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Word Games: Mr. Bush Meets the Press
February 12, 2004
By Jack Rabbit

Many people throughout the world are convinced that George W. Bush has been less than candid about the war in Iraq. Even before the war, many doubted that Saddam Hussein was the threat that Bush and his people made him out to be. There was reason to doubt that he had any association with al Qaida; few believed Saddam knew anything about the September 11 attacks; and most of all, there were the claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Colin Powell told us exactly what Saddam had and Donald Rumsfeld told us exactly where they were. In all of this, they claimed to be supported by unimpeachable intelligence. No one had actually seen these weapons, but such skepticism was dismissed. Said the witty Rumsfeld, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Then the war started and Saddam, with nothing to lose and no known conscience to make him think twice about it, failed to used his touted biochemical arsenal. The war ended and the search began. For months, no weapons were found. Meanwhile, discrepancies in the Administration's story, such as the Niger document caper, poked holes in the case the Administration gave for war beforehand.

Finally, last month, David Kay, head of the Iraq Search Group, the agency charged with searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction, stated that it was unlikely that weapons existed at the time of the invasion and most like would never be found. Administration claims that weapons would be found, already hollow, now had no substance at all.

The question now centers on why the Administration made such claims about Saddam's arsenal. Kay and other defenders of the Administration assert that the intelligence was just wrong. Others are skeptical, pointing to reports of special offices set up to cherry pick intelligence to make the case for the war stronger than the facts justified. The CIA asserts that there was nothing wrong with the intelligence - so did policymakers who had already decided to go to war, cook it? Supporting this theory are reports by such journalists as Seymour Hersh and a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On Sunday, February 8, Mr. Bush appeared on the NBC program Meet the Press to answer questions from reporter Tim Russert. Of course, Russert began the program with a series of questions about Saddam's weapons, or lack of them, and the intelligence that supported their existence and the commission that Mr. Bush has named to look into the matter of intelligence concerning the weapons.

Tim Russert: On Friday, you announced a committee, commission to look into intelligence failures regarding the Iraq war and our entire intelligence community. You have been reluctant to do that for some time. Why?

Mr. Bush: Well, first let me kind of step back and talk about intelligence in general, if I might. Intelligence is a vital part of fighting and winning the war against the terrorists. It is because the war against terrorists is a war against individuals who hide in caves in remote parts of the world, individuals who have these kind of shadowy networks, individuals who deal with rogue nations. So, we need a good intelligence system. We need really good intelligence. So, the commission I set up is to obviously analyze what went right or what went wrong with the Iraqi intelligence. It was kind of lessons learned. But it's really set up to make sure the intelligence services provide as good a product as possible for future presidents as well. This is just a part of analyzing where we are on the war against terror.

There is a lot of investigations going on about the intelligence service, particularly in the Congress, and that's good as well. The Congress has got the capacity to look at the intelligence gathering without giving away state secrets, and I look forward to all the investigations and looks. Again, I repeat to you, the capacity to have good intelligence means that a president can make good calls about fighting this war on terror.

This assumes that what went wrong was intelligence gathering. Any honest accounting of intelligence "failures" should take into account the possibility that intelligence agents were pressured to draw certain conclusions regardless of whether the facts justified them, or that intelligence reports cherry picked by policymakers to build a strong case for invasion, taken as a whole, actually supported the facts.

It appears for this answer that Mr. Bush is already trying to load the question to be put to the commission. He wants to know why the intelligence failed, not if it failed and why. He doesn't seem to want to ask if the intelligence was cooked and, if so, by whom.

Russert: How do you respond to critics who say that you brought the nation to war under false pretenses?

Bush: Yes. First of all, I expected to find the weapons. Sitting behind this desk making a very difficult decision of war and peace, and I based my decision on the best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries thought were valid. And I made a decision based upon that intelligence in the context of the war against terror. In other words, we were attacked, and therefore every threat had to be reanalyzed. Every threat had to be looked at. Every potential harm to America had to be judged in the context of this war on terror.

