Dick Cheney likes to play the heavy—or, as a top aide once put it, “sit in a loincloth with a knife in his mouth.” After keeping silent for a couple of weeks following the indictment of his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, Cheney donned the loincloth this week and went back on the attack. He criticized administration opponents, saying that they have lost the “basic measure of truthfulness and good faith in the conduct of political debate.” Their claim that the president “purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence,” said Cheney, “is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.”
Welcome back, Mr. Vice President—you’re always good for the headlines. What was striking about Cheney’s assault was that while denying critics’ charges of manipulation and dishonesty involving prewar intelligence, he resorted to exactly the tactics that inspired the criticism. As he did with the prewar intelligence, Cheney told no outright lies, but he exaggerated the case, picked only evidence he liked, and ignored the caveats. Here’s how he did it:
Cheney said: “Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing force against Saddam Hussein.”
By talking about “irresponsible comments,” Cheney makes it seem that critics are welcoming insurgent bombs or inviting Saddam Hussein for dinner. But how outlandish, in fact, are these “irresponsible” claims by those who voted to authorize force? The most incendiary quote the administration and GOP committees can offer comes from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid: “[T]he administration engaged in a pattern of manipulation of the facts … as it made its case for attacking, for invading Iraq.” Reid’s charge is debatable, but it’s hardly the combustible, irresponsible speech Cheney suggests it is. Cheney is setting the bar for irresponsibility so low that any questions about prewar intelligence can be dismissed.
Cheney: “These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence, and were free to draw their own conclusions.”
Cheney talks only about a narrow question: Did the administration fudge evidence it gave to Congress in advance of the vote to authorize the use of force? That’s the most solid ground he can stand on, but even it’s still shaky. Cheney does not repeat Bush’s claim that members of Congress had access to the same intelligence, because they didn’t. But he plays up their unprecedented access to the National Intelligence Estimate before they cast their vote—though Cheney knows that some important caveats were left out of that report. Congress had access to intelligence before bombs started dropping, but the administration decided, in the end, how much and what kind of intelligence that was.
And what the vice president doesn’t talk about is all the other ways he, the president, and other members of the war council manipulated evidence in hundreds of speeches and interviews leading up to the war. Cheney, for example, insisted there might be a link between Iraq and the attacks on 9/11 after the administration’s official position was that there was no such link. He presented the direst view of Iraq’s nuclear program without discussing dissent within the administration about those claims. This was not intelligence data, but these claims were critical to shaping public opinion and putting pressure on Congress to vote for war. He could make a case about why the administration had to be aggressive, but he doesn’t.
Cheney: “The saddest part is that our people in uniform have been subjected to these cynical and pernicious falsehoods day in and day out.”
Cheney has branded administration opponents as hypocrites and wimps. His last blow is the fiercest: They are unpatriotic. The president and Cheney invoke “the troops” to shut down discussion. But the troops demand this kind of debate. Soldiers aren’t in a position to be critical and shouldn’t be, so their elected officials need to ask questions and argue on their behalf. American soldiers are smart and tough enough to weather the public debate. They can handle whatever Harry Reid has to say. Plus, Dick Cheney believes in his position and has plenty of backbone, so why won’t he fight the opposition on the merits?