Two weeks ago in this space, I employed the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to examine the unhappy precedent set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in failing to level with the American people about the level of conflict between the United States and the Axis Powers that preceded the attack.
Using this analogy, and speaking of the manner in which President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberately deceived the nation about the imaginary second Gulf of Tonkin incident and thereby entangled the nation in the unwinnable Vietnam War, I noted Sen. J. William Fulbright later remarked that “FDR’s deviousness in a good cause made it much easier for [LBJ] to practice the same kind of deviousness in a bad cause.”
The consequences of President Johnson’s campaign of deliberate deception regarding Vietnam could hardly have been more catastrophic for the nation, the military, the president, his party, and the presidency itself. And while there is no reason to minimize either the level of lying or its consequences, one cannot be impressed by the refusal of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to learn from his mistake.
As we salute the final American soldiers leaving Iraq, we also remember the enormous costs paid not only by our soldiers and our nation but also denizens of the region, millions of whom were turned into refugees and injured, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed, and countless who were tortured or otherwise abused. But it behooves us to recall the underhanded manner in which President Bush and Vice President Cheney manipulated a quiescent press corps into making it appear as if an American invasion of a nation that had no intention of harming us (and next-to-no capacity to do so, regardless of intentions, as it turned out) was warranted.
At the same time, if we care about our nation’s ability to act as a democracy, we need to ask ourselves and our mainstream media hard questions about how it happened. To do so, I return to some of the research I undertook for When Presidents Lie (where specific citations for all of the quotes below can be found).
The almost ostentatious lack of concern for veracity was evident in almost every area of governance but was most prominent in the administration’s foreign policy pronouncements. Recall the famous (albeit anonymous) Bush press aide who, in response to a string of revelations of falsehoods relating to the president’s reasons for the invasion, replied, “The President of the United States is not a fact-checker.”
Yet the case President Bush made to convince the nation to embark on its first-ever “preventative” war was riddled with deception from start to finish. The examples of purposeful fraud in the Bush White House’s portrayal of the level of alleged threat to Americans’ safety and security posed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are so extensive that only a few examples can be offered here.
For instance, in September 2002, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush claimed, “I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied—finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic—the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]—that they were six months away from developing a [nuclear] weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.” In fact, the estimate to which President Bush was referring was more than a decade old and was made before Iraq’s military capabilities were decimated in the Gulf War.
The president’s then-press secretary, Ari Fleischer, tried to claim in The Washington Post that “It was in fact the International Institute for Strategic Studies that issued the report concluding that Iraq could develop nuclear weapons in as few as six months.” But that report, which was unavailable at the time President Bush originally made his claim, did not support his statement either.
In a speech to the nation, President Bush also added, “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists,” an alliance that “could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.” But this claim, too, was wholly unsupported and contradicted by CIA intelligence. The testimony, declassified after President Bush’s speech, rated the possibility as “low” that Hussein would initiate a chemical or biological weapons attack against the United States but might take the “extreme step” of assisting terrorists if provoked by a U.S. attack.
In the same speech President Bush warned the nation that Iraq possessed a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used “for missions targeting the United States.” But a CIA report suggested that the fleet was more of an “experiment” and “attempt” and labeled it a “serious threat to Iraq’s neighbors and to international military forces in the region.” The report said nothing about the fleet having sufficient range to threaten the United States.
President Bush’s repeated acts of dishonesty did not become widely known to the public until the famous controversy regarding “16 words” in his 2003 State of the Union address, referring to the story he told about Iraq’s alleged purchase of “yellow-cake” uranium from the African nation of Niger. But the focus on the mere “16 words” by the media was most notable for the successful spin that the White House managed to put on the story.
It wasn’t that these 16 words alone in the president’s State of the Union message were false. Much of what was presented as evidence for the American attack on Iraq dissipated upon receiving postwar scrutiny. Some of these examples derived, no doubt, from honest errors, relating to the difficulty of accurately assessing decidedly murky intelligence. But President Bush and his staff could easily have communicated the complexity of this judgment to the country had honesty been among their primary concerns.
In fact, they purposely argued on exactly the opposite: certainty of knowledge where none was possible. The president and his advisers were virtually unanimous in insisting that the threat facing the United States from Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction was all but inarguable. Just a few examples suffice:
- “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.” — President George W. Bush, address to the nation, March 17, 2003.
- “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” — Vice President Dick Cheney, speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, August 26, 2002.
- “We know they have weapons of mass destruction. … There isn’t any debate about it. [It is] beyond anyone’s imagination that U.N. inspectors would fail to find such weapons if they were given the opportunity.” — Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, September 2002.
- “I’m absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there, and the evidence will be forthcoming.” — Secretary of State Colin Powell, remarks to reporters, May 4, 2003.
- “We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.” — Vice President Dick Cheney, NBC’s “Meet the Press,” September 6, 2002.
These statements are all demonstrably false, as the president’s own weapons inspections team judged them to be. While many in and out of government shared the misperception that Iraq might be in possession of such weaponry, only the Bush administration—supported by the Blair government in Britain—insisted that there could be no possible room for disagreement in assessing the conflicting shards of evidence. Indeed, a number of experts within the U.S. government itself were fully aware of how sketchy and incomplete were the government sources about Iraq’s WMD program, but these people were either ignored or purposely discredited.
For instance, a secret September 2002 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency informed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has—or will—establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities,” according to U.S. officials interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
Also, according to Patrick Lang, former head of human intelligence at the CIA, when Bruce Hardcastle, a defense intelligence officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and counterterrorism, explained to Bush officials that they were misreading the evidence, the Bush administration not only removed Hardcastle from his post:
They did away with his job. They wanted just liaison officers who were junior. They didn’t want a senior intelligence person who argued with them. Hardcastle said, ‘I couldn’t deal with these people.’ They are such ideologues that they knew what the outcome should be and when they didn’t get it from intelligence people they thought they were stupid. They start with an almost pseudo-religious faith. They wanted the intelligence agencies to produce material to show a threat, particularly an imminent threat. Then they worked back to prove their case. It was the opposite of what the process should have been like, that the evidence should prove the case.
Greg Thielman, the former head of the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, likewise observed, “What everyone in the intelligence community knew was that the White House couldn’t care less about any kind of information that there were no WMDs or that the U.N. inspectors were very effective. Everyone knew the White House was deaf to that input. It was worse than pressure; they didn’t care.”
Despite being disproven by its own experts, the Bush administration attempted to maintain the fiction that the president’s prewar arguments and warnings had been borne out with false claims of imaginary discoveries. When asked in the summer of 2003, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”, President Bush replied, “We found them.” Vice President Cheney, too, claimed months later, “Conclusive evidence now demonstrates that Saddam Hussein did in fact have weapons of mass destruction.”
Finally, when pressed by ABC News’s Diane Sawyer to address the disjunction between his prewar claims and his postwar discoveries, President Bush laughed off the reporter’s distinction between desire and capability. “What’s the difference?” he asked. Later, in his third State of the Union address, instead of acknowledging to the nation the misguided nature of his previous warnings following these revelations, President Bush attempted a rhetorical sleight of hand, speaking not of Hussein’s actual weaponry but of something he termed “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-program-activity.”
All of the information presented here was available in open, mainstream sources published by early 2004. How much happier and healthier the world would be if the media had simply carried out their collective responsibility and held the administration accountable for a simple matter such as truth. Who knows whether the Arab Spring might have made it to Iraq and deposed that dictator without the unending catastrophe caused by President Bush and Vice President Cheney’s hubris and dishonesty and the fecklessness of the people whose job it was to prevent its happening.
History may not repeat itself but it is a rule of thumb that the sequel is almost always worse than original. The consequences of LBJ’s deception were far worse than those of FDR’s. But sadly for everyone involved, President Bush’s trumps them all.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.