The Propaganda Campaign Dissected

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 6, 2008; 1:22 PM

Yesterday's long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report further solidifies the argument that the Bush administration's most blatant appeals to fear in its campaign to sell the Iraq war were flatly unsupported.

Some of what President Bush and others said about Iraq was corroborated by what later turned out to be inaccurate intelligence. But their most compelling and gut-wrenching allegations -- for instance, that Saddam Hussein was ready to supply his friends in al-Qaeda with nuclear weapons -- were simply made up.

In an accident of timing, the report also validates former press secretary Scott McClellan's conclusion in his new book that the White House pursued a "political propaganda campaign" to market the war.

The White House response? That officials in Congress and elsewhere were saying the same things about Iraq. Or in other words, that other people bought the administration line. It takes a lot of chutzpah to defend yourself against charges that you've engaged in a propaganda campaign by noting that it worked.

About the Report

Here's a statement from Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller: "Before taking the country to war, this Administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the Administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence. In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.

"It is my belief that the Bush Administration was fixated on Iraq, and used the 9/11 attacks by al Qa'ida as justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. To accomplish this, top Administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and al Qa'ida as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11. Sadly, the Bush Administration led the nation into war under false pretenses.

"There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence. But, there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate."

Here's the dissenting view from Kit Bond, the ranking minority member of the committee. Bond calls the report an act of political theater. And, like the White House, he points to "a public record . . . replete with examples of statements by Democrat Senators making the same characterizations regarding Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction and links to terrorism."

Senator Russ Feingold's "additional views" make for much more dramatic reading than the main report, though they make similar points.

Writes Feingold: "Even the deeply flawed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) did not support the claims made by the President and the Vice President regarding an Iraqi nuclear program. That NIE assessed that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one, and that without sufficient fissile material acquired from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 or 2009. Yet the President made the following statements: '[Saddam] possesses the world's most dangerous weapons' ( March 22, 2002); '[w]e don't know whether or not [Saddam] has a nuclear weapon' ( December 31, 2002); and, of course, '[f]acing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud' ( October 7, 2002). Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney insisted that assessments related to Iraq's nuclear program that were disputed within the Intelligence Community were known 'with absolute certainty' ( September 8, 2002) and through 'irrefutable evidence' (September 20, 2002). And, on the eve of war, after the IAEA had reported that its inspectors had found 'no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq,' the Vice President asserted, '[w]e believe [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons' ( March 16, 2003).

"Administration officials' claims of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda were even more outlandish. Before the war, the Central Intelligence Agency assessed that 'Saddam has viewed Islamic extremists operating inside Iraq as a threat,' that 'Saddam Hussein and Usama bin Laden are far from being natural partners,' and that assessments about Iraqi links to al Qaeda rested on 'a body of fragmented, conflicting reporting from sources of varying reliability.' Moreover, the Intelligence Community consistently assessed that Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States rested on his being 'sufficiently desperate' in the face of a U. S. attack and his possible desire for a 'last chance at vengeance.' Yet the President not only repeatedly suggested an operational relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, but asserted that Saddam would provide weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda for an unprovoked attack against the United States: 'you can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror' ( September 25, 2002); '[e]ach passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX - nerve gas - or some day a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally' ( September 26, 2002); '[Saddam] is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army' ( October 14, 2002); '[Saddam] is a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda. . . . [A] true threat facing our country is that an al Qaeda-type network trained and armed by Saddam could attack America and not leave one fingerprint' ( November 7, 2002); and '[t]he danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other' ( March 17, 2003)."

At yesterday's press briefing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was on the defensive: "The administration's statements on Iraq were based on the very same intelligence that was given to the Congress, and they came to the same conclusions, as did other countries around the world. The issue about Iraq's WMD ultimately turned out to be false, and we have fully admitted that. We regret it. And we have also taken steps to make sure that we can correct it for -- in the future. . . .

Q. "But you understand the differences they're making, that they think that the claims -- understanding that the intelligence was wrong -- but that the claims went far beyond what the intelligence community was giving the White House, and that it ignored significant dissent within the intelligence community -- the White House."

Perino: "That dissent, amongst experts within the intelligence community at some levels, did not reach the President. The process that I just talked about, in terms of how we've improved the process, would hopefully make sure that now that we have this different levels of confidence, so that the President now knows if there is dissent amongst them. And that is all now coordinated by the Director of National Intelligence -- Mike McConnell in this case.

