What About the WMD?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 7, 2004; 2:17 PM

Back in June, Bob Deans of Cox Newspapers asked President Bush to explain to the American people what had happened to the weapons of mass destruction that he had held out as the central rationale for going to war in Iraq.

"Bob, it's a good question," Bush said, according to the transcript of the news conference. "I don't know -- I haven't reached a final conclusion yet because the inspectors -- inspection teams aren't back yet. I do know that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons. I do know he's a dangerous person. I know he used weapons against his own people and against the neighborhood. But we'll wait until Charlie gets back with the final report, and then I'll be glad to report."

Yesterday, Charlie got back.

Charles A. Duelfer, whom the Bush administration chose to complete the U.S. investigation of Iraq's weapons programs, concluded that Iraq hadn't had weapons of mass destruction for years -- and that Saddam Hussein had neither the means nor the intent to threaten the United States.

Bush had nothing to say about the report after it was released yesterday. But today, before leaving on a campaign trip, Bush told reporters that the findings included "new information about Saddam Hussein's defiance" and showed that the Iraqi leader was "systematically gaming the system" with the intent of restarting his weapons program. (Watch the video and read the text.) "I believe we were right to take action and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison," he said.

Bush took no questions from reporters.

The president spoke yesterday too, but made no mention of the report, even though it was a key topic on news shows and Web sites. In what had been billed by the White House as a significant policy address, Bush yesterday unleashed a slightly retooled stump speech, newsworthy only for some new, ferocious zingers attacking Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

Do you remember what President Bush was saying about why Hussein was a threat, in the run up to war?

He said Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. He said sanctions and weapons inspections were ineffective at curtailing these programs. He said Hussein might put weapons of mass destruction in terrorist hands.

Duelfer says that's all wrong.

Without a comment from the president or vice president yesterday, press secretary Scott McClellan was left to give the immediate White House reaction. He simply denied that the report said what it did.

From the text of yesterday's gaggle.

Question for McClellan: "You said yesterday Saddam had the intent and capability to develop WMD. Report coming out today said Saddam posed a diminishing threat; WMD less advanced in '03 than '98."

In his answer, McClellan said: "I wanted to clarify your question, because I don't agree with it. . . . I disagree with the way you stated your question. I don't think that's accurate."

The White House focused on Duelfer's conclusion that Hussein apparently was hoping to rebuild WMD capability if the U.N. sanctions ended -- although even then, Hussein's motivation was apparently to enhance his image in the Middle East and deter Iran, not to threaten the United States.

"We have been briefed on the report," McClellan said in the morning. "I think it will show that he retained the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. I think it will show he was working to undermine the sanctions that were in place, through a number of different schemes."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press that Vice President Cheney said this morning that the report justifies rather than undermines Bush's decision to go to war.

"The report shows that 'delay, defer, wasn't an option,' Cheney told a town-hall style meeting. 'As soon as the sanctions were lifted he had every intention of going back' to his weapons program, Cheney said."

What Charlie Said

Dana Priest and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "The 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent U.N. inspections destroyed Iraq's illicit weapons capability and, for the most part, Saddam Hussein did not try to rebuild it, according to an extensive report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq that contradicts nearly every prewar assertion made by top administration officials about Iraq."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "One by one, official reports by government investigators, statements by former administration officials and internal CIA analyses have combined to undermine many of the central rationales of the administration's case for war with Iraq -- and its handling of the post-invasion occupation.

"The release of yesterday's definitive account on Iraq's weapons -- and its conclusion that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction years before the U.S.-led invasion -- is only the latest in a series of damaging blows to the White House's strategy of portraying the war in Iraq as being on the cusp of success. . . .

"The risk for the Bush campaign is that the drip-drip of the revelations will slowly erode the advantage that the president has held among voters for his handling of the Iraq war and especially the struggle against terrorism."

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "From the perspective of the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign, the timing could be difficult, coming 27 days before the election, two days before the second presidential debate and a day after publication of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer's assertion that the United States had deployed too few troops in Iraq early on."

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "The findings uphold Iraq's prewar insistence that it did not possess chemical or biological weapons. They also show the enormous distance between the Bush administration's own prewar assertions, based on reports by American intelligence agencies, and what a 15-month inquiry by American investigators found since the war."

