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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bush's WMD claims: Fake But Accurate

Remember when, during the height of “Rathergate,” Democrats sought to direct attention away from the question of whether the specific Bush National Guard documents used by 60 Minutes were forged to the more general point that Bush failed to fulfill his National Guard duties irrespective of the authenticity of those documents? That response was subjected to incessant ridicule by Republicans, who mocked it as the “Fake-But-Accuratedefense, a little slogan they took such a liking to that they now rely on it to mock the Democratic position on all sorts of issues.

But now, in order to defend their Leader from charges that he lied about or knowingly exaggerated specific pre-war WMD claims, it seems like those same parties have rather suddenly gone from ridiculing this defense to passionately invoking it.

In the last week or so, numerous documents -- undoubtedly leaked by intelligence officials whose pre-war skepticism about WMD claims was ignored – have become available for the first time, and those documents cast grave doubts on specific WMD claims the Administration was making. The Washington Post this morning debunks much of Bush's self-defense speech yesterday by compiling and documenting some of the more precarious WMD claims made by Bush officials prior to the war – i.e., claims that were of doubtful validity at the time they were made, and not just in retrospect.

The documents in question reveal that there was substantial reason to doubt many of the most central pre-war claims which the Administration was loudly trumpeting to justify the war. Claims relating to issues as central as aluminum tubes, mobile biological weapons labs, uranium procurement efforts, and the Iraq/Al-Qaeda connection have been shown to have been seriously undermined, if not outright negated, by numerous documents and by substantial constituencies in the intelligence community -- much of which was available to the Administration at the time but not to anyone else.

None of that matters, insist Bush defenders, because the essence of the overall WMD claim was reasonable even if specific claims were not. Since the general conclusion that Iraq had WMDs prior to the war was supportable, they are now arguing, who cares if some of the specific claims made to bolster that case were based upon clearly discredited and quite obviously false information?

In response to the Post article, Paul of Powerline -- ironically, one of the prime propagators of the “Fake But Accurate” ridicule -- seeks to shoo away the annoying little evidence that specific WMD claims were likely false by noting that the Post article itself states that: “The administration's overarching point is true: Intelligence agencies overwhelmingly believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. . . .” From this premise, Paul protests:

If that's true, two questions arise: (a) what's all the fuss about and (b) why didn't Milbank and Pincus write this before, as the "Bush lied" meme went essentially unchallenged for weeks.

So there you have it. Who cares if specific evidence was faked and particular WMD claims were baseless? The overall point -- that Saddam had some WMDs -- was accurate (or at least supportable). So, demands Paul, “what’s all the fuss about”? Much of the evidence used to show that Saddam had WMDs may have been fake, but it was accurate -- Fake But Accurate.

It should go without saying, even to those who want to defend this war at all costs, that it is inherently significant, and incomparably disturbing, for an Administration to peddle knowingly false or exaggerated claims to the public and the Congress in order to manipulate them into supporting a war, even if the war was a good idea. Conservatives purported to be flabbergasted that anyone would invoke the “Fake But Accurate” defense to defend a news program, but it is truly inconceivable that anyone would invoke this defense to defend an Administration's knowingly making false claims about the reasons to go to war.

Moreover, the way in which this debate has been cast is obscuring, rather than illuminating, its most pressing issue. The question that is being asked -- “Did the Bush Administration lie about WMDs?” -- is far too general to be useful, as it assumes that all WMDs were created equal, so that as long as it can be shown that there was reason to believe that Saddam had, say, a chemical here and there that could be weaponized (i.e., "WMDs" broadly speaking), then the entire panoply of pre-war Bush WMD claims would be vindicated, since that would mean that there was good reason to believe that Saddam did, indeed, have "WMDs".

That is just absurd. The WMD scare would never have worked if it was just about a couple of chemical weapons. What scared everyone into supporting the war was the prospect that Saddam had or was obtaining nuclear weapons, not just a few chemicals. Making that claim even scarier and more potent was the claim that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda.

Thus, even assuming it to be true for purposes of argument that there were reasonable grounds to believe that a pre-war Saddam had “WMDs” in the board sense of that term -- i.e., to include commonplace chemicals -- the fact that specific claims which were quite dubious were nonetheless advanced without qualification by the Administration regarding Saddam's nuclear capability and the Al Qaeda connection is very much of a big deal. It was the “mushroom clouds” and the nuclear suitcase bombs that scared so many people into supporting the war. For that reason, if the Administration's claims about that were unsupportable or exaggerated, it is not even remotely a defense to say that, well . . . there was some good intelligence that Saddam had a few chemical weapons.

Or, put another way, the fact that there was some evidence to support some of the pre-war WMD claims by the Administration does not, in any conceivable way, serve to justify or excuse the dissemination of other WMDs claims by the Administration for which there was no credible evidence or for which there was substantial evidence that the claims were false.

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