By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 23, 2008; 1:00 PM
A nonprofit group pursuing old-fashioned accountability journalism is out with a new report and database documenting 935 false statements by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Center for Public Integrity reports that its "exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."
The database also documents how Bush and others had reason to know, or at least suspect, what they were saying was not supported by the facts.
John H. Cushman Jr. writes in the New York Times: "There is no startling new information in the archive, because all the documents have been published previously. But the new computer tool is remarkable for its scope, and its replay of the crescendo of statements that led to the war. Muckrakers may find browsing the site reminiscent of what Richard M. Nixon used to dismissively call 'wallowing in Watergate.'"
And yet there are plenty of reasons why the deceitful run-up to war is not old news. For one, the war goes on. For another, government credibility remains severely damaged. And then there's the fact that the president has never really been held to account for his repeated falsehoods.
Bush famously told The Washington Post, upon embarking on his second term, that he saw the 2004 election as his "accountability moment." Yet neither before nor since has he admitted mistakes or poor judgment. The closest he came may have been in December 2005, when he acknowledged intelligence failures -- by others.
Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith write in the report's overview: "Bush and the top officials of his administration have so far largely avoided the harsh, sustained glare of formal scrutiny about their personal responsibility for the litany of repeated, false statements in the run-up to the war in Iraq. There has been no congressional investigation, for example, into what exactly was going on inside the Bush White House in that period. Congressional oversight has focused almost entirely on the quality of the U.S. government's pre-war intelligence -- not the judgment, public statements, or public accountability of its highest officials. . . .
"Short of such review, this project provides a heretofore unavailable framework for examining how the U.S. war in Iraq came to pass. Clearly, it calls into question the repeated assertions of Bush administration officials that they were the unwitting victims of bad intelligence."The Findings
Lewis and Reading-Smith write: "President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. . . .
"On at least 532 separate occasions (in speeches, briefings, interviews, testimony, and the like), Bush and these three key officials, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration's case for war. . . .
"President Bush, for example, made 232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Powell had the second-highest total in the two-year period, with 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld and Fleischer each made 109 false statements, followed by Wolfowitz (with 85), Rice (with 56), Cheney (with 48), and McClellan (with 14).
"The massive database at the heart of this project juxtaposes what President Bush and these seven top officials were saying for public consumption against what was known, or should have been known, on a day-to-day basis. This fully searchable database includes the public statements, drawn from both primary sources (such as official transcripts) and secondary sources (chiefly major news organizations) over the two years beginning on September 11, 2001. It also interlaces relevant information from more than 25 government reports, books, articles, speeches, and interviews. . . .
"The cumulative effect of these false statements -- amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts -- was massive, with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war. Some journalists -- indeed, even some entire news organizations -- have since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical. These mea culpas notwithstanding, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, 'independent' validation of the Bush administration's false statements about Iraq."
Here are some key false statements. For example: "On August 26, 2002, in an address to the national convention of the Veteran of Foreign Wars, Cheney flatly declared: 'Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.' In fact, former CIA Director George Tenet later recalled, Cheney's assertions went well beyond his agency's assessments at the time. Another CIA official, referring to the same speech, told journalist Ron Suskind, 'Our reaction was, "Where is he getting this stuff from?"'"White House Response
Douglass K. Daniel writes for the Associated Press: "White House spokesman Scott Stanzel did not comment on the merits of the study Tuesday night but reiterated the administration's position that the world community viewed Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, as a threat.
"'The actions taken in 2003 were based on the collective judgment of intelligence agencies around the world,' Stanzel said."Earlier Versions
The new findings are somewhat reminiscent of an earlier, less exhaustive database prepared at the direction of Henry Waxman in March 2004, when he was the ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That was a searchable collection of 237 specific misleading statements made by Bush Administration officials about the threat posed by Iraq.
In August 2006, Mother Jones published "Lie by Lie," a sortable (if not searchable) timeline.What About the Senate Intelligence Committee?
So what, you may well ask, ever happened to the Senate Intelligence Committee's promised inquiry into whether the White House intentionally deceived the public in the run-up to war? That, presumably, would provide an accountability moment of sorts.
You may recall that more than two years ago, in November 2005, Democrats were so upset about Republican foot-dragging on the inquiry that they brought the Senate to a halt with a rare closed session to demand that work resume.
