.
But then ex-ambassador Wilson, who was astonished, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times describing his findings in Africa and his immediate report on them to senior officials in Washington. This article appeared in July. That’s when the political storm erupted. Had the president lied knowingly? Why didn’t any of his aides or Vice President Cheney catch the gaffe?
The president’s first comment blamed others: “I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services.” Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, was more specific with her finger of blame, saying, “The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety.” She did not explain why she or her staff had missed the false information.
CIA director George Tenet, reading the Bush/Rice tea leaves, immediately fell on his sword. In a statement, he said, “I am responsible for the approval process in my agency…These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president.”
No one in the White House has been able to offer a compelling explanation for how all this could have happened, considering that three-and-a-half months earlier, reviewing the draft of another Bush speech about Iraq — to be delivered in Cincinnati on October 7 — the CIA directed the White House to remove a mention of the Niger-uranium tale. So the president’s coterie men had been alerted long before the State of the Union address.
There’s more. Eleven days after Tenet took the blame, the deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, stepped forward and said it was all his fault. He said he had received the CIA warning memos about the Cincinnati speech in October, but didn’t have any memory of them when the issue surfaced again in the State of the Union speech. “I should have asked that the 16 words be taken out,” he said. “I failed in that responsibility.”
Some of this sounds like a Three Stooges movie. But some of it sounds like people caught in the headlights.
The most important thing to remember is that none of this could have taken place if hard-liners like Cheney and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and possibly Bush himself hadn’t been playing with the truth to bring the war they wanted to fruition.
The other important thing is whether Americans will care at the polls next year that their president told them so many whoppers to get his way.