John Diamond writes in USA Today: "The finding by chief weapons searcher Charles Duelfer that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction posed an immediate political challenge Wednesday for President Bush amid a tide of news raising questions about the case he made for war and the way he has waged it."

Rupert Cornwell of the Independent, in London, recalls Bush's promise to address the WMD question after hearing from Duelfer: "Yesterday, 'Charlie', aka Charles Duelfer, the chief US weapons inspector, did get back -- and his report could send shockwaves though an election campaign in which the Iraq issue already dwarfs all others."

The Modified Stump Speech

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush leveled his toughest and most comprehensive attack on Democratic challenger John F. Kerry on Wednesday, warning that Kerry 'would weaken America and make the world more dangerous' while defending his decision to go to war against Iraq as an unavoidable step to defeat global terrorism.

"Pointing toward a Friday night encounter against the Massachusetts senator, the president used his speech here to try to reframe the campaign debate and regain the momentum by putting the onus back on Kerry's record on national security and domestic issues and shifting attention away from questions about why he launched the war against Iraq in the spring of 2003."

Richard W. Stevenson and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's new speech signaled that he would stand firm between now and Election Day over his handling of Iraq and appeared to be an effort to take attention away from the 918-page report. . . .

Stevenson and Sanger quote an administration official as saying: "Look, the decision's been made that the president just isn't going to get into an introspective mode of 'we could have done this better.'"

They write that "[s]uch concessions, the official said, would 'play right into' Mr. Kerry's argument. There was a time for Mr. Bush to make such concessions, the official said, but 'that moment passed months ago.'" To do so now, the official argued, would both undercut the campaign and the 138,000 American troops in Iraq."

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "In a speech which was an exercise in belittling humour -- rather than the substantive policy address promised by the White House -- Mr Bush set out to remedy his shortcomings in last Thursday's presidential debate and raise new fears about a Kerry presidency."

Kenneth R. Bazinet and Helen Kennedy write in the New York Daily News: "Bush's confident serving of red meat to an adoring, cheering crowd was a striking contrast to his seeming consternation at being challenged on the wisdom of the war by Kerry in last week's debate."

Hard Work

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "Bush poked fun at his own performance in the first presidential debate. After that encounter Sept. 30 in Coral Gables, Fla., he was criticized for repeatedly saying postwar Iraq was 'hard work' and for grimacing as Kerry spoke.

"Wednesday, Bush recited what he framed as Kerry's shifting positions on the war with Iraq. 'You hear all that, and you can understand why somebody would make a face,' he said as the audience laughed. Bush said it wasn't easy for Kerry to earn the label of most liberal member of the Senate. 'Might even say it was hard work,' he said with a grin.

"But those were the only light moments in a speech that was meant to shift the focus away from Bush's widely panned debate performance a week ago and to set the stage for his next faceoff with Kerry, which is Friday in St. Louis."

Here is the text of Bush's speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and a nearly identical one he gave later in the afternoon in Farmington Hills, Mich.


Fred Kaplan writes in Slate: "Did CNN and MSNBC get hoodwinked this morning? Yesterday, the White House announced that President Bush would be delivering a 'major policy address' on terrorism today. The cable news networks broadcast it live and in full. Yet the 'address' turned out to be a standard campaign stump speech before a Pennsylvania crowd that seemed pumped on peyote, cheering, screaming, or whooping at every sentence.

"The president announced no new policy, uttered not one new word about terrorism, foreign policy, or anything else. He did all the things he wanted to do in last Thursday's debate -- accuse his opponent of weakness, bad judgment, vacillation, and other forms of flip-floppery -- though this time without a moderator to hush the audience, much less an opponent to bite back."

The Fact-Checking Continues

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball wrote in Newsweek wrote yesterday afternoon: "With virtually all of the administration's original case for war in Iraq in tatters, Vice President Dick Cheney provided shifting and sometimes misleading arguments in last night's debate with John Edwards about Saddam Hussein's ties to terrorists and his access to weapons of mass destruction. . . .

"[E]xcept for the allegation about Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda -- a claim that is now more in question than ever -- the other examples cited by Cheney in Tuesday night's debate never have been previously emphasized by Bush administration officials, and for good reasons."

Halliburton Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. writes in The Washington Post: "Edwards occasionally jumbled or oversimplified the complex details of the company's role as a contractor and of its ties to Cheney, who served as Halliburton's chief executive from 1995 to 2000.

"Cheney, for his part, said the Democrats 'know the charges are false,' even though some are the subject of ongoing investigations.

Not the Hometown Paper

Erin Olson writes in Editor & Publisher: "In last night's debate, Vice President Dick Cheney seemingly scored points when he referred to a nickname for his opponent coined by what he called Sen. John Edwards' 'hometown newspaper.' The paper, he said, had called Edwards 'Senator Gone,' a barb aimed at the senator's absence from a number of Senate floor votes.

"Cheney did not cite the paper by name, and most probably assumed that it was The News & Observer, the major daily in Raleigh, N.C., where Edwards has lived for several decades. . . .

"As it turns out, Cheney's quote source is a small paper published three times a week in North Carolina's Moore County, called The Pilot."

Here's the editorial.

Some Loophole

Blogger Ragout writes that Cheney criticized Edwards for taking advantage of a "special tax loophole." The loophole? Filing under subchapter-S -- a staple of Bush and Cheney's stump speeches.

"In their stump speeches, subchapter-S corporations are virtuous job creators, but when their opponent starts a perfectly typical corporation of this type, he's a tax dodger. What a cheap shot," Ragout writes.

Edwards Wrong on Taxes for Soldiers

Edwards said Tuesday night that "millionaires sitting by their swimming pool . . . pay a lower tax rate than the men and women who are receiving paychecks for serving" in Iraq.

Reader Karen Mango sent me the following e-mail: "Most knowledgeable journalists, or at least one who knows a soldier or could Google, would point out that soldiers on Iraq fall under the combat zone exclusion policy. Enlisted soldiers have their entire pay, while in the combat zone, exempt from federal income taxes. So, in effect, their tax rate is zero. It is shameful that Senator Edwards used these troops as his props, and his glaring lie has not been pointed out by the liberal media."

When Cheney Met Edwards II

But he whopper getting the most mileage today is the one I led with in yesterday's column.

Thomas Fitzgerald writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that Cheney was mistaken when he said he'd never met Edwards until their encounter Tuesday night in Cleveland.

"Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight," Cheney said.

Fitzgerald writes: "It also was a stretch for Cheney to suggest that he frequently presides over the Senate. Cheney wields the gavel only when he's needed to cast tie-breaking votes, which happened only three times in 2003. He does visit Capitol Hill on Tuesdays, for strategy lunches with Republican senators, but no Democrats are invited.

"Cheney aides said Wednesday that his comment wasn't misleading. It pointed up a larger truth, they said: that Edwards has often been absent from his Senate duties, busy running for president."

It depends on what the meaning of the word "met" is, writes Richard Leiby in The Washington Post's Reliable Sources column.

"Was Cheney dissembling -- as Edwards suggested post-debate -- or misremembering? Of course not! The Bush-Cheney camp yesterday portrayed those occasions as 'casual encounters,' not meetings."

Ovetta Wiggins and Chris L. Jenkins write in The Washington Post: "While Cheney made little mention of the nationally televised encounter, his wife, Lynne, was still brimming with enthusiasm. . . .

"'I know it's a good thing to go to a prayer breakfast sometimes, but don't you think the senator should go to the Senate every once in a while?' Lynne Cheney said."

Here is the text of remarks by the Cheneys in Tallahassee and Gainesville.

The liberal Media Matters Web site notes that NBC's Tim Russert said Wednesday morning that he knew Cheney lied about not meeting Edwards. "So why didn't he mention it in his post-debate commentary?"

What's the Big Deal?

Several bloggers are hearkening back to four years ago when Al Gore said in a debate with Bush that he had recently accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas, when in fact it was another official.

Blogger Just My 2, for instance, recalls this quote, from Cheney himself: "Al Gore has described these presidential debates as a job interview with the American people," Cheney said. "I've learned over the years that when somebody embellishes their resume in a job interview, you don't hire them."

Factcheck Dot Wrong

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about how Cheney by mistake ended up sending people to the Web site of a billionaire Bush-basher.

"After Democratic nominee John Edwards raised some nasty allegations about Halliburton Corp., the company Cheney once ran, Cheney angrily responded to the 'false' charges. 'If you go, for example, to FactCheck.com, an independent Web site sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, you can get the specific details with respect to Halliburton,' he said."

Cheney meant to say FactCheck.org.

FactCheck.com, up until Tuesday night, was Web site that refers people to sellers of dictionaries and encyclopedias. But Name Administration, the company that owns the site was annoyed when it suddenly got an enormous burst in traffic.

"To avoid crashing, and to exact revenge on Cheney for causing it such grief, Name Administration decided to forward traffic to GeorgeSoros.com -- a site that could handle the traffic, was not soliciting funds and clearly wasn't tied to Bush," Milbank writes.

"But, unfortunately for Cheney, FactCheck.org was not much more helpful than Soros in knocking down Edwards's charges.

"Cheney 'wrongly implied that we had rebutted allegations Edwards was making about what Cheney had done as chief executive officer of Halliburton,' the Annenberg site wrote in a posting yesterday. 'In fact, we did post an article pointing out that Cheney hasn't profited personally while in office from Halliburton's Iraq contracts, as falsely implied by a Kerry TV ad. But Edwards was talking about Cheney's responsibility for earlier Halliburton troubles. And in fact, Edwards was mostly right.'"

Bremer Watch

Tamara Lipper and Michael Hirsh write in Newsweek about how "there was considerable surprise and distress inside the White House this week when Iraq's former administrator let loose with what he intended to be off-the-record comments criticizing the administration's handing of Iraq -- remarks that were quickly picked up by the Kerry campaign."

Today's Calendar

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush warms up for his second campaign debate in battleground Wisconsin, where he will get another chance to practice new charges that Democrat John Kerry is unfit to lead the nation."

He attends an outdoor campaign rally at a park in Wausau, Wis., on his way to St. Louis.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Several readers in my Live Online yesterday asked about how people are getting selected for the town-hall style debate tomorrow night in St. Louis.

Frank Newport, editor in chief of The Gallup Poll, explains:

"Although ABC News' Charles Gibson will be moderating the debate, the questions will be asked by a random sample of uncommitted voters from the St. Louis Metropolitan area, selected by The Gallup Organization. . . .

"The basic procedure is very similar to those used when Gallup conducts a normal poll. Gallup begins with a random probability sample of the St. Louis area, asks people a series of questions to determine if they qualify as an uncommitted voter, and then invites them to be a participant in the debate if they qualify.

"Although over 100 participants will be on stage behind Bush and Kerry, the 90-minute format means that only about 20 people will actually end up asking questions. Under the terms of the debate agreement hammered out by the two campaigns, moderator Gibson will select the questioners and will attempt to keep the questions roughly balanced between foreign and domestic issues."

Some left-wing bloggers have been attacking Gallup polls as biased towards Bush. Newport may not have been doing himself any favors by starting off this article speculating that "The 'loser' of the first debate sometimes wins the second."

So What If You're Selected?

If you're a lucky citizen picked by Gallup to attend the debate, how do you pick a question?

At the other Web site I work for, NiemanWatchdog.org, we asked citizens all over the Internet for their questions, and have posted a "top ten" list.

Here's a bad sign for Bush: The most-e-mailed story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch yesterday was this column by Eric Mink, in which he asks: "Why would anyone who is concerned about the safety of his family, the security of our country and the fight against Islamist terrorism favor Bush?"

President in a Bubble?

AFP writes: "Some critics and supporters of US President George W. Bush agree on an intriguing explanation for his poor showing in his first debate with Democratic rival John Kerry: Blame it on the White House 'bubble.' . . .

"He has held fewer press conferences than any modern president -- including his father, former president George Bush -- and aides who disagreed publicly with him have generally recanted swiftly and humbly or left the administration.

"At least one senior campaign adviser, speaking two days before the first Bush-Kerry debate, seemed to suggest that Bush's considerable debating skills might be rusty from lack of use since taking office in January 2001.

"'Presidents tend to listen and make decisions; they don't engage in debates with their opponents or really with anyone else. They listen and make decisions,' Karen Hughes told Fox News Channel on September 28.

Froomkin Watch

Heads-up, White House Briefing junkies. I'll be filing an abbreviated edition tomorrow morning, and won't be back until Wednesday.

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