The New Rules of the Game

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Now that the president's approval numbers have dipped into the mid-30s—and appear to be falling perilously close to the freezing point—the conservative spin machine has naturally been forced to ratchet up its engines to Warp Ten. The newest storyline conservatives are trying to peddle in the public sphere goes like this: The failure of prewar intelligence on Iraqi WMD isn't the president's fault, and if he got it wrong, well, that's just because everyone else got it wrong, too. On top of this, the president and his cronies are pushing some blatant falsehoods about the existence of congressional inquiries into whether or not the Bush administration exerted political pressure on the existing intelligence to bolster its case for war.

A perfect example of the new spin is contained in the new issue of the Weekly Standard, where Bill Kristol writes, "After all, the bipartisan Silberman-Robb commission found no evidence of political manufacture and manipulation of intelligence." If only that were true. If one actually reads the commission's report, they'll be struck by the following passage:

[W]e were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received from the Intelligence Community. Accordingly, while we interviewed a host of current and former policymakers during the course of our investigation, the purpose of those interviews was to learn about how the Intelligence Community reached and communicated its judgments about Iraq's weapons programs – not to review how policymakers subsequently used that information.

That should be the end of the debate and dispatch the conservative talking points straightaway. Alas, pigs don’t fly. The president repeated Kristol's canard on Veterans Day when he claimed that "Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war…. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."

Again, while it's technically true that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence that the Bush administration pressured intelligence agents into altering their findings, as Harry Reid's "Rule 21" gambit pointed out two weeks ago, the initial Senate investigation only looked at how the intelligence community handled the information it collected – and, as of yet, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has not investigated exactly what intelligence went to the president, whether all of it was taken into account and what the vetting process was at the executive branch.

The "Phase II" part of the report, which will look at the administration's handling of the intelligence, was supposed to come out after the 2004 presidential election. As Laura Rozen writes in the American Prospect, there seems to be some desperate political wrangling going on with regard to what is included in that report. She writes, "Today, committee Republicans view their mission as being not oversight but cover-up. Indeed, one source told the Prospect that [Chairman Pat] Roberts has worked closely behind the scenes with Vice President Dick Cheney's office in crafting the language defining and limiting the investigation's terms – even though the committee is supposed to be investigating and providing oversight of the administration's use of Iraq intelligence."

While much of the mainstream media slept through this story—just as they did during its deadly prequel—following the president’s deliberately deceptive Veterans Day address, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus demolished his argument in a must-read column that is journalism at its fact-checking finest. They note that despite the president's claims that Congress saw the same intelligence as he did, "Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material," and that "Bush does not share his most sensitive intelligence, such as the President's Daily Brief, with lawmakers. Also, the National Intelligence Estimate summarizing the intelligence community's views about the threat from Iraq was given to Congress just days before the vote to authorize the use of force in that country." The upshot being that even if Congress saw the same intel as the president, the administration still decided what to show Congress, and what to leave out.

Never one to be cowed by fact, the administration then dispatched RNC Chair Ken Mehlman to Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning, where he simply repeated the same untruths the president had mouthed on Friday, ignoring the Post's correction.

In what may just be an unprecedented move, the White House itself then pushed back against the Post, putting a "fact sheet" up on its Web site to try to "set the record straight." As Buddy Holly would say, “That’ll be the day.” The White House merely trotted out the very same talking points the Post had just demolished.

All of this may not have been necessary had so much of the coverage of the report been so lacking this past spring when it was first made public. Even in the most critical reports of its whitewash, one aspect of this shameful episode went by largely forgotten: the media's willingness to publicize, vouch for and frequently hype the dishonest case the administration put forth. This is more than just Judith Miller's willingness to act as unpaid propagandist for the Pentagon, breaking the Times' own reporting rules – rather, just about every big shot in the business participated in this travesty.

In the end, however, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll earlier this week found that 57 percent of Americans agree that the president "deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq." That number, despite the White House propaganda offensive, ought to serve as a fine objection for those reporters who need to expose, finally, a level of mendacity, incompetence, and ideological obsession that has no precedent in American history.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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