And I made the decision, obviously, to take our case to the international community in the hopes that we could do this achieve a disarmament of Saddam Hussein peacefully. In other words, we looked at the intelligence. And we remembered the fact that he had used weapons, which meant he had weapons. We knew the fact that he was paying for suicide bombers. We knew the fact he was funding terrorist groups. In other words, he was a dangerous man. And that was the intelligence I was using prior to the run up to this war.

The question is whether Mr. Bush expected to find the weapons. Of course, he says he expected to find them. A criminal suspect under police interrogation will say he didn't do it, whether he did or not. If it can be shown that Mr. Bush really didn't expect to find the weapons, then he would be subject to both impeachment and trial before an international tribunal, not to mention defeat in the next election.

Mr. Bush continues:

I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons. But David Kay has found the capacity to produce weapons. And when David Kay goes in and says we haven't found stockpiles yet, and there's theories as to where the weapons went. They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country, and we'll find out. That's what the Iraqi survey group - let me, let me finish here.

But David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability to make weapons. He was a dangerous man in the dangerous part of the world.

In his State of the Union address for 2003, delivered only seven weeks prior to the invasion, Mr. Bush did not speak of Saddam having a mere capacity to produce weapons. He stated flatly and unequivocally that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and demanded that Saddam disarm voluntarily or threaten to invade in order to involuntarily disarm Saddam:

Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead utter contempt for the United Nations, and for the opinion of the world. The 108 U.N. inspectors were sent to conduct -- were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt for hidden materials across a country the size of California. The job of the inspectors is to verify that Iraq's regime is disarming. It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons, lay those weapons out for the world to see, and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened.

The United Nations concluded in 1999 that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax - enough doses to kill several million people. He hasn't accounted for that material. He's given no evidence that he has destroyed it. The United Nations concluded that Saddam Hussein had materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin - enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure. He hadn't accounted for that material. He's given no evidence that he has destroyed it.

Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. He's not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them...

The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary; he is deceiving. From intelligence sources we know, for instance, that thousands of Iraqi security personnel are at work hiding documents and materials from the U.N. inspectors, sanitizing inspection sites and monitoring the inspectors themselves. Iraqi officials accompany the inspectors in order to intimidate witnesses... With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region. And this Congress and the America people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.

Continuing with the Russert interview:

Russert: Mr. President, the Director of the CIA said that his briefings had qualifiers and caveats, but when you spoke to the country, you said "there is no doubt." When Vice President Cheney spoke to the country, he said "there is no doubt." Secretary Powell, "no doubt." Secretary Rumsfeld, "no doubt, we know where the weapons are." You said, quote, "The Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency." "Saddam Hussein is a threat that we must deal with as quickly as possible.You gave the clear sense that this was an immediate threat that must be dealt with.

Bush: I think, if I might remind you that in my language I called it a grave and gathering threat, but I don't want to get into word contests. But what I do want to share with you is my sentiment at the time. There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America...

(H)e had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons. The international community thought he had weapons. But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network. It's important for people to understand the context in which I made a decision here in the Oval Office. I'm dealing with a world in which we have gotten struck by terrorists with airplanes, and we get intelligence saying that there is, you know, we want to harm America. And the worst nightmare scenario for any president is to realize that these kind of terrorist networks had the capacity to arm up with some of these deadly weapons, and then strike us. And the President of the United States' most solemn responsibility is to keep this country secure. And the man was a threat, and we dealt with him, and we dealt with him because we cannot hope for the best. We can't say, Let's don't deal with Saddam Hussein. Let's hope he changes his stripes, or let's trust in the goodwill of Saddam Hussein. Let's let us, kind of, try to contain him. Containment doesn't work with a man who is a madman.

Mr. Bush is contradicting himself within the context of interview. Earlier in the interview, he said that the intelligence was faulty and led him to believe that Saddam was an imminent threat in possession of a biochemical arsenal. "I expected to find weapons," Mr. Bush said. Here, he says he only called Saddam a "gathering" threat, which is quite different from an imminent threat.