"So we've fixed the problems, in terms of the intelligence, but no one lied. And I think that's sort of the point of all this."

The committee's main but not exclusive focus was on five major policy speeches: Vice President Cheney's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention on Aug. 26, 2002; Bush's address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002; Bush's speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002 (which, ironically, appears on the White House Web site under a banner proclaiming "denial and deception"); Bush's State of the Union message on Jan. 28, 2003; and former secretary of state Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003.

The Coverage

Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "A long-delayed Senate committee report endorsed by Democrats and some Republicans concluded that President Bush and his aides built the public case for war against Iraq by exaggerating available intelligence and by ignoring disagreements among spy agencies about Iraq's weapons programs and Saddam Hussein's links to Al Qaeda. . . .

"That some Bush administration claims about the Iraqi threat turned out to be false is hardly new. But the report, based on a detailed review of public statements by Mr. Bush and other officials, was the most comprehensive effort to date to assess whether policy makers systematically painted a more dire picture about Iraq than was justified by the available intelligence.

"The 170-page report accuses Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials of repeatedly overstating the Iraqi threat in the emotional aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its findings were endorsed by all eight committee Democrats and two Republicans, Senators Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska."

Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and top administration officials repeatedly exaggerated what they knew about Iraq's weapons and its ties to terrorist groups as the White House pressed its case for war against Iraq, the Senate intelligence committee said yesterday in a long-awaited report."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The committee found that the administration's warnings that former dictator Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama bin Laden, a highly inflammatory assertion in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaida attacks, weren't substantiated by U.S. intelligence reports. In fact, it said, U.S. intelligence agencies were telling the White House that while there'd been sporadic contacts over a decade, there was no operational cooperation between Iraq and al Qaida, the report said. . . .

"Cheney's assertions that Mohammad Atta, the chief Sept. 11 hijacker, had met months before the attack with an Iraqi intelligence officer in the Czech capital, Prague, were also unsubstantiated, the inquiry found.

"The committee said that Bush and Cheney 'failed to reflect concerns and uncertainties' expressed in intelligence analyses that questioned administration assertions that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as liberators and warned that American forces could face violent resistance."

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times: "The report on the Bush administration's case for war, 170 pages long, reads like a catalog of erroneous claims. The document represents the most detailed assessment to date of whether those assertions were backed by classified intelligence reports available to senior officials at the time."

Randall Mikkelsen writes for Reuters: "Bush's and Cheney's assertions that Saddam was prepared to arm terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction for attacks on the United States contradicted available intelligence.

"Such assertions had a strong resonance with a U.S. public, still reeling after al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Polls showed that many Americans believed Iraq played a role in the attacks, even long after Bush acknowledged in September 2003 that there was no evidence Saddam was involved."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It took just a few months after the United States' invasion of Iraq for the world to find out that Saddam Hussein had long abandoned his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. He was not training terrorists or colluding with Al Qaeda. The only real threat he posed was to his own countrymen.

"It has taken five years to finally come to a reckoning over how much the Bush administration knowingly twisted and hyped intelligence to justify that invasion. . . .

"The report shows that there was no intelligence to support the two most frightening claims Mr. Bush and his vice president used to sell the war: that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and had longstanding ties to terrorist groups. It seems clear that the president and his team knew that that was not true, or should have known it -- if they had not ignored dissenting views and telegraphed what answers they were looking for. . . .

"We cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Bush lied about Iraq. But when the president withholds vital information from the public -- or leads them to believe things that he knows are not true -- to justify the invasion of another country, that is bad enough."

The USA Today editorial board writes: "For this and future administrations, the lesson is that White House officials need to weigh and study all available intelligence, not seize on only what supports their preconceived notions. They mustn't present ambiguity as certainty. They mustn't launch pre-emptive attacks without bulletproof evidence. And never again should they treat war as a marketing campaign, like selling a new brand of toothpaste."

Here's MSNBC'S Keith Olbermann talking to former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke last night:

Olbermann: "I use the word lie. The report does not use the word lie. Are there lies?"

Clarke: "There certainly are and this is a big report. What it says is statements by the president were not substantiated by intelligence. And then it stays statements by the president were contradicted by available intelligence. In other words, they made things up. And they made them up and gave them to Colin Powell and others who believed them."