The Republicans, not surprisingly, continued to stall anyway. But the Democrats have controlled the Senate for more than a year now. Where is the report?
Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, told me this morning that it will be out before the end of spring.
Why the delay? Due to the "lack of comity on the committee" when Rockefeller took over the chairmanship, he decided that pushing ahead with the inquiry right away "would again create tension," Morigi said.
Nevertheless, the committee staff has "continued to work" on the report, she said. And a hearing on the matter will be held "within the next few months."FISA Watch
Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Republicans blocked Majority Leader Harry Reid's attempt Tuesday to extend the life of a surveillance law due to expire Feb. 1, raising the stakes for a vote expected later this week on a new version of the law."
Massimo Calabresi writes for Time that last summer, "[a]fter initially trying to block the bill, which expanded the government's ability to track suspect individuals, Democrats caved. . . .
"Democrats [now] find themselves in the same corner they were in last summer: on the one hand their base demands they block expanded domestic spying powers for the Bush Administration; on the other, they can't risk looking soft on terrorism, especially nine months before national elections. . . .
"The bitterest point of contention for Democrats will be the same question that divided them last summer: immunity for telecom companies that complied with Bush Administration requests for access to American phone and e-mail traffic without warrants after 9/11. After news of the Bush program broke, civil liberties groups brought cases against the companies, and since then the telecoms have in some cases refused to help the U.S. intelligence community further. Bush has said he will veto any bill that doesn't grant the telecoms immunity. The Democrats are split on the issue. Smart money bets the Democrats will cave again -- the only question is how much they fight before doing so. "
Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "Here we have a perfect expression of the most self-destructive Democratic disease which they seem unable to cure. More than anything, they fear looking 'weak.' To avoid this, they 'cave' and surrender and capitulate and stand for nothing."
The White House yesterday issued a " Fact Sheet" asserting: "Liability Protection Is Critical To The Ongoing Effort To Protect The Nation From Another Catastrophic Attack. . . .
"Companies should not be held responsible for verifying the government's determination that requested assistance was necessary and lawful -- and such an impossible requirement would hurt our ability to keep the Nation safe."
So companies should just do whatever the government tells them to do -- even if they have reason to think it's illegal? Apparently. Or, as the White House put it: "Failing to provide such protection sends an unfortunate message to every private party that may in the future consider whether to help the Nation."Stimulus Watch
Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and congressional leaders moved closer to agreeing on a compromise economic rescue package yesterday, fending off fresh protests from both the right and the left as they rushed to respond to a cascading series of economic troubles and to head off a potential recession. . . .
"In an important concession to Democrats, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. signaled that he is open to including breaks even for those who pay little to no income taxes. . . .
"[O]fficials said they were close to the framework of a roughly $145 billion plan. About two-thirds of the money would go for tax breaks for individuals, plus extended unemployment and food stamp benefits, while the other third would be for business tax breaks. Individuals would get rebates of as much as $800, and married couples as much as $1,600. . . .
"Conservatives scorned one-time tax rebates to individuals as ineffective pandering and called for permanent breaks aimed at stoking investment. Liberals said Bush's proposed package already tilts toward the wealthy and pushed instead for a broad investment in public works."
Jonathan Weisman and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Democratic candidates laid into Bush. Some even questioned why their congressional leaders were sitting down with the man they have made their common enemy."
Bush met with congressional leaders yesterday and said: "I really want to thank you all for coming, and I'm looking forward to our discussions. And -- look, there's a -- everybody wants to get something done quickly, but we want to make sure it gets done right, and make sure that we're -- everybody is realistic about a -- the timetable. . . .
"So I have got reasonable expectations about how fast something can happen, but I also am optimistic that something will happen."
Richard Wolf writes in USA Today that "[a]fter a day of meetings, however, little had been settled except the need to act fast. 'Evidently, they've agreed to agree,' said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who attended the White House session. 'Everybody seems to want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but nobody knows the words.'"Deficit Watch
Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "The deficit for the current budget year will jump to about $250 billion, the Congressional Budget Office estimated Wednesday, citing the weakening economy. And that figure does not reflect at least $100 billion in red ink from an economic stimulus measure in the works."Opinion Watch
Joesph E. Stiglitz writes in a New York Times op-ed: "In 2001, the Bush administration used the impending recession as an excuse to cut taxes for upper-income Americans -- the very group that had done so well over the preceding quarter-century. The cuts were not intended to stimulate the economy, and they did so only to a limited extent. To keep the economy going, the Federal Reserve was forced to lower interest rates to an unprecedented extent and then look the other way as America engaged in reckless lending. The economy was sustained on borrowed money and borrowed time.