Yet we can see in the above passages from the 2003 State of the Union message that Mr. Bush is describing an imminent threat.

However, neither in the earlier passages of this interview nor in the State of the Union does Mr. Bush use the word "imminent" to describe the threat from Saddam. Indeed, he implies that the threat is not imminent. First, from earlier in the interview:

By the way, quoting a lot of their data in other words, this is unaccounted for stockpiles that you thought he had because I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman, and I believe it is essential I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It's too late if they become imminent. It's too late in this new kind of war, and so that's why I made the decision I made.

And from the State of the Union:

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.

This is a reiteration of the so-called Bush Doctrine of pre-emption (which is actually prevention rather than pre-emption). Under this doctrine, a threat doesn't need to be imminent in order to justify an attack.

Nevertheless, one may wonder why Mr. Bush describes a threat that a reasonable person would characterize as imminent and then turn around and say that the threat must not be allowed to become imminent, implying that it isn't already. Mr. Bush either simply doesn't know what he is talking about, has different definitions of imminent and pre-emptive than most people or is deliberately obfuscating the issue in language use that could almost be called Orwellian.

Since Mr. Bush is misusing two words, not just one, and misusing them in the same way, one could make a case for deliberate obfuscation. Under this theory, Mr. Bush is attempting to appear to be in compliance with international laws and conventions when he is not. Under the United Nations Charter, a pre-emptive attack is perfectly legal. However, a pre-emptive attack is one where a nation, faced with an imminent threat from another, launches an attack to forestall the threat or eliminate it altogether. This is quite different from Mr. Bush's language laying out the Bush Doctrine to the address to the graduating class at West Point (June 1, 2002):

For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence - the promise of massive retaliation against nations - means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. Homeland defense and missile defense are part of stronger security, and they're essential priorities for America. Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

What Mr. Bush is describing in this passage is not a pre-emptive strike but a preventive strike. The difference is obvious. There is no imminent threat, but one that could materialize at some indefinite time in the future. It comes very close to being a pretext to attack any sovereign state at any time for any reason. For this reason, preventive strikes are inconsistent with international law.

The difference between a pre-emptive and preventive strike is tied up with whether the threat is imminent. That is the other word Bush is abusing. Imminent in this case means immediate; the threat is present in time and space and can be executed at any time. To cite an example: since Saddam didn't possess biochemical or nuclear weapons, any programs he had to build them at a later date were not an imminent threat to the US or anyone else; an superior military force poised on Iraq's border with Kuwait ready to invade posed an imminent threat to Iraq. Paradoxically, had Saddam possessed a biochemical arsenal, he would have been justified in using it against Anglo-American forces assembled in Kuwait; that would have been a pre-emptive strike. Since he did not, the invasion was a preventive strike to stop Saddam from building such weapons later; this is unjustified under international law.

Under the Bush Doctrine, however, a preventive strike against an intermediate or indefinite threat is justified. This still contravenes the Charter of the United Nations. Mr. Bush obfuscates the issue by claiming that the strike is pre-emptive; he further obfuscates describing the threat as imminent, then saying he has the right to strike even if it is not.

If the intelligence were really faulty, then Mr. Bush would not have to go through such gyrations to justify the invasion of Iraq. He could claim that he has made an honest mistake based on the best intelligence he had at the time. Some people would choose to believe him; others would not. Such an explanation would use words like pre-emptive and imminent in a manner consistent with common, everyday usage. However, if Mr. Bush had simply been mistaken, he would stop there. Instead, he has chosen to play word games. In stark Orwellian terms, a threat that is at best intermediate is imminent and a preventive strike is pre-emptive. Playing word games is not the trait of a man who has made an honest mistake; it is the mark of a man trying to deceive his audience.

Thus, we have Bush saying that Saddam possessing a biochemical arsenal is not an imminent threat. Most people would think that if Saddam possessed a biochemical arsenal then it is an imminent threat. Is Mr. Bush saying that, since he never said that there was imminent threat, that he never said Saddam possessed biochemical weapons?

The inference is inescapable: Bush is a liar. He can no longer keeps is lies straight.

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