The Second Report

John Walcott writes for McClatchy Newspapers about a second report issued by the Intelligence Committee yesterday: "Defense Department counterintelligence investigators suspected that Iranian exiles who provided dubious intelligence on Iraq and Iran to a small group of Pentagon officials might have 'been used as agents of a foreign intelligence service . . . to reach into and influence the highest levels of the U.S. government,' a Senate Intelligence Committee report said Thursday.

"A top aide to then-secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, however, shut down the 2003 investigation into the Pentagon officials' activities after only a month, and the Defense Department's top brass never followed up on the investigators' recommendation for a more thorough investigation, the Senate report said. . . .

"The revelation raises questions about whether Iran may have used a small cabal of officials in the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office to feed bogus intelligence on Iraq and Iran to senior policymakers in the Bush administration who were eager to oust the Iraqi dictator.

"Iran, which was a mortal enemy of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq during his reign, has been the primary beneficiary of U.S. policy in Iraq, where Iranian-backed groups now run much of the government and the security forces."

Meanwhile, in Iraq

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "The United States ambassador to Iraq dismissed any suggestion on Thursday that the Bush administration was maneuvering to set up permanent military bases in Iraq.

"'I'm very comfortable saying to you, to the Iraqis, to anyone who asks, that, no indeed, we are not seeking permanent bases, either explicitly or implicitly,' the ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, said at a State Department news briefing.

"Mr. Crocker commented at length, and sometimes disdainfully, on a report in The Independent of London of 'a secret plan' involving 50 permanent American military bases in Iraq, American control of Iraqi airspace and continuing legal immunity for American soldiers and contractors."

It doesn't mean much anymore when Bush administration officials deny that they intend to establish permanent military bases in Iraq. Permanent bases are already becoming a reality there. And, as this exchange between Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) and Defense Department officials makes clear, the official administration position is that there is no such thing as a permanent military base.

For more on that Independent news article, see yesterday's column. Today, Patrick Cockburn had a followup: "The US is holding hostage some $50 billion of Iraq's money in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to pressure the Iraqi government into signing an agreement seen by many Iraqis as prolonging the US occupation indefinitely, according to information leaked to The Independent. . . .

"The threat by the American side underlines the personal commitment of President George Bush to pushing the new pact through by 31 July. Although it is in reality a treaty between Iraq and the US, Mr Bush is describing it as an alliance so he does not have to submit it for approval to the US Senate.

"Iraqi critics of the agreement say that it means Iraq will be a client state in which the US will keep more than 50 military bases. American forces will be able to carry out arrests of Iraqi citizens and conduct military campaigns without consultation with the Iraqi government. American soldiers and contractors will enjoy legal immunity.

"The US had previously denied it wanted permanent bases in Iraq, but American negotiators argue that so long as there is an Iraqi perimeter fence, even if it is manned by only one Iraqi soldier, around a US installation, then Iraq and not the US is in charge."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi government may request an extension of the United Nations security mandate authorizing a U.S. military presence, due to expire in December, amid growing domestic criticism of new bilateral arrangements now being negotiated with the Bush administration, according to senior Iraqi officials.

"Iraqis across the political spectrum have objected to Bush administration proposals for unilateral authority over U.S. military operations in Iraq and the detention of Iraqi citizens, immunity for civilian security contractors, and continuing control over Iraqi borders and airspace.

"Failure to reach an agreement on the arrangements, which must be approved by the Iraqi parliament, would leave the negotiations over a future U.S.-Iraqi relationship and the role of U.S. forces in the country to the next American president. . . .

"The Iraqi government, still struggling toward political reconciliation, can ill-afford to sign an agreement that leading political actors have branded a violation of sovereignty. After a meeting Wednesday of the Council of Ministers -- made up of Maliki, the Iraqi president and the two vice presidents -- government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat that 'the Iraqi government's vision differs from that of the Americans, who think . . . [the agreements] will give them almost totally a free hand in Iraq and that, as a military force, they must have absolute powers.'"

Remember Peace?

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, whose administration has been dominated by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global battle against terrorism, helped break ground yesterday on a $185 million facility for the U.S. Institute of Peace -- a government-funded think tank with the mission of preventing conflict and helping promote postwar stability operations."

Abramowitz writes that some of Bush's fellow speakers, while "outwardly polite. . . hinted at the deep disagreements over Bush's use of preventive war to head off what his administration considered a threat from Iraq.

"House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointedly quoted from President John F. Kennedy's 1963 commencement address at American University to say that he would 'look kindly' on the work of the institute.

"'The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war,' Kennedy told the crowd, as Pelosi recounted. 'We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just.'"

