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Bush: Misleading at Best

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 1:47 PM

The White House acknowledged last night that President Bush learned in August that Iran might have shelved its nuclear weapons program, contradicting what the president said at his press conference earlier this week.

Bush said Tuesday that was first briefed on a dramatic new intelligence report about Iran just last week. He said that national intelligence director Michael McConnell told him in August there was some new information about Iran, but "didn't tell me what the information was."

Critics and journalists alike responded with incredulity that Bush didn't insist on some details. And so late yesterday, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino disclosed in an unusual e-mailed statement to reporters that McConnell had in fact told Bush that the new information "might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program."

Perino insisted that Bush was told at the time that the findings were provisional enough that there was no need to change the tenor of his statements about Iran. But that doesn't hold water either. As I documented in yesterday's column, Bush's word choice on Iran did indeed change significantly in early August. He stopped speaking definitively about an Iranian nuclear weapons program -- shifting to vaguer accusations about their pursuit of the knowledge necessary to make such a weapon -- while ratcheting the rhetorical stakes up higher than ever, even going so far as to repeatedly warn of a possible nuclear holocaust.

Yet another challenge to the newly revised White House story is an alternate narrative, woven by some investigative reporters, in which White House officials and particularly Vice President Cheney were involved in a pitched battle over the last 18 months to squelch a report they knew would undermine a key pillar of their foreign policy. In this scenario, Bush presumably knew even before August that what he was telling the American people was unsupported.

Last night's reversal only increases the pressure on the White House to come clean. Why did Bush mislead reporters at the press conference about what he'd been told in August? Did he not remember what happened? Was he just being sloppy in his answer? Was he trying to throw reporters off the trail with some imaginative hair-splitting? Was he outright lying?

Exactly how long has Bush known that the intelligence didn't back up his assertion (either direct or implied) that Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program? It's not just a question of what McConnell said that day in August. Is the White House really willing to say that was the first indication Bush ever had of such doubts?

And let's not forget the central mystery: Why did Bush and Cheney ratchet up the anti-Iran rhetoric if they knew their primary concern had abated? Why hype a threat they knew was overstated -- especially after the damage they inflicted on American credibility after invading Iraq on false pretenses?

The Contradiction

Martha Raddatz blogs for ABC News: "The White House made a stunning admission Wednesday that appeared to suggest President Bush has directly contradicted himself about when he learned U.S. intelligence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. . . .

"After taking a reporters' question earlier today about exactly what the President was told, White House press secretary Dana Perino provided a response to reporters Wednesday night.

"Perino stated Bush had been told in August that Iran suspended it's covert nuclear weapons program.

"'In August, DNI Director McConnell advised President Bush that the intelligence community would not be able to meet a congressionally imposed deadline requiring a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran because new information had been obtained just as they were about to finalize the report,' Perino wrote in an emailed response.

"'He said that if the new information turns out to be true, what we thought we knew for sure is right. Iran does in fact have a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may be suspended,' Perino's email said.

"Perino also said McConnell told the President the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program."

Ed Henry reports for CNN: "The new account from Perino seems to contradict the president's version of his August conversation with McConnell and raised new questions about why Bush continued to warn the American public about a threat from Iran two months after being told a new assessment was in the works.

"But Perino said there was no conflict between her statement and Bush's Tuesday account of the meeting, when he said McConnell 'didn't tell me what the information was.'

"'The president wasn't given the specific details' of the revised intelligence estimate, which was released Monday, Perino said. Nor did Bush mislead Americans in October, when he warned of a third world war triggered by Iran's development of nuclear technology, she said.

"'The president didn't say we're going to cause World War III,' Perino said. 'He was saying he wanted to avoid World War III.' . . .

"And Perino called [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad a 'liar' Wednesday, because the new NIE shows that Tehran did have a clandestine nuclear weapons program at one time.

"'If anyone wants to call the president a liar, they are misreading the situation for their own political purposes,' Perino said. 'The liar is Ahmadinejad, and he has a lot of explaining to do.'"

National security adviser Stephen Hadley spoke this morning to NPR's Renee Montagne and echoed Perino's new line.

