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Yesterday, after the NIE bombshell broke, Stephen Hadley rushed to explain why Bush and Cheney had been out on the hustings since Labor Day talking about an imminent nuclear threat from Iran when the nation’s collective intelligence estimate had been that the Iranian program has been terminated since 2003. According to Hadley, the president had heard about this estimate only last week.
And today, Bush carried on in the same vein. Here’s the key snippet from his press conference today in which he explains the when and the how.
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In the seven years of the Bush presidency, I have catalogued three different varieties of Bush prevarications. First, there is the statesman-like lie, told by Bush when he is uttering a lie which he firmly believes must be uttered in the interests of the Greater Good. (The Greater Good means the national security interest of the United States. Or the electoral interests of the Republican Party. In the Bush view, there is no difference between the two.) The oft-heard lie “We do not torture” falls into the category of the Bush statesman-like lie.
Second, there is the fanatical true-believer lie. This is the lie which involves a suspension of reason and facts in order to embrace a Greater Truth, which, of course, is not a truth at all. This is the “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” lie. Now Bush had been briefed with information that made clear this was anything but a certainty, and shortly before the invasion, the intelligence community secured information making it plain that it was almost certainly not true. Nevertheless, Bush approached the matter like a man with a classical case of Tolstoy’s syndrome. He had made up his mind as to the facts. He was uninterested in hearing any facts which contradicted the conclusions he had reached. Therefore he was able to lie much more convincingly because he truly convinced himself that the lies were the truth.
And third, there is the guilty lie. This is the sort of lie common to the domestic setting—when father, for instance, corners his 16-year-old son about having driven the Malibu without getting permission. Sonny protests his innocence. But his looks give his guilt away completely. Behind that look, Sonny is wondering: “Did I forget to throw away the beer cans again?”
Bush’s lies about when he learned about the NIE clearly fall into category three. His face, nervousness and gestures point to acute discomfort. He knows he’s lying. And he recognizes that most people in the room and in the public beyond know he’s lying. But he’s going to go right ahead and keep on with that lie.
Why Is It A Lie?
As I noted yesterday, the NIE on the Iranian nuclear program may well have been released only last week. But the essence of this document, including its essential conclusions, has been ready for more than half a year. Bush says he was just briefed on it last week. This if true would leave many questioning how Michael McConnell goes about his job.
But that’s funny, says Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller in an interview on the Newshour with Gwen Ifill, because he was “given this information several months ago.”. Note how the Republican Vice Chair, Kit Bond, fails to contradict Rockefeller or to defend Bush on this point. Another dead give away.
The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, appearing earlier today on CNN, discussed the same point with Wolf Blitzer. Hersh says it’s very strange that Bush was just briefed on this last week, because he discussed it in some detail with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert before the Annapolis conference:
BLITZER: But you were suggesting that there was a real run-up to war developing within the administration, even as there were some in the administration — the intelligence community — suggesting, Hey, hold off. Maybe they did suspend or freeze their nuclear weapons program.
HERSH: Well, of course. I think it’s still not over.
BLITZER: Because I want to press you on this. Does that mean, now that this new NIE has been released publicly, it is over, the run-up to a potential military confrontation with Iran?
HERSH: Well, there’s always Israel.
BLITZER: What’s that mean?
HERSH: Well, it means that Israel can always decide to take military action, or with us covertly. Israel objects to this report. I’m told that Olmert had a private discussion with Bush about it during Annapolis — before Annapolis. Bush briefed him about it. The Israelis were very upset about the report. They think we’re naïve, they don’t think we get it right. And so they have a different point of view.
As I noted here there was a sudden shift in opinion about a strike against Iran among Israeli foreign policy elites during the first half of November, a month back.
In their lead on the report today, the Washington Post also states that Bush had been briefed on the conclusions at least a month or two before he gave a speech on October 17 talking about the risk of World War III emanating from Iran.
Note by the way, that I’m not saying that there was no new information or analysis that might have come up in the past month. Indeed, there is a steady flow of new human and signals intelligence relating to Iran’s nuclear program—at this moment there are few things on the face of the planet which are studied more intently. What I’m saying is that there was nothing that produced a dramatic change in the assessment. That, I am assured, stood in the same position six months ago that it occupied last week.
Why Does It Matter?
It’s a question of credibility for the Bush Administration. At this point, their credibility is the lowest of any American administration within my lifetime. Key allies whose engagement is essential to pursue the goal of blocking the Iranian nuclear program simply don’t believe President Bush. He’s had more than three strikes. But the cover story about changed intelligence is viewed as vital in order to preserve credibility.
One thing that emerges from this entire process. Before going to war in Iraq, President Bush and his Neocon crew of advisors savaged the reputations of Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei. Two years after the invasion, with a formal assessment in hand, the United States learned that the Blix and El-Baradei assessments were right on the money.
For the last year, the Bush Administration has been systematically attacking IAEA and El-Baradei again, over its assessments of Iran. And now, with the issuance of the NEI, the El-Baradei analysis once more emerges as balanced and correct.
Don’t expect these facts to be discussed in public circles in the United States, however. Democrats seem to have learned that silence is the best policy. And they will never, under any circumstance, come to the defense of international civil servants who do their job, patiently, quietly and well. And that helps explain the mess we’re in today.
So there you have it. They won’t challenge a man who lies about questions that really matter, for fear of appearing soft on national security questions. And they won’t defend a man who is scrupulously correct, because looking strong on defense is apparently more important than being fair and accurate. It’s pathetic. A real statesman knows that being fair and accurate is a source of strength, and that, as the German saying goes, “Lügen haben kurze Beine” — “lies have short legs.” America’s current predicament is a demonstration of the wisdom of that saying.
The road ahead is not easy. America may have a bit more breathing room, but this can’t be squandered. It’s essential that the push for containment of the threat of a nuclear program in Iran continue. But it’s also essential that the bellicose rhetoric and lies of the Bush years be abandoned in favor of scrupulous honesty about the facts, coupled with a fair assessment of the risk and threats going forward.
More from Scott Horton:
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