Ever since the September 11 commission stated authoritatively what everyone knew already, namely that there is no evidence that Al Qaeda was in business with Saddam Hussein, a debate of a most peculiar character has unfolded.
Almost no facts-and none of importance-are under dispute. No one now claims that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, or any other attack on the United States, or even that Saddam's regime had any joint undertaking whatsoever with Al Qaeda. Rather, the debate revolves around the definition of words. The highest officials of the executive branch of the government, as if re-baptizing it as an academic department of a university, have turned themselves into so many linguists. What is a "tie," a "relationship," a "link," a "contact," "cooperation"? On questions like these, the White House abounds in opinions.
The language of the report, as everyone knows, was that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government had no "collaborative relationship." Nor was there "any credible evidence" that the two organizations had "cooperated on any attacks against the United States."
The New York Times, perhaps smarting from its recently confessed misreporting regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, editorially stated that "there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11" and demanded "an apology" to the American people from President Bush.
The Lexicographer in Chief and his Vice Lexicographer saw their opening and pounced. Bush stated that while the administration had never "said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated" with Iraqi help, "we did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda." So, "the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda." Cheney said that the "evidence is overwhelming" of a "relationship."
The co-chairmen of the commission, former Governor Tom Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton, seemed to try to smooth over the controversy by pointing out that they had not denied the existence of "ties," only of collaboration.
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What was now missing, however, from the administration's new self-defense were all the factual particulars that had given supposed substance to the charge of a relationship in the first place. No longer did the President claim, as he once had, that Saddam was "dealing" with Al Qaeda, or that Iraq "sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda," or "provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training." The only relevant facts left on the record were the negative ones described by the commission: Al Qaeda's early attempts to attack Saddam, whose secular Arabism it despised, by helping Iraqi Kurds and its rejected attempt later to secure assistance from Saddam.
Perhaps the most strained attempt to rescue some shred of justification for the administration's position was William Safire's claim in a recent Times column that the authors of the commission report had conflated a true denial that Iraq was involved in September 11 with a false denial that Iraq and Al Qaeda had had "decade-long dealings." But Safire, a specialist in grammar and the meaning of words, must have thought that no one would check his assertion against the report itself, which specifically addresses the decade-long dealings and finds them to be the ones of enmity and refusal to cooperate just mentioned. (Nor in fact does the no-collaborative-relationship finding apply just to September 11; it refers to all Al Qaeda activities since it moved to Afghanistan, around 1996.)
By surrendering the factual ground while hanging tough philologically, the White House and its defenders tacitly bowed to the substance of its critics' case. If the war in Iraq was indeed somehow a good idea, it was not because the word "relationship" can be stretched by certain high-powered word-torturers to cover relations of hostility and rejection.
Does the debate, then, at least bear on the important domestic question of the President's credibility? It surely does, but in this matter there was not much news, for the administration's response to the collapse of its case repeated the well-worn pattern of its response to the downfall of its claim before the war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction: monotonous repetition of the falsehood in the face of manifest evidence to the contrary and then a redefinition of words (in that case, confounding actual weapons of mass destruction with mere "programs" for building them), and throughout a tireless insistence that they were right, detached alike from information and the meaning of words. They seem to believe that truth consists not of correspondence of word with fact but of an implacable consistency armored with impervious self-righteousness.
There is no evidence of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda; the Bush administration has consistently misrepresented this fact. These judgments are not the possible conclusions of a debate that still lies before us; they are the starting point of a new discussion. Its subject is neither the justifications for the war in Iraq nor the President's credibility -- for both are obviously in tatters -- but the response to all this by the country.
The spotlight now shifts from the liars to the lied-to. How do we -- in the news media, in the country at large -- like it? Are we asleep or awake? Can we remember what was said to us a few months or even a few weeks ago? Do we care? Can we recall the proper meanings of words? Do we notice that thousands of people have been sent to their deaths on false premises? Do we have the mental or moral energy to do anything about it? These are the real questions put before us by the reports of the September 11 commission.