Montagne expressed skepticism about Bush's version of his talk with McConnell: "Given that Iran is at the top of this administration's concerns, did that conversation end there?"

Hadley: "The director of national intelligence did alert the president that there was some new information. He didn't go into great detail on that information. And he also advised is that this was one of many streams of information, some of which were potentially in conflict. So he basically said, 'Mr. President, there's something that may be new, it indicated that there was a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may have been suspended -- its too soon to tell. We're going to work the information and come back to you, Mr. President.' And then they went off and worked it, and that's what you'd hope your intelligence community would do."

Montagne: "But didn't the president ask for more information on one of the most important aspects of his foreign policy?"

Hadley: "The president has been asking for more information on Iran for the last several years. He's spent a lot of time actually bringing the Iranian analysts in and interacting with them directly, trying to probe, understand what they know. . . ."

Montagne: "Why, weeks later, was he warning about Iran's nuclear weapons program possibly leading to World War III? That's pretty strong rhetoric."

Hadley: "It's right, it was right at the time, and it's right now."

The Perino Factor

Perino made a guest appearance with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News last night.

O'Reilly was fuming about the attacks on the president: "Yesterday, Senator Joseph Biden actually called the president a liar over the issue," he said, rolling a clip of Biden saying "For this president to knowingly disregard or once again misrepresent intelligence about the issue of war and peace I find outrageous."

O'Reilly: "Now Senator Biden refuses to come on 'The Factor.' He simply doesn't have the courage, but his office told us he based his assessment of President Bush on what national security advisor Steven Hadley said. So then we called Steven Hadley's office. And they told us point blank President Bush was informed about the new Iranian intel only last Wednesday.

"Joining us now from Washington, White House Spokesperson Dana Perino. You know, I've never understood why you, Tony Snow, McClellan, all of the White House spokespeople, and President Bush himself, and the president himself didn't get as angry as I get from the 'Bush lied' crowd. They can't prove any lies, but they say it over and over and over. . . .

"If somebody accused me of being a liar like Biden just did, I'd be all over them. I'd be all over them. Now are you as angry as I am about it?"

Perino: "It does make me angry. And especially because I think Senator Biden is acting much more like a political presidential candidate than a senator. Anybody who is serious about wanting to be in the Oval Office should take a deep breath and actually digest the information that we got.

"We just found out that Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program. It proves that we were right, and that international pressure is what caused them to halt it."

Actually, Iran had a nuclear weapons program. But let's continue.

O'Reilly: "All right, but look, I don't mind Biden's partisanship. That's what - that's how the game is played. But he comes out, and he says to the world, not just to America, Ms. Perino, we have a president who continues to lie to the American people and the world about very serious subjects like life and death, war and peace. And I don't hear President Bush coming out saying listen Biden, knock it off, I didn't lie about anything. I'd like to hear that."

Perino: "Well, I'm happy to say it here."

Bush's Latest Statement

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush called on Iran to 'come clean' about the scope of its nuclear activities Wednesday, as the White House made it clear there will be no change in its policy toward Tehran despite new intelligence questioning his claims about the country's nuclear ambitions. . . .

"The White House remained anxious to contain the fallout from this week's new intelligence report, which contradicts recent statements by Bush and Vice President Cheney that Iran intends to try to acquire a nuclear weapon. U.S. analysts judged that Iran is continuing to develop technologies that could be used for a bomb, but they believe with 'moderate confidence' that, as of the middle of this year, Tehran had not restarted the nuclear weapons program. . . .

"Administration officials offered no contrition or apologies for past rhetoric about Iran and said there will be no change in policy, such as relaxing its insistence that Tehran abandon nuclear enrichment as a precondition to negotiations with the United States. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto said aboard Air Force One that 'anyone who thinks that the threat from Iran has receded or diminished is naive and is not paying attention to the facts.' . . .

"Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate, said if Bush believes nothing has changed because of the intelligence report, he is in denial.

"'If we don't use this moment to end this administration's fixation on regime change and bring the world onboard to a new approach of conduct change, with coordinated pressure and real incentives, the result will be to isolate the United States, not Iran,' Biden said."