"The day of reckoning has come. This time we need a stimulus that stimulates. The question is, will the president and Congress put aside politics to get the job done?"
Stiglitz recommends more federal spending on unemployment insurance, on assistance to states and localities, particularly for education, and on promoting energy conservation and lower emissions.
Len Burman writes in a New York Times op-ed: "Since 2001, Washington's answer to every policy question has been the same. What should we do with a big surplus? Tax cuts. How do we beat back global terrorism? Tax cuts. Increase energy independence? Rebuild New Orleans? Expand health insurance coverage? Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.
"Now comes another question that becomes more pressing each day that the markets lose ground -- one to which taxes have long been at least part of the answer. How do we stimulate the economy to prevent or shorten a recession? One way would be to repeal the Bush tax cuts two years early, in 2009...
"[I]f they were repealed in a year, the Bush tax cuts could spur a burst of economic activity in 2008. If people knew that their tax rates were going up next year, they'd work to make sure that more of their income is taxed at this year's lower rates. Investors would likewise have a giant incentive to cash out their capital gains now to avoid paying higher taxes later. . . . If people pour their stock gains into yachts and fast cars, that's pure fiscal stimulus."Financial Literacy Watch
Bush yesterday also announced a new President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy: "You know, it's interesting that if we want America to be as hopeful a place as it can be, we want people owning assets. We want people investing. We want people owning homes. But oftentimes, to be able to do so requires literacy when it comes to financial matters. And sometimes people just simply don't know what they're looking at and reading. And it can lead to personal financial crisis, and that personal financial crisis, if accumulated to too many folks, hurts our country."
"One of the issues that many of our folks are facing now are these sub-prime mortgages. I just wonder how many people, when they bought a sub-prime mortgage, knew what they were getting into."
Andrew Leonard writes for Salon that Bush "might be focusing his efforts on the wrong sector of the populace.
"Did the mortgage brokers who fell over themselves in their haste to sell those subprime mortgages to people who could not afford them know what they were getting into?
"Did the banks that packaged up those mortgages into collateralized debt obligations that they then sold like hotcakes across the globe know what they were getting into?
"Did the ratings agencies who gave those CDOs AAA ratings know what they were getting into?
"Did the hedge funds and other institutional investors who bought shares in the collateralized debt obligations linked to subprime mortgage securities know what they were getting into?
"Did Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, when he told us that the subprime contagion was 'contained' know what he was getting into?"Bush and the Unborn
The Associated Press reports: "President Bush on Tuesday voiced support for anti-abortion demonstrators attending this year's 'March for Life' rally marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision."
Bush "hosted about 200 of the demonstrators in the East Room for coffee and doughnuts."
From his remarks: "[T]he fingers and toes and beating hearts that we can see on an unborn child's ultrasound come with something that we cannot see: a soul. . . .
"As you give voice to the voiceless I ask you to take comfort from this: The hearts of the American people are good. (Applause.) Their minds are open to persuasion. And our history shows that a cause rooted in human dignity and appealing to the best instincts of the American people cannot fail. So take heart."Iraq Watch
Remember that new law about ex-Baathists that Bush has been citing as a sign of political reconciliation in Baghdad?
Amit R. Paley and Joshua Partlow write in The Washington Post from Baghdad: "More than a dozen Iraqi lawmakers, U.S. officials and former Baathists here and in exile expressed concern in interviews that the law could set off a new purge of ex-Baathists, the opposite of U.S. hopes for the legislation."North Korea Watch
Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a rare public rebuke, has upbraided a White House envoy who criticized United States diplomacy toward North Korea that is aimed at coaxing the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons.
"Ms. Rice said the official, Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush's special envoy on North Korean human rights, was not speaking for the administration when he told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute last week that the United States 'should consider a new approach to North Korea' because the current approach was unlikely to resolve the issue before the end of Mr. Bush's term in a year."Afghanistan Watch
Richard Holbrooke writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "'I'm a spray man myself,' President Bush told government leaders and American counter-narcotics officials during his 2006 trip to Afghanistan. He said it again when President Hamid Karzai visited Camp David in August. Bush meant, of course, that he favors aerial eradication of poppy fields in Afghanistan, which supplies over 90 percent of the world's heroin. His remarks -- which, despite their flippant nature, were definitely not meant as a joke -- are part of the story behind the spectacularly unsuccessful U.S. counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan. . . .
"[E]ven without aerial eradication, the program, which costs around $1 billion a year, may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy. It's not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan."Bush v. Whales
Kenneth R. Weiss writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The California Coastal Commission argued in federal court Tuesday that President Bush violated the U.S. Constitution by trying to overturn a court order that restricted the Navy's use of a type of sonar linked to the deaths of marine mammals.
"The commission's attorneys said Bush's move to exempt the Navy sonar training exercises in Southern California waters from federal law violated the Constitution's separation-of-powers doctrine.
"'The notion that the president can act like some medieval autocrat and impose the law as he sees it violates the fundamental basis of the American Constitution,' said Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, whose staff lawyers represent the commission. 'There are three branches of government. Each of the branches has to be respected.'"Delayed Contempt
John Bresnahan write in the Politico: "House Democrats will postpone votes on criminal contempt citations against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, while congressional leaders work with President Bush on a bipartisan stimulus package to fend off an economic downturn, according to party leaders and leadership aides.
"Senior Democrats have decided that holding a controversial vote on the contempt citations, which have already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, would 'step on their message' of bipartisan unity in the midst of the stimulus package talks."Mukasey Watch
Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal about how new Attorney General Michael Mukasey sees his job: "'On the one hand, I'm nominated by the president,' Mr. Mukasey said in an interview aboard a jet en route to Mexico City last week. 'On the other hand, the oath is to protect and defend the Constitution. And so that's my job on a day-to-day basis.'"
Perez writes: "Mr. Mukasey's portfolio includes some of the White House's most controversial policies, including the legal underpinnings of wiretapping, interrogation methods and gun laws. As a result, it is an open question how far he can carry his independent streak, given the sensitivity of these matters. . . .
"A big test will come next week when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which narrowly approved his confirmation in November. Democrats and Republicans alike said at the time they expected more complete answers after he was briefed on the Bush administration's antiterror strategies. . . .
"Asked last week whether he was prepared to answer senators' questions on waterboarding, Mr. Mukasey responded: 'When? At this point in time?' . . .
"Reminded that he hadn't answered the question, Mr. Mukasey said: 'Yes, I've been read into the program, but that's part of a process. I said I would look at the program. Look at the letters. And give my answers. I haven't yet figured out precisely when and precisely how. I understand that the time is coming.'"
Perez notes that Mukasey's aides "are enforcing his orders to restrict contact with the White House. Administration officials had worked closely with the department under [Alberto] Gonzales, including directing details of the attorney general's speeches."Impeachment (Non) Watch
Rep. Tammy Baldwin explains, in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed, her decision to join a small bands of colleagues in calling for impeachment hearings: "The abuses of this administration demand a formal response. Congressional oversight is a fundamental part of our constitutionally-proscribed system of checks and balances.
"I had hoped that Congress could begin to repair the damage that has been done to our democracy, our Constitution and our standing in the world, so that censure or impeachment could be averted. Unfortunately, this administration not only fails to accept responsibility for its misdeeds, but it also blocks attempts to right the wrongs and address the tragic consequences of those misdeeds. We have seen the American people's will thwarted by the exercise of veto power. We have seen subpoenas ignored. We have seen signing statements used to circumvent the law of the land.
"If we fail to take action to either impeach or repair the damage, then the next president will 'inherit' unchecked powers. Unchecked powers are unacceptable no matter who is president."Schedule Change
Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush postponed an event on Wednesday to promote an advertising campaign on preventing prescription drug abuse after actor Heath Ledger's death from a possible drug overdose, the White House said.
"'We felt it would be better not to hold the event today given the tragedy of yesterday's passing of the beloved actor,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
"'We did not want anyone to think we were trying to link into that story in any way,' she said."Inexplicable? I Can Explain It
In a story headlined "An Inexplicable Jump in Americans' Long-Term Optimism," Lydia Saad reports for Gallup: "Gallup's annual Mood of the Nation survey, conducted Jan. 4-6, 2008, finds a striking increase since January 2007 in Americans' belief that the country will be better off five years from now than it is today. Americans are typically upbeat on this measure, but today's level of optimism is the highest in four years."Cartoon Watch
Rex Babin on Bush the repairman.