The Big Idea

The Misleaders

Who is Dick Cheney kidding?

Dick Cheney calls it “dishonest,” “reprehensible” and “not legitimate” to claim that the administration misled the public about prewar intelligence. In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Nov. 21, the vice president added for good measure that “any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false.”

Most Democrats in Congress think that prewar intelligence was indeed distorted and hyped—though not “fabricated,” which, like the accusation that they have accused Bush of “lying,” is a straw man of Cheney’s. Democrats believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and others misrepresented what our government knew about Saddam Hussein’s WMD capacity and his links to terrorists in order to make a stronger case for invading Iraq.

So, who’s right? Did Bush officials mislead us, or didn’t they?

Because the Republicans who control Congress have prevented any investigation into the administration’s use of prewar intelligence (as opposed to the gathering and formulation of that intelligence), there’s a lot we still don’t know. Officials haven’t yet had to answer questions about what they knew or did not know when they advanced various spurious claims. And even the kind of investigation that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is demanding could prove frustratingly inconclusive, because proof of deception requires knowing someone else’s state of mind. In the president’s case, it may be possible to show that he should have known enough to avoid some inaccurate assertions, including the notorious “16 words” in his 2003 State of the Union address about Saddam seeking to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa. But as with Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal, Bush’s combination of self-delusion, disengagement, and sheer mush-headedness nearly precludes the possibility of willful deception.

Here’s what we do know already, without a congressional inquiry: Members of the Bush Administration were dishonest with the public and with Congress about prewar intelligence. We’ve known this for some time—see, for example, the comprehensive and damning story Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus wrote in the Washington Post in August 2003 (“Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence“). Over the past two years, several incidents of executive-branch dishonesty in the run-up to the war have turned into subscandals of their own: the aluminum tubes that Iraq used for missiles and not gas centrifuges, the yellowcake uranium that Saddam didn’t try to buy from Niger, the mobile biological warfare laboratories that turned out to be hydrogen generators for balloons, the al-Qaida chemical warfare training that was based on a false confession, the meeting with Mohamed Atta that didn’t happen in Prague. 

If you examine these and other pillars of the administration’s case for invading Iraq, a clear pattern emerges. Bush officials first put clear pressure on the intelligence community to support their assumptions that Saddam was developing WMD and cooperating with al-Qaida. Nonetheless, significant contrary evidence emerged. Bush hawks then overlooked, suppressed, or willfully ignored whatever cut against their views. In public, they depicted unsettled questions as dead certainties. Then, when they were caught out and proven wrong, they resisted the obvious and refused to correct the record. Finally, when their positions became utterly untenable, they claimed that they were misinformed or not told. Call this behavior what you will, but you can’t describe it as either “honest” or “truthful.”

Many of the White House’s most serious misrepresentations involve the case that Saddam was trying to build nuclear weapons, which he had in fact stopped trying to do in 1991. “We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons,” Cheney said in August 2002, in one of his conclusive comments on the subject. This position was echoed by Bush and Rice, who both conjured the specter of a mushroom cloud, as well as by Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, who went into more detail about aluminum tubes and uranium. If you were on the inside and read even the now notorious National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, you at least knew that such statements were at the very least overdrawn. Analysts at the departments of Energy and State weren’t buying the aluminum tubes and yellowcake theory that formed the basis of the nuclear case. 

Or consider another component of that case that has gotten less attention, the description of fresh “activity” at Saddam’s known nuclear sites. A draft paper produced by Andrew Card’s White House working group on Iraq, and cited in the 2003 Post article, was characteristically distorted. The document inaccurately attributed to U.N. arms inspectors the claim that satellite photographs showed signs of reconstruction and acceleration of Iraq’s nuclear program. It went on to quote something chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told Time: “You can see hundreds of new roofs in these photos.” But the White House paper left out the second half of Blix’s quote: “[B]ut you don’t know what’s under them.” In February 2003, American inspectors visited those sites as part of U.N. teams and saw that nuclear bombs weren’t being made at them. But Bush officials acted as if such counterevidence didn’t exist.

In retrospect, Cheney casts himself and his colleagues as uncritical consumers of what the CIA and DIA spoon-fed them. Bad intel, he gives us to understand, is like lousy weather—a shame, but nothing policymakers can do anything about. In fact, the Bush hawks were anything but victims of the intelligence community. They challenged any evidence that cut against their assumptions about Saddam, going so far as to set up their own unit within the Pentagon to reanalyze raw data and draw harsher conclusions. And remember that the trigger for the Valerie Plame scandal was the vice president’s mistrust of the CIA.

Another giveaway is the administration’s lack of outrage over the bad intelligence they now claim to have been victimized by. Only Colin Powell, before his U.N. speech, seems to have pushed back with any skepticism about charges he was being asked to retail. And only Powell has expressed any outrage after it became evident that his U.N. speech had been a case of garbage in, garbage out.

Powell’s old colleagues now defend themselves by saying they didn’t know their claims about Iraq weren’t true. But the truth is most of them didn’t care whether their assertions were true or not, and they still don’t.