How We Became Torturers

From a Fox News report last night by Jim Angle: "The nation was stunned by the attacks on 9/11, and in the fearful days that followed, the intelligence community was consumed with finding out if another attack was on the way. In an interview, CIA Director Michael Hayden told Fox the fear of an imminent attack led to what are now known as enhanced interrogation techniques."

Hayden: "And keep in mind, this is a time when we didn't know nearly as much about al-Qaeda as we know today, and you have the nation suffering, reeling from a recent attack in which 3,000 citizens had been killed, until it was the collective judgment of the American government that these techniques would be appropriate and lawful in these circumstances."

Angle: "Hayden was at the National Security Agency in those days, but now has been at the CIA for two years. He acknowledges that three high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, were waterboarded. . . . [U]sually the subject is tilted on a board with a cloth covering his mouth and nose, then water is poured over it, creating a sense of drowning. Hayden says that technique generated key intelligence that allowed the U.S. to disrupt attack plots that were already in motion."

Hayden: "That two of the people against waterboarding was used created a significant fraction of our reporting in al-Qaeda over a period of several years.

Angle: "Really?"

Hayden: "Yes. But there's a question of lawfulness. Now, if you ask me was it lawful, the answer is absolutely.

Angle: "Though he says the legal landscape has changed as a result of court cases and legislation, back then, the U.S. government as a whole gave the green light. Key members of Congress from both parties were briefed and none raised objections, in part, perhaps, because the U.S. had long experience with waterboarding, a matter raised with Hayden."

Angle (to Hayden): "We waterboard our pilots as a way of training them against something that might happen to them. Has anyone at the agency who's involved in interrogations subjected themselves to waterboarding?

Hayden: "Yes."

Angle: "They have."

Hayden: "Yes."

Angle: "As a result, Hayden argues, interrogators had a detailed knowledge of waterboarding's effects from their own experiences and those of many others."

Hayden: "Could it be that waterboarding was selected as the high-end interrogation technique against a very small population because of our experience with the technique on literally thousands of Americans that gave us a body of knowledge as to what the transient and permanent effects of the technique would be?"

Here's how Angle finished up the report: "Whether the effects are transient or permanent has legal significance, because the law defines torture as mental harm that is either prolong or permanent, and some say waterboarding is neither. Controversial yes, but inappropriate for terrorists who know of ongoing plots to kill innocent civilians? After 9/11, the government's answer to that was no."

A little context: Waterboarding is one of the most iconic and notorious forms of torture, dating back to the Spanish inquisition. It is flatly a violation of international law, and administration officials have never made a compelling case as to how it could be legal under American law.

Furthermore, as I've repeatedly pointed out, none of the administration assertions that torture provided valuable intelligence have been substantiated -- and in fact they are highly suspect.

Meanwhile, Desmond Butler writes for the Associated Press: "A leading Homeland Security Department investigator said Thursday his office is re-examining the conclusions of a probe that exonerated the government in the case of a Canadian engineer who was seized by U.S. officials, sent to Syria and allegedly tortured."

Karl Rove Watch

In an excerpt from his new book 'Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove' published by Salon, Paul Alexander writes about how Karl Rove played politics while New Orleans drowned.

"Instead of supplying relief to the city, Rove had devised a scheme whereby he could blame the failure of government to take action on someone besides Bush. . . .

"Here was Rove's strategy: Praise Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi; praise Michael Brown and FEMA; blame [Louisiana governor Kathleen] Blanco, the Democrat. . . .

"Rove sold the story, as he had in the past, through the media. On Wednesday, while Blanco was trying to get help from the White House, her staff began receiving calls from reporters questioning her handling of the disaster, almost all of them citing as their sources unnamed senior White House officials."

Not an American Idol

Elizabeth Snead blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "'American Idol' creator Nigel Lythgoe didn't want President Bush to appear on the 'Idol Gives Back' show.

"Lythgoe has told OK! magazine that during the planning for the second annual 'Idol Gives Back' fundraising special, which aired in April, America's biggest TV show had a serious spat with the White House.

"He said that the show's producers were so disappointed with Bush's efforts to combat the poverty that the show was trying to relieve that they were simply embarrassed to have him on their show.

"But Nigel says they relented under pressure from the Prez's peeps, and allowed him to speak during the star-studded broadcast."

Cartoon Watch

Rex Babin on Bush's new sales job; Ed Hall on the McAlbatross; Mike Keefe and Matt Wuerker on the new G.I. Bill.

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