When White House spokesman Scott McClellan opened up his daily press briefing yesterday, he said, "This will be the only question of the briefing." He was joking. But it turned out that the first question--a response to the news the Iraq Survey Group had ended its hunt for weapons of mass destruction after finding absolutely nothing--was practically the only question of the day. Here's that first query:
The fact that the Iraq Survey Group has now folded up its field operations, can you explain to us if there is any sense of embarrassment or lack of comfort about the fact that after two years of looking, these people found nothing that the President and others assured us they would find?
McClellan did the usual. He did not answer the query.
McClellan: I think the President already talked about this last October in response to the comprehensive report that was released by Charles Duelfer [the Iraq Survey Group chief] at that point. Charles Duelfer came to the White House in December; the President took that opportunity to thank him for all the work that he had done. The two discussed how Saddam Hussein's regime retained the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, and they also discussed how he was systematically gaming the system to undermine the sanctions that were in place, so that once those sanctions were eliminated -- which was something he was trying to do through the U.N. oil-for-food program -- then he could begin his weapons programs once again. And I think the President talked about the other issues back in October. Nothing has changed from that time period.
And nothing has changed in terms of the White House's response to the absence of WMDs. Bush refuses to address the consequences of having misled the nation and the world. Before the war, he stated that there was "no doubt" that Iraq was loaded to the gills with WMDs. It was Saddam Hussein's possession of these deadly weapons, Bush argued, that rendered him a "direct" threat that had to be neutralized immediately. Bush and his aides repeatedly asserted there was no if about Iraq's WMDs. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported it had found no evidence of a revived nuclear weapons program in Iraq, yet Bush and Dick Cheney insisted Hussein had reconstituted such a program. The UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said he was concerned about the possibility that Iraq might have kept WMDs hidden from inspectors, but he also stated that discrepancies in Iraq's accounting of its previous WMD material did not mean that Iraq actually possessed such dangerous goods.
But the Bush gang said it knew better. Secretary of State Colin Powell made that now-infamous presentation to the UN; everything he declared as a fact turned out to be wrong. Bush left himself no wiggle room on the subject of Iraq and WMDs. He declared, "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more, and according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated, "There's no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons....We all know that. A trained ape knows that." (Paging that trained ape.) White House mouthpiece Ari Fleischer said, "The president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it."
Really? Well, it was not true. And how does the White House respond? When asked if Bush owes the public an explanation, McClellan only pointed to the commission Bush appointed to study intelligence related to WMDs. "What is important," he said, "is that we need to go back and look at what was wrong with much of the intelligence that we accumulated over a 12-year period and...and correct any flaws." But there is no indication that the commission, which is conducting its work largely in secret, is probing the Iraq case in detail. In any event, if the issue is intelligence flaws, why did Bush award a Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, who headed the CIA for much of this time?
Reporters would not let go of this issue. One asked, "what is the president's assessment of the damage to American credibility that might have been done by his very forceful case that there were weapons and his launching of a war on that basis?" McClellan replied, "Well, nothing has changed in terms of the president's view." Of course not. And then McClellan doled out the usual 9/11 boilerplate: "Remember, September 11th changed the equation about how we confront the threats that we face, and the president recognizes what his most important responsibility is, and that is to do everything in his power to protect the American people. And nothing has changed in terms of his views when it comes to Iraq, what he has previously stated and what you have previously heard. The president knows that by advancing freedom in a dangerous region, we are making the world a safer place."
But if Hussein had no WMDs, how much of a threat was he? Bush and McClellan--for obvious reasons--refuse to concede Bush hyped the threat to win popular support for the war. If Bush had argued before the war only that the United States needed to invade and occupy Iraq in order to promote freedom in the region because that would protect Americans at home, wouldn't the prewar debate have taken on a much different tone? And the war would have been a much tougher sell for Bush and his crew.
In the briefing, McClellan didn't budge. That's what he's paid to do--not yield an inch. A reporter asked,
When it comes to Iraq, North Korea, and the president--this president stands up and says, they've got weapons programs, they've got weapons of mass destruction, isn't it the case that there will be many people in the world who will say, how can we believe him? And how does he deal with that?
"He's going to continue working with the international community to confront the threats that we face."
That didn't satisfy the White House reporters. The follow-up question:
Scott, this is an important political question that you're not really addressing squarely, which is, can this president or a future President go to a Tony Blair or a leader of Spain and say, we believe something is happening and you need to join us in a preemptive show of force? Has this experience not totally wiped out that possibility for political action in the future?
McClellan stuck to his non-responsive talking points:
"We're working together in a number of areas to confront threats that the international community faces." And he added, "It's important that we act together to confront the threats that we face. And it's important that when we say something, that we follow through on what we say. That's why the President is also--."
A reporter interrupted: "Even if the information is wrong?" McClellan ignored that and once again insisted that Hussein was "a very unique threat."
McClellan refused to blink. And the questions kept coming.
Secretary Rumsfeld said you go--infamously, he said, "You go to war with the Army that you have." Well, this administration went to war, when it went to war, based on information that proved to be incorrect. Does the president now regret the timing of this? Does he feel that the war effort and its aftermath and the post-immediate war conflict phase was undermined by that timetable and intelligence that was wrong?
McClellan answered, "Based on what we know today, the president would have taken the same action, because this is about protecting the American people.... We took action to confront a threat posed by Saddam Hussein."
If Bush knew that Iraq had no WMDs whatsoever and had no WMD production capability at all--which is what we know today--he still would have launched an invasion of Iraq before sufficient levels of body armor and armored vehicles were available? Before a larger and more effective coalition was formed? This is--to use a technical term--nuts. If Iraq had no WMDs, there was no immediate threat to protect the American people from. If the aim was to bring freedom to the people of Iraq--who had been suffering for decades--there still was no reason to launch a war before the military was fully ready and before a larger coalition (perhaps with an Arab state or two) was established and before drawing up plans for handling the social, economic, political and security challenges of a post-invasion period. As the chief Army historian in charge of the invasion has noted, no such plans were drafted.
McClellan kept batting away questions related to the nonexistent WMDs, declining--on behalf of a president who often talks about responsibility--to take responsibility for having made false statements to grease the way to war.
Q. So if the information is wrong, is there no consequence?
McClellan: I'm sorry?
Q. If the information about WMDs is wrong, as we all agree now, is there no consequence?
The president's "focus," McClellan replied, "is on helping to support those in the region who want to move forward." In other words, yes, there are no consequences. After all, the Duelfer report came out before the election, it proved that Bush had misled the American people before the war, and Bush still won.
The lesson indeed is, it doesn't matter if Bush distorts the public discourse by making dramatically untrue proclamations. That is, it doesn't matter to the White House and its supporters. Even when Bush is caught, he and his team have a ready response: deny and ignore. Two days ago, Bush told the Washington Times that come 2040, Social Security "goes broke, flat bust." That is not an accurate statement. Come 2052, the system, according to conservative estimates, will be able to pay about three-quarters of the scheduled benefits. That's hardly "flat bust." And even though Bush is routinely corrected on this point by stories in the mainstream media, he continues to peddle this blatant disinformation.
No WMDs. No Social Security crisis. Reality does not reign in Bush's world. It's wrong that conservative columnist Armstrong Williams was paid by the administration to push pro-Bush propaganda. But what's far worse--and more dangerous--is that McClellan receives taxpayer dollars to promote and defend Bush's facts-free fantasies.
David Corn is author of the bestselling book, 'The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception' (Crown Publishers). For information, visit www.bushlies.com.
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