"Outside experts said the White House is struggling to keep its policy on Iran from imploding."

David E. Sanger and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times that Bush "faced calls from across the political spectrum for the United States to make a more concerted effort to negotiate with Iran, offering a package of incentives that could persuade it to suspend its uranium enrichment program and clear up concerns that it is building a civilian energy program to develop the expertise for a covert military program.

"'Bush has made a big mistake, and he's not responding in a way that gives confidence that he's on top of this,' said David Albright, a former weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency and president of the Institute for Science and International Security. 'He isn't able to respond because he's not able to say he's wrong.'"

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times that the Iranian president has said the report vindicates Iran. "Ahmadinejad also has demanded an apology and compensation from the United States.

"Asked about those demands, Bush laughed and told reporters, 'You can mark down I chuckled.'"

The Alternate Narrative

Joe Klein writes for Time: "Almost exactly a year ago, after the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, the President met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 'Tank,' the Pentagon's secure facility. Bush asked the Chiefs about attacking Iran. He was told that a bombing campaign could do severe damage to Iran's military and nuclear facilities, but the Chiefs said they were opposed to such a strike because of the probable 'blowback.' The Iranians, Bush was told, could make life very difficult for the U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. They could shut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, thereby creating a global economic crisis. And they could use the threat of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks on the American homeland

"At about the same time, a new NIE on Iran was meandering through the intelligence community. A senior U.S. intelligence official told me last week that the report was prepared to say with a 'moderate' degree of certainty that Iran had stopped its nuclear-weapons program, but the information wasn't very conclusive. That finding would have put the U.S. in the same camp as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- deeply concerned about the Iranian efforts to enrich uranium but skeptical about the regime's efforts to fashion that uranium into a bomb."

As I noted yesterday, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh reported more than a year ago that the CIA had alerted the White House that it was wrong about how close Iran was to building a nuclear bomb. Hersh also reported that Cheney was actively trying to counter or suppress such a conclusion.

By contrast, the administration asserts that intelligence agencies changed their thinking on Iran only last summer.

If both Klein and Hersh are right, however, whatever new intelligence emerged in August only solidified widely-held views. And in that case, did Bush truly not know for a year that there were serious (if not definitive) doubts about the central plank in his anti-Iran platform?

Opinion Watch

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his McClatchy Newspapers opinion column: "That this NIE, albeit in very truncated summary form, ever saw the light of day says much about an intelligence community that's determined to get it right this time and to withstand the unrelenting pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and his minions to come up with an estimate that matches his dark conclusion that only American air strikes can stop Iran's ayatollahs from building nuclear weapons. . . .

"In an earlier day and time, Cheney had enough clout to bully intelligence analysts into revising their estimates about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's nuclear program and weapons of mass destruction. He also was able to shove bogus claims about non-existent mobile chemical and biological weapons labs into then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"Back in those heady days before 'Mission Accomplished', it would have been inconceivable that an NIE could have been published that ran counter to Cheney's beliefs and opinions."

But former Cheney minion John R. Bolton writes in a Washington Post op-ed that "we not only have a problem interpreting what the mullahs in Tehran are up to, but also a more fundamental problem: Too much of the intelligence community is engaging in policy formulation rather than 'intelligence' analysis, and too many in Congress and the media are happy about it. President Bush may not be able to repair his Iran policy (which was not rigorous enough to begin with) in his last year, but he would leave a lasting legacy by returning the intelligence world to its proper function."

Klein writes for Time: "Imagine if the President had said, 'This report means we don't want war. We want to talk, and everything -- including lifting of the economic sanctions and our acknowledgment that you are a major regional power -- is on the table so long as you put everything on the table too. That means not only your uranium-enrichment program but also your support for terrorist organizations.' How could Iran have said no to that?

"But that would have required some other President. This President appears to lack the desire, creativity and patience to engage in the most important diplomacy that a nation can face -- with its enemies -- over issues that could mean the difference between war and peace."

Cheney and the Politico

The transcript of Cheney's interview yesterday with Politico reporters Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris has a bit of news in it. But it's probably most notable for the sycophantic tone of the questions from the three reporters. Rather than probe the incredibly controversial and supremely influential vice president on his inconsistencies or question him about his record, they encouraged him to let loose on Democrats. The opening question:

Q: "But I'd love -- I mean, I'd love your overall assessment from -- of what's been happening on the Hill, like Pelosi's leadership and how Democrats have sort of handled their end of negotiating with you guys, whether it's Iraq, the economy, spending -- dealing with that right now. What is your assessment of how the Democratic Congress is handling -- "

Cheney: "Well, I don't think they're doing all that well. That probably wouldn't surprise anybody."

Cheney was particularly critical of anti-war Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha "and other senior leaders who now all march to the tune of Nancy Pelosi. . . . And that is -- well, it's surprising when I think of the -- I'm trying to think how to say all of this in a gentlemanly fashion -- but the Congress I served in, that wouldn't have happened. We would not have had a Speaker who, from my perspective, is that far out of the sort of mainstream -- she is a San Francisco Democrat, certainly entitled to her views, but able to dictate policy as effectively as she apparently does to the rest of the caucus."

Q: "Well, did any of those guys lose their spine? Is that what you're saying?"

Cheney: "I was being very diplomatic in the way I phrased it. (Laughter.) They're not carrying the big stick I would have expected with the Democrats in the majority."

Q: "Mr. Vice President, what has Senator Reid been like to work with?"

Cheney: "Difficult. He's -- I'll leave it at that. He's difficult."

Q: "Are you surprised at how partisan he's become, I mean, given both his state and his past politics? He has -- quite frankly, his past views on foreign policy have been -- (inaudible) -- Are you surprised that he's become so stridently anti-war, saying not long ago that the war is lost --"

Cheney: "Well, I obviously -- I have major differences with him. When he announced the war was lost, he was clearly wrong. And I -- the man I respect most on the other side of the aisle -- that nobody would be surprised about -- is Joe Lieberman."

The Politicos even offered Cheney a little strategic advice:

Q: "Do you think it's important for both the White House and for Republicans to be clear in the current climate that they do think that there are potentially devastating costs to some of these Democratic policies; that it's not about -- because often it's sort of written about and thought about in this political context, that Democrats want this, Bush doesn't and Bush wins. But that there are -- I mean, like what you say -- I mean, you sort of summarize what you say, it's like, listen to me, if we do what they want to do in Iraq, people could die if you don't have the right -- proper tools, or, we're more exposed."

But Cheney demurred: "I try to state it the way I stated it. Then there's always a great temptation out there anyway -- get into the media -- for people to try to sensationalize this stuff. I was very precise in terms of what I said, and that's how I would like to describe my views."

Allen, VandeHei and Harris then wrote up a story which the Drudge Report publicizes with this link: "CHENEY SAYS DEM MEN LACK 'BIG STICKS'"

They write: "Most striking were his virtually taunting remarks of two men he described as friends from his own days in the House: Democratic Reps. John Dingell (Mich.) and John P. Murtha (Pa.)."

In a separate story, the same three reporters write without once mentioning Cheney's May 2005 comment that the insurgency was in its "last throes": "Vice President Cheney today predicted Iraq will be a self-governing democracy by the time he leaves office, calling the current U.S. surge strategy 'a remarkable success story' that will be studied for years to come."

And they note: "By contrast to President Bush's paper-free Oval Office desk, Cheney's is a working desk, stacked with reference and reading material, including a pictorial directory for Congress and the latest issue of Politico."

Other Views of Iraq

Ann Scott Tyson and Sudarsan Raghavan write in The Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that a stable and democratic Iraq is 'within reach.' But he cautioned that threats remain, pointing to insurgent efforts to create a stronghold in northern Iraq as U.S. commanders seek more than 1,400 additional Iraqi and U.S. troops there."

New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon writes from Mosul: "Sunni insurgents pushed out of Baghdad and Anbar Provinces have migrated to this northern Iraqi city and have been trying to turn it into a major hub for their operations, according to American commanders."

