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Daily Howler: Uh-oh! A few weeks after the Downing Street memo, Cheney started pimping the nukes
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PIMPING THE NUKES! Uh-oh! A few weeks after the Downing Street memo, Cheney started pimping the nukes: // link // print // previous // next //

THE DEATH OF OUR PUBLIC INTELLIGENCE: Are humans actually smart enough to conduct a democracy? Socrates wondered at the dawn of the west—and he’d never seen Hannity & Colmes, a program which answers in the negative. How stupid are the American people? And how stupid are TV hacks willing to be? The issue was raised by Tuesday night’s Hannity program, in which Hannity interviewed “biographer” Ed Klein, a thigh-rubbing fellow who wants you to think that Hillary Clinton is a big lesbo—so big a lesbo that her husband had to rape her to produce a child—and a man who simultaneously wants you to think that she had an affair with Vince Foster.

No, it doesn’t take a mental giant to notice the flaw in this “argument.” After all, if Hillary Clinton is such a big lesbo, why would she have an affair with Vince Foster, who was, as his name might imply, a man? Last week, Joe Conason unpacked this gong-show in the New York Observer:

CONASON (6/20/05): Obsessed by his fantasies of Mrs. Clinton as a lesbian, [Klein] devotes some of his most embarrassing prose to developing such pornographic themes...

According to Mr. Klein's guilt-by-association theory, she must be a homosexual "gender feminist," and couldn't possibly love her husband, because "many of her closest friends and aides were lesbians." But he repeats the old rumor that she had an affair with Vince Foster, the White House counsel who committed suicide, although my sources still insist that Foster was a man.

It is all so drearily familiar, and yet so uniquely nasty that even some conservatives with a hearty appetite for Clinton-bashing are appalled.

But Sean Hannity isn’t such a “conservative.” As he sat with Klein on Tuesday night, the twin themes flew about his thickly-browed head, and in his trademark cro-Magnon-like pose, he agreed to pretend not to notice. Hannity engaged in long ruminations about whether Hillary is a big lesbo. But he also puzzled about that affair. “There's other issues you bring up, in particular about Hillary and Vince Foster and other issues,” the thigh-rubbing cable host said at one point. And moments later, this thing from the swamp was pondering away even harder:
HANNITY (6/21/05): I read the book, though. To the extent that, and the number of times you raised the sexuality issue and the number of times you raised the affair with Vince Foster issue, the number of times you raised what Bill is even currently involved with in these issues—you know, the issue that he may have raped her, he said he was going to do it, he may have conceived Chelsea in this night, that resulted in a big fight—you know, how much evidence do we need? How much would be appropriate before we go to book form with this?
Hannity pretended to play good cop, worrying about how much “evidence” we need before we crawl down in the swamp.

How much evidence do we need? Readers, let’s ask a simpler question: How much logic will we require in the affairs of our democracy? As the context of the discussion makes clear, “the sexuality issue” to which Hannity refers is, in fact, the lesbo issue, and “the affair with Vince Foster issue” speaks for itself. But Hannity raised this pair of “issues” in one slimy sentence, agreeing to pretend not to notice the logical problem involved here. Hillary Clinton is a big lesbo—so big a lesbo that Bill had to rape her! And not only that: Hillary Clinton was carrying on a steamy affair with Vince Foster! In this way, Hannity mocks the dead—the decent man Foster—and the sacred—the birth of a child, even as he engages in grimy gay-chasing. And he openly mocks our devolving democracy, playing the fool for his rubified viewers—for people too stupid, too inert, to understand.

But then, Hannity is hardly the only scribe who has agreed to pretend not to notice such matters. Over the course of the past dozen years, your public discourse has been turned to a joke—an ugly thing dragged up from the swamp. And much of this was done by your mainstream press corps—and fiery “career liberals” all agreed not to notice. Did Hannity make a joke of your lives Tuesday night? Yes, but when the Post and the Times made a joke of your lives for almost two years during Campaign 2000, almost all your good liberals agreed not to notice, consigning Candidate Gore (and his party) to their eventual fate. As Hannity pretends not to know who Klein is, they pretended not to know what Ceci, “Kit” and the others were doing. Today, George Bush sits there in the White—and they lament his bad works.

How stupid must a person be to watch a show like Hannity & Colmes? You have to be amazingly stupid, but that’s the nature of the race, and absent leadership from intellectual and moral “elites,” the rubes will always be played in this manner. But then, let’s ask a related question. How stupid did Washington writers have to be not to notice what was happening during Campaign 2000? They’d have to be amazingly stupid—or like, Hannity, prepared to pretend. Indeed, your public discussion has now been made a total joke, as we see in Tuesday’s discussion. But then, this has gone on for a good dozen years—with your good career liberals keeping silent.

ALL HAIL TINA BROWN: In today's Post, Tina Brown gets it totally right, all the way through. (Headline: “Hillary Clinton Attacked by Man from Mars.”) Why will so few major writers stand up and explain what has gone on for the past dozen years? When will other major writers rouse themselves to explain the dismantling of your discourse? Oh, we forgot—most of those writers played an active role in this ongoing game.

TOTALLY WRONG: In a highly unusual move, Atrios gets it totally wrong when he links to Media Matters and says that Klein “melted down” during his segment with Hannity. Let’s get real! Klein and Hannity achieved exactly what they intended in this segment; they played a game of “good cop/good cop” as they spread their steaming-hot tales to the excitable rubes. (They’ll come for Aruba; they’ll stay for the gay tales.) Each man pretended to be deeply concerned with the good, the true and the ethical—and as they pretended, they spent a whole segment trashing Clinton for the rubes. They told the rubes that she was a big lesbo. They told the rubes that Bill may have raped her. And they told the rubes that she had an affair with Vince Foster. In doing so, they mocked the dead and they mocked the sacred, and yes, they made a joke of your lives. It’s true—you have to be a total idiot not to see through such a performance, but the race is full of such rubes—and it doesn’t help when liberals pretend that a segment like this represents a meltdown. We would take a different approach. We would ask when the mainstream press will start to discuss this ongoing process, in which our capacity to conduct a democracy is being deliberately eaten away. Our democracy melted down Tuesday night when the rest of the press corps sat silent—when the millionaire press corps stared into air, as it has done for many years.

By the way: Alan was off in Aruba chasing Natalee, so only Sean spoke with Klein. Last night, Alan showed tape of an “exclusive search” (of a small pond) in which he had engaged that day. An exclusive search! How the Olympian gods must have roared when they first heard that clownish new phrasing!

TOMORROW—THE DEATH OF INTELLIGENCE: Has America lost its ability to reason? We review an amazingly brain-dead discussion on the great PBS.

Special report—Downing Street info!

PART 3—PIMPING THE NUKES: Had Bush decided to fake the intel by July 2002? The original Downing Street memo seems to suggest the possibility (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/05). The memo describes a report by Sir Richard Dearlove (code name: C), head of British intelligence. Dearlove was telling his boss, Tony Blair, about recent meetings in Washington:

DOWNING STREET MEMO (7/23/02): C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
What did that highlighted phrase really mean? In our view, it’s quite hard to tell. These are minutes of a report, written in staccato fashion. Had Dearlove really reported to Blair that the Bush Admin was “fixing” (i.e., faking) intelligence? There’s no way to tell from so pithy a document. The suggestion is clear but elusive.

On the other hand, we do have Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, a ballyhooed history of this same period. And in Woodward’s book, the facts are clear; the Bush Admin starts faking the intel in August 2002, shortly after the Downing Street memo. First Cheney, then Rice, then Bush himself—Woodward shows a string of big players going out to misstate the intel, ginning up the threat from Iraq and driving the nation toward war. And Woodward makes no bones about his assessment; although he downplays one part of the fixing, he clearly states that these players were going beyond the state of the intel in their frightening public statements. But alas! Woodward’s book, though loudly praised, was read by very few Washington players. And Washington’s liberal and Dem elites have, to this day, been too inept to make use of this info.

When did the Bush Admin start to fix the intel? According to Woodward, the problem begins with Bush on vacation, in mid-August 2002. In Blair’s view, Bush was “committed to action” by now, but a string of major Republicans had begun to argue publicly for more diplomacy and less talk of war. Brent Scowcroft wrote a “provocative” piece in the Wall Street Journal, Woodward recalls; its headline said, “Don’t Attack Saddam.” And Bush I Secretary of State James Baker had “urged that unilateral action should be avoided.” Henry Kissinger had even penned a “convoluted piece” in the Washington Post—and on August 16, in a front-page report, the New York Times had called it a “break with Bush.” The Times had misinterpreted Kissinger, Woodward notes, and eventually ran a correction—“but Cheney and his deputy, Scooter Libby, found this article extremely aggravating.”

Indeed, according to Woodward, Cheney was deeply disturbed by this trend. “It looked as if the march to war was put off,” Woodward writes, describing Cheney’s thinking. Cheney felt that “everyone [was] offering an opinion except the administration,” and he wanted to give a speech presenting the Bush Administration’s view. Cheney proposes this option to Bush—and Woodward describes something that is really quite odd, although he agrees not to notice:

WOODWARD (page 163): Cheney decided that everyone was offering an opinion except the administration. There was no stated administration policy and he wanted to put one out, to make a big speech if necessary. It was highly unusