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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Democrats should not tie themselves to the duplicity of recanting pro-war Senate Democrats

The White House and its supporters obviously believe they have finally come up with an effective tactic against the swirling WMD accusations: namely, repeatedly point out that Democratic Senators who had access to essentially the same intelligence reached the same conclusions as the Bush Administration reached about Saddam’s WMD activities. And they are largely right about this.

Democrats should not tie their fate to these position-switching Senate Democrats on the Iraq/WMD issue because pro-war Senate Democrats who now want to blame the White House for their vote acted no more admirably than the White House itself did.

Efforts by Democrats to defend these Senators and explain away these statements have been, for the most part, completely lame. And efforts by the Democratic Senators themselves to explain away their own statements have been even lamer; Sen. Rockefeller’s tortured self-defense with Chris Wallace this weekend was just embarrassing.

The reason these defenses of previously pro-war Senate Democrats aren’t working is because the excuses being offered just aren’t true. What really happened here is self-evident. It was not that these Senators were duped by the President and simply did not realize at the time that the White House was heavily involved in shaping the intelligence process. That was public knowledge at the time and they all knew that.

Worse, these Senators, especially Intelligence Committee members like Jay Rockefeller, had access to all of the intelligence necessary to be aware of the reasons to doubt the Administration’s WMD claims. The notion that there were some magical smoking guns in the PDB’s -- the only intelligence available to the President which the Intelligence Committee members could not access -- is absurd, especially since the Robb-Silberman Commission did access that intelligence and said it was even more alarmist on WMDs than the other available intelligence. Those facts aren’t going to go away simply by dishonestly denying them.

It was the American people -- not Senate Democrats -- who were duped into believing things about Saddam’s capabilities and activities that were not supportable, and in some instances outright negated, by the (largely classified) evidence at the time. Democratic Senators had access to all sorts of intelligence which the public did not, and they could have and should have known -- and arguably did know – about exactly the evidence which they are now citing in order to insist that they were tricked into supporting the war.

The reality is that when it came to the war in Iraq, Congressional Democrats failed in their duty to serve as a loyal but zealous opposition party which performs a watchdog function on the majority party. Particularly (though not exclusively) with regard to national security issues, many Democrats at that time were cowed into submission by their own political ambitions and more or less reflexively supported anything the Bush Administration wanted. More charitably, many of them were moved like the rest of the country by the still-stinging after-effects of 9/11 to stand deferentially behind the President when it came to the country’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

But regardless of the motives, the reality is that many Democratic Senators who would naturally oppose a war like this instead supported it, not because they were tricked by the President or fooled by fictitious intelligence that he concocted, but instead, it was because they were too afraid to oppose the war. It was only when the war started going badly and no WMDs were found did these same Senators try to pretend that the White House was to blame for their vote.

It is this game-playing which caused the Democrats to end up being plagued by the incoherence of John Kerry, a candidate who was absolutely tongue-tied on the most important issue of the 2004 election -- Iraq -- because his vote to authorize the President to wage war in Iraq, along with his pre-war statements in favor of the war, were in direct and obvious conflict with his campaign rhetoric attacking the war. And it was painfully apparent that he began to turn on the war which he had clearly favored (or which he had claimed to clearly favor) only when Howard Dean’s anti-war candidacy began to doom Kerry’s chances in the primaries.

And it was that confusion about the Democrats’ position on Iraq, more than anything else, which allowed the GOP to paint Kerry as a weak-willed, flip-flopping politician who changes position like the wind and therefore can’t be trusted, particularly when it comes to U.S. national security. Kerry turned on the war he supported once it started going badly and then, instead of taking responsibility for his mistake, tried to blame the White House for his vote. That’s the same vapid tactic Senate Democrats are resorting to now.

But denying the real reasons which accounted for these Senators’ votes is both ineffective and dishonest - it is really no better than whatever dishonesty the Administration is accused of engaging in with regard to the war. If Democrats are going to demand with any long-term efficacy that the White House finally come clean on Iraq, then the Democrats need to come clean, too.

It is just not the case that the Administration lied to defenseless U.S. Senators about the war and that Democratic Senators who supported the war were duped by the Administration into believing in bad intelligence. The reality is that the American people were duped in part because the Senate Democrats failed in their responsibility to rigorously scrutinize Bush’s pro-war arguments and to formulate their positions on the war based on principal rather than on short-term, self-interested political considerations.

People rely on their elected officials to make informed judgments about matters such as these. Senators have access to classified information which the public does not, and they are given the resources to remain informed about these matters, precisely because it is their responsibility to protect the people whom they represent. It is that responsibility which Senate Democrats failed so glaringly to fulfill.

Democrats should not tie themselves to the fate of the pro-war Senate Democrats who now wish to pretend that they were tricked. Pro-war Senate Democrats (who now want to recant without admitting error) acted dishonorably and with cowardice, and they are being duplicitous now in order to avoid admitting that. And that is becoming more and more apparent as the White House and its allies latch onto this issue in order to defend themselves.

There is a powerful argument to be made that the American people were helplessly fooled by the Administration’s rhetoric on WMDs, but there is no reasonable argument to make that these Senate Democrats were.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum set forth his case yesterday as to why it can be fairly claimed that the Administration abused pre-war WMD intelligence, and his argument perfectly illustrates that it is the American people who can fairly voice this complaint, not Senate Democrats:

In the debate on Iraq, Bush acted as both prosecutor and judge. He made his case as strongly as he could — which is fine — but he also withheld crucial information that would have allowed his opponents to make their case as strongly as they could — which isn't. In short, in order to further his own political aims, he abused his power to decide what information remains classified and what doesn't.

Senate Democrats did have access to much of the classified information now being cited as casting doubt on Bush's WMD claims, and Senate Intelligence Committee members had access to virutally all of it. They are therefore in no position to use Drum's argument as an excuse for their now-regretted support of the war.

By stark contrast, the American people did not have access to the evidence which undermined Bush's WMD claims, and for that reason, they do have grounds for claiming to have been deceived by Bush's excessively alarmist, and in some cases outright inaccurate, warnings about the threat posed by Iraq.

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