Published on Tuesday, December 23, 2003 by The Nation
Never Apologize, Never Explain
by David Corn
Never apologize. Never explain. Never concede. Many politicians--and many Homo sapiens--live and die by these words. But the Bush clan has emblazoned them onto the family crescent. Bush has had a good run of late: US forces nabbed Saddam Hussein, Libyan ruler Moammar Qadaffi declared he would voluntarily abandon his WMD programs, the US economy grew at a high rate this past quarter. All of this has contributed to a Bush bubble, and political commentators are once again diminishing the chances of the Democratic presidential nominee, whomever it will be.
But at the moment Bush's political fortunes are on the rise, more evidence has emerged showing that he deserves less respect than ever. Take the case of those missing weapons of mass destruction. Before the war, Bush said there was "no doubt" Hussein had them. In the months following the fall of Baghdad--as no such weapons were discovered--Bush and his crew continued to insist that Bush had been right to say Hussein was neck-deep in actual WMDs. Then in the fall, chief weapons hunter David Kay reported that his team had found evidence of possible weapons programs in Iraq. (Former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has argued that the evidence is not conclusive that the labs cited by Kay were used for WMD research.) Bush and his aides pointed to Kay's report as proof they had been right all along, even though there is an obvious distinction between weapons and weapons programs. And when asked if the administration was backing away from its previous assertions about the presence of weapons (not programs) in Iraq, Bush officials said no. They suggested that Kay needed more time to find the proof. (The Bush crowd has been far more patient with him than they were with the UN inspectors.)
Now Bush--attempting to shift the terms of the debate in his favor--says it did not matter whether or not Iraq possessed weapons before the invasion. In a recent interview, ABC News' Diane Sawyer asked Bush, "Fifty percent of the American people have said that they think the administration exaggerated the evidence going into the war with Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, connection to terrorism. Are the American people wrong, misguided?" Bush replied, "No, the intelligence I operated on was good, sound intelligence." That was a non-responsive but untruthful reply, for the House and Senate intelligence committees (both led by Republicans) and Kay himself have each definitively stated that the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs was loaded with uncertainties. Sawyer continued to press Bush about his prewar statements on WMDs, and he refused to directly address the question, repeatedly asserting that Saddam Hussein had been a "threat." And then he referred to Kay's discovery of a supposed "weapons program" to defend himself. But when Sawyer noted that Bush and other administration officials had "stated as a hard fact that there were weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that [Hussein] could move to acquire those weapons," Bush countered, "What's the difference?...The possibility that he could acquire weapons. If he were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger."
Hold on. Before the war, Bush asserted Hussein was an immediate threat because he already had such weapons. He never went before the public and said, Hussein may have weapons of mass destruction; then again, he may only have weapons programs; but there's no difference. This is disingenuousness after the fact, backpedalling without acknowledgment. Moreover, after the Sawyer interview, the news broke that Kay had decided to quit his post, supposedly for personal reasons. Reports of his departure were widely interpreted (and probably rightfully so) as a signal that he had uncovered little in the way of evidence of WMDs. And Representative Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, noted that the administration had removed "critical people"--including analysts and linguists--from Kay's weapons hunting unit. This was another sign that Kay and his crew were not close to finding WMDs, and it showed that the Bush administration was not taking the WMD search all that seriously.
Which leads to the question: will Bush and his aides ever admit they oversold the WMD threat? Their case gets weaker by the day. If there had been real WMDs in Iraq, wouldn't at least one Iraqi have turned over information on them to the CIA, which presumably is ready to pay millions of dollars for information leading to real WMDs? Even conservative columnist George Will weeks ago urged the Bush White House to come clean on WMDs. The administration ignored his advice. Rather, Bush officials kept saying, wait for Kay's report. But even Kay is not sticking around for it.
Bush's excuses are falling apart on another front. After 9/11, he and his senior advisers maintained over and over that no one could have imagined such an attack against the United States. That was not so. For years, the intelligence community had collected warnings reporting that al Qaeda and other terrorists were interested in launching a 9/11-sort of attack--using hijacked aircraft as weapons--against American targets. (The final report produced by the joint inquiry on 9/11 conducted by the Senate and House intelligence committees includes a list of such warnings.) And there is strong evidence that Bush was told of a July 2001 intelligence report that noted that al Qaeda was planning a "spectacular" attack involving "mass casualties" against an American target. But by insisting falsely that 9/11 was so far out of the box that no one could have done anything about it, Bush absolved his administration and the Clinton administration of any blame for failing to thwart the assault.
Now former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman of the independent 9/11 commission, says that 9/11 could have been prevented. In a recent interview with CBS News, Kean noted that he would, if he could, fire the government officials who had failed the public. For over a year, evidence has been public proving that two administrations screwed up. But Bush and his aides have refused to acknowledge that. Kean's remarks--which drew much public attention--cast new light on a damn serious allegation that Bush had so far dodged rather well. Kean's commission is due to release its final report in the spring, but the commission--which has encountered bureaucratic resistance--may have trouble finishing its complex inquiry by then.
Another excuse from Bush circles was recently proven phony. In the run-up to the Iraq war, media accounts revealed that in 1983 Donald Rumsfeld had been sent by President Ronald Reagan to meet with Saddam Hussein and broker a closer relationship between Baghdad and Washington. At the time, Hussein was using chemical weapons in his war against Iran. How odd that Hussein's use of WMDs in 1983 did not bother Rumsfeld back then, when in 2002 and 2003 it was cited by Bush officials as a reason the United States had no choice but to invade Iraq. In his defense, Rumsfeld claimed that in 1983 he had "cautioned" Hussein against using chemical weapons. But then The Washington Post reported that declassified State Department notes of the meeting with Hussein indicated Rumsfeld had not raised this subject with the Iraqi dictator.
Rumsfeld then claimed he had discussed the matter with Iraqi Foreign Minster Tariq Aziz, not Hussein. Official records, though, showed that Rumsfeld had only mentioned it in passing. More recently, the National Security Archive found records related to a 1984 meeting that occurred between Rumsfeld and Aziz. According to these documents, Rumsfeld had been instructed to tell Aziz privately that the Reagan administration's public criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons was not intended to signal the United States was any less eager "to improve bilateral relations, at a pace of Iraq's choosing." That is, Rumsfeld was to tell Aziz not to fret over what the Reagan administration said in public about Iraq's use of chemical weapons; the Reaganites still wanted to cozy up with Hussein.
So the Bush gang has escaped accountability on WMDs, on 9/11, and on the policy sins of their political fathers. Their cover stories no longer hold, yet there are no indications Bush and his lieutenants will necessarily pay for that. The accepted wisdom among analysts of American politics is that voters tend to look forward, not backward. When voters evaluate politicians, they care less about history than they do about present-day results and ask, what are you going to do for me (or us) now? Will that pattern hold in 2004? No doubt, Bush is hoping so. With the Bush clan, politics is indeed never having to say you're sorry.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, 'The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception' (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
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