Alissa J. Rubin writes in the New York Times: "The reduced violence in Iraq in recent months stems from three significant developments, but the clock is running on all of them, Iraqi officials and analysts warn.

"'It's more a cease-fire than a peace,' said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, in words that were repeated by Qassim Daoud, a Shiite member of Parliament.

"Officials attribute the relative calm to a huge increase in the number of Sunni Arab rebels who have turned their guns on jihadists instead of American troops; a six-month halt to military action by the militia of a top Shiite leader, Moktada al-Sadr; and the increased number of American troops on the streets here.

"They stress that all of these changes can be reversed, and on relatively short notice."

A Former Insider Spills the Beans

In a remarkably candid interview with Evan Smith of the Texas Monthly, recently departed White House counselor Dan Bartlett acknowledges the White House's contested involvement in the "Mission Accomplished" banner; defends the White House press corps; and explains why the White House loves right-wing bloggers so much.

One of the many fascinating exchanges:

Smith: "What about the blogs?"

Bartlett: "We had to set up a whole new apparatus to deal with the challenges they pose. Are they real journalists? The Washington Post, for example, has journalists who are now bloggers. Do you treat them as bloggers? Do they get credentials?"

Smith: "Let's think of it as a practical matter. If one of those journalists-turned-bloggers, Chris Cillizza, e-mails you to say he needs an interview, and at the same time one of the Post's print reporters--say, Dan Balz--e-mails you and says he needs an interview, and you can do only one -- "

Bartlett: "Balz."

Smith: "Because the print edition of the Post has more of an impact?"

Bartlett: "Because Balz is on multiple platforms. He's booked more easily on television. He's read by more people. He influences people a bit more. Now, the question might not be as much Chris versus Dan as maybe, 'Is it Dan Balz or one of the guys at [the conservative blog] Power Line?'

Smith: "Yeah, or what if [conservative blogger] Hugh Hewitt called?"

Bartlett: "That's when you start going, 'Hmm . . . ' Because they do reach people who are influential."

Smith: "Well, they reach the president's base."

Bartlett: "That's what I mean by influential. I mean, talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support. It's a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we've cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on."

Detainee Watch

Michael Doyle writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Supreme Court justices sounded skeptical Wednesday about the Bush administration's treatment of foreign-born prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, raising questions about the future of White House war-on-terrorism tactics."

Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "When it comes to the rights of the detainees at Guant¿namo Bay, the Supreme Court, and not the president or Congress, will have the last word.

"That was the clear part of the message to emerge Wednesday from the Supreme Court argument on whether the men held as enemy combatants at the United States naval base in Cuba have been provided with constitutionally adequate means to challenge the legality of their detention.

"A majority of the court appeared ready to agree that the detainees were entitled to invoke some measure of constitutional protection."

Karl Rove Watch

Keith J. Kelly writes in the New York Post: "Karl Rove, the controversial and long-time senior adviser to President George W. Bush, is shopping a memoir in an auction that will kick off today and likely result in a seven-figure payday. . . .

"'It's going to be an interesting auction, he's smart and he's capable of moving beyond the cliches,' said [a] publisher, who predicted a $3 million sale."

Dear Leader

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush pleaded with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in a letter to keep his promise to fully disclose all nuclear programs by year's end, in the most personal Bush diplomatic approach toward Pyongyang since he called the country part of the 'axis of evil.'"

Calling Dad

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Jenna Bush appeared on 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show' yesterday and made headlines when she 'spontaneously' called her dad during Tuesday night's taping.

"'Could you just pick up the phone right now and call him?' DeGeneres asked the First Twin, who's wrapping up her book tour. 'Sure,' Bush said. 'He's gonna kill me, though!' She grabbed the phone (covering the buttons as she dialed) and reached her parents on the only night -- whaddaya know? -- they weren't hosting a White House holiday party. 'How is my little girl doing?' asked the president, who then wished everybody a Merry Christmas. "

Cartoon Watch

Rex Babin on Bush's intelligence, Mike Luckovich on Bush's new war, Tony Auth on Bush's credibility gap, and Walt Handelsman on Bush's factual difficulties.

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