During the past week, the press has swarmed over the Bush White House demanding to be told the circumstances that led the president to say, in this year’s State of the Union address, that Saddam Hussein had “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This information was based almost entirely on documents that the CIA and the White House knew were false. That makes Bush’s statement a lie. But, as Chatterbox observed yesterday, we can count at least six other lies told by or on behalf of President Bush in this calendar year alone. That doesn’t include two addled lies Bush uttered while trying to extricate himself from Yellowcakegate—that the CIA didn’t doubt the uranium story until after he gave the speech, and that the United States went to war because Saddam wouldn’t let inspectors into Iraq. Why was the yellowcake lie treated like a major news event, when the earlier lies were not?
Some might be tempted to answer, “Because this was a bigger moral outrage. It led us to war.” But that overlooks a much bigger lie that led us to war—Bush’s March 17 statement, “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.” Bush wasn’t the only one who believed this; most political commentators, Chatterbox included, believed it, too, based on snippets of information made public by Secretary of State Colin Powell. These snippets remain difficult to square with the allied forces’ continuing inability to find biological and chemical weapons in Iraq. That’s one reason the press hasn’t jumped down Bush’s throat over this particular lie. The other reason is profound anxiety that we let ourselves get conned into believing the only legitimate rationale Bush offered to wage war against Iraq. Raging over Bush’s yellowcake lie is one way to exact revenge.
“You won’t con us again” sentiment explains the intensity of the media frenzy over Yellowcakegate. But it doesn’t explain why the yellowcake lie became the focus of that frenzy. As Chatterbox noted yesterday, Bush and his minions lied about the cost of the Iraq war—a cost that Larry Lindsey, then-chairman of the National Economic Council, reportedly lost his job for getting about right. Gerald Seib, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, where Lindsey quoted the figure of $100 billion to $200 billion, notes this irony in his column today. But don’t expect a big to-do over the cost issue, any more than there was a big to-do over Bush’s outrageous claim this past May that “We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction.”
The yellowcake lie landed on Page One solely because it occasioned a brief and fatal departure from the Bush White House’s press strategy of stonewalling. “Bush Claim on Iraq Had Flawed Origin, White House Says” read a New York Times headline on July 8. Glancing through the story, Chatterbox initially puzzled over its Page One placement. Didn’t we know already that Bush’s yellowcake line was a lie? Then Chatterbox realized that the novelty component wasn’t the lie, but the Bush administration’s admission that it had told a lie. In the Bush White House, this simply isn’t done. Observe, for instance, how the new Bush press secretary, Scott McClellan, handled a question yesterday about Bush’s weird statement that we went to war because Saddam refused to admit weapons inspectors into Iraq:
A: What he was referring to was the fact that Saddam Hussein was not complying with 1441, that he continued his past pattern and refused to comply with Resolution 1441 of the United Nations Security Council, which was his final opportunity to comply. And the fact that he was trying to thwart the inspectors every step of the way, and keep them from doing their job. So that’s what he’s referring to in that statement.
Q: But that isn’t what he said.
Ignoring this, McClellan moved on to another reporter’s question, about North Korea.
But on Yellowcakegate, short-timer Ari Fleischer—after an obviously wearying exchange with reporters in which he conceded that the State of the Union line was based on the erroneous premise that we knew Saddam had sought yellowcake from Niger—let down his guard further and conceded that yes, it had been a mistake to put the story about the yellowcake safari into the State of the Union speech. “Knowing all that we know now,” read a prepared statement he put out, “the reference to Iraq’s attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech.” (Weirdly, Fleischer was identified only as a “senior Bush administration official,” even though this was the White House’s official pronouncement on the matter.) Joshua Micah Marshall has noted in his Talking PointsMemo blog that Fleischer’s mea culpa would have been more honest had it begun, “Knowing what we knew then.” Still, it was honest enough to electrify the press.
Fleischer subsequently tried to put out the fire by stating, at his very last press briefing, that it “very well may be true” that Iraq had tried recently to purchase yellowcake in Africa. The administration line later hardened into (in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s words), “[I]t’s technically correct what the president said,” because Bush had attributed the information to British intelligence. But by then the damage had been done.
The ugly reality about stonewalling and lying is that, if pursued with the proper discipline, it can be an effective public-relations tool. Mainstream reporters may contrast what a White House press spokesman says with what somebody else says, but they usually hesitate to state bluntly that Person A is lying and Person B is telling the truth. (An admirable exception is Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who has devoted considerable energy to documenting Bush’s falsehoods.) If a press secretary states consistently that up is down, most reporters will present this as a matter of opinion. But if he states repeatedly that up is down, then says that up is up, and then resumes saying that up is down, reporters will seize on the inconsistency and cry foul. Unlike disagreement between one person and another (or even disagreement between one person and the rest of humanity), a single person’s saying one thing and then saying another is usually taken (sometimes unfairly) as prime facie evidence that a lie has been told.
Is it wrong to lie? Reporters tend to shy away even from that moral judgment. But at least in Washington, reporters take a very dim view of incompetent lying. The rules of engagement dictate that you may not have an opinion about a president and his policies—too divisive!—but that you may opine all you like on that president’s effectiveness at getting things done. That’s what happened in Yellowcakegate. Even Jim Hoagland, who writes an opinion column for the Washington Post’s op-ed page, hews to this standard today in lambasting the Bush White House for “the sudden tone-deafness of a Bush team that had been pretty good at not giving its enemies ammunition to use against it.” That “tone-deafness” was demonstrated when the White House conceded that Bush had no reliable factual basis for his yellowcake claim. The more professional thing to do, Hoagland suggests, would have been to wait it out and hope that evidence would eventually prove Bush’s unfounded assertion to be correct. Hoagland’s headline says it all: “A Classic Case of Incompetence.” Never mind that, in pretending to know that Saddam tried to buy yellowcake from Niger, Bush told a lie. His real sin was not being a pro.