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THE LAST BULLDOG DIES (PART 2)! Did the Bush Admin exaggerate intel? A bulldog let Bush change the subject:


TORN AND RESTORED: The untorn document has now appeared, raising more questions than it answers. What does this new, untorn document mean? We’ll wait until the facts become clear. Meanwhile, Calpundit shows you the new, untorn doc. Bob Fertik explains where it came from. And time passes slowly down here in the capital! In today’s Post, Lois Romano summarizes what was known oh, let’s say, a week ago. And Richard Cohen understates the time frame described by Romano. Meanwhile, the crowning irony: Romano finally describes the “torn document”—one day after the doc is restored! But give them credit—they’ve only had four years to get this stuff sorted out.

THE LAST BULLDOG DIES: Has anyone seen a missing bulldog—a bulldog so widely described by the press? That runaway bulldog, of course, is Tim Russert, missing on Sunday’s Meet the Press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/04). Admiring pundits have long praised Tim for the fearsome way he tears into prey. But when Meet the Press went to the Oval last weekend, that fearsome bulldog was Missing In Action. Does anyone know where he’s gone?

Was that really the ’dog sitting opposite Bush? Consider the way Russert dealt with the matter of intelligence on Iraq.

Did Bush get faulty intelligence about Iraqi WMD? Did the Administration misstate the intelligence they received? In the wake of David Kay’s recent statements, no topic was hotter when Russert met Bush. But how hard did Russert push on this topic? Alas! The famous bulldog crawled off and died. About ten minutes into the session, Russert asked Bush about the claim that the Admin had exaggerated the intelligence:

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’s no doubt.” Secretary Powell, “No doubt.” Secretary Rumsfeld, “No doubt, we know where the weapons are.” You said, “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 this was an immediate threat that must be dealt with.
The meaning of Russert’s presentation was clear—the Bush Admin overstated the intelligence. No topic was more central as Tim and George met. But as Bush began to reply, he shifted the subject, and a bulldog ran down the wrong trail:
BUSH: I think, if I might, remind you that in my language, I call it “a grave and gathering threat.” But I don’t want to get in the word contest, 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. No doubt.

RUSSERT: In what way?

“There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger,” Bush said. But that, of course, wasn’t what he’d been asked. But no matter: Another long, rambling answer ensued, in which Bush simply skipped Russert’s question. Let’s read the exchange in full:
BUSH: I think, if I might, remind you that in my language, I call it “a grave and gathering threat.” But I don’t want to get in the word contest, 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. No doubt.

RUSSERT: In what way?

BUSH: Well, because he 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 hand of a shadowy terrorist network. It’s important for people to understand the context on which I made a decision here in the Oval Office. I’m dealing with a world in which we have gotten struck with terrorists with airplanes and we get intelligence saying that, you know, “We want to harm America.” And the worst nightmare scenario for any president is to realize that these kind of terrorist networks have the capacity to arm up with some of these deadly weapons and then strike us. And the president of the United States, the 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, “Well, 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. You know, let us, you know, kind of try to contain him.” Containment doesn’t work with a man who is a madman. And, remember, Tim, he had used weapons against his own people.

As we asked yesterday about Russert’s first question, so we ask today about this: Is anything in that rambling “answer” responsive to Russert’s actual question? Bush was asked if he and his aides overstated the certainty of the intelligence. But Bush didn’t answer—and Russert moved on, just as we saw him do yesterday. A few minutes later, he returned to this topic, but only to graze it in passing:
RUSSERT: There is a sense in the country that the intelligence that was given was ambiguous, and that you took it, and molded it, and shaped it, your opponents have said “hyped it,” and rushed to war.

BUSH: Yeah.

RUSSERT: And now, in the world, if you in the future say, “We must go into North Korea, or we must go into Iran because they have nuclear capability,” neither this country nor the world will say, “Excuse you, Mr. President, we want it now, in hard cold facts.”

That is a perfectly valid concern. But neither here, nor anywhere else, was Bush asked to respond to the original question. Did Bush and his aides overstate the intelligence? The question was asked—and avoided by Bush. Toothlessly, Russert moved on.

So where was that bulldog—that fearsome inquisitor whom Tom Shales politely described in the Post? That dog disappeared when this topic arose. And needless to say, Russert never asked about the most egregious examples of alleged exaggeration. For example, did Condi Rice (and others) misstate the intel on aluminum tubes, trying to create the impression that Saddam was chasing nukes very hard? Eight months ago, Judis and Ackerman laid out the problem in The New Republic (links below):

JUDIS AND ACKERMAN (6/30/03): The administration used the [first] anniversary of September 11, 2001, to launch its public campaign for a congressional resolution endorsing war, with or without U.N. support, against Saddam. The opening salvo came on the Sunday before the anniversary in the form of a leak to Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times regarding the aluminum tubes. Miller and Gordon reported that, according to administration officials, Iraq had been trying to buy tubes specifically designed as “components of centrifuges to enrich uranium” for nuclear weapons. That same day, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared on the political talk shows to trumpet the discovery of the tubes and the Iraqi nuclear threat. Explained Rice, “There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Rumsfeld added, “Imagine a September eleventh with weapons of mass destruction. It’s not three thousand—it’s tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”

Many of the intelligence analysts who had participated in the aluminum-tubes debate were appalled. One described the feeling to TNR: “You had senior American officials like Condoleezza Rice saying the only use of this aluminum really is uranium centrifuges. She said that on television. And that's just a lie.” [David] Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, recalled, “I became dismayed when a knowledgeable government scientist told me that the administration could say anything it wanted about the tubes while government scientists who disagreed were expected to remain quiet.” As [Greg] Thielmann puts it, “There was a lot of evidence about the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programs to be concerned about. Why couldn’t we just be honest about that without hyping the nuclear account?”

Was Rice’s statement “just a lie?” Don’t expect Russert to ask, even in a nicely couched way. Indeed, he didn’t even dare ask his guest to respond to his first, general question.

Readers, could Bush have said anything that would have provoked a follow-up question from Russert this day? Repetitive answers rambled on, in response to vague, repetitive questions. Groaning misstatements of fact were allowed; odd remarks went unnoticed, unchallenged. Russert, politely, served as stenographer. So has anyone seen that famous bulldog—the one to whom the press throws its bones? The bulldog was fearsome with Dean and with Gore. Does anyone know where he’s hiding?

TOMORROW: Was there anything Bush could have said that would have provoked a follow-up?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We discussed Judis and Ackerman’s specific examples eight months ago. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03 and 6/25/03.

WHAT CONDI SAID: On September 8, 2002, Rice appeared on CNN’s Late Edition. Here is the statement Judis and Ackerman’s analyst called “just a lie:”

WOLF BLITZER: Based on what you know right now, how close is Saddam Hussein’s government—how close is that government to developing a nuclear capability?

RICE: You will get different estimates about precisely how close he is. We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. We do know that there have been shipments going into Iran, for instance—into Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to—high-quality aluminum tools that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.

“Only suited for nuclear weapons programs?” Based on the state of the intel at the time Rice spoke, this looks like the kind of screaming overstatement to which Russert referred in his key question. But a bulldog was AWOL from the Oval last weekend. Bush changed the subject when Russert asked—and the bulldog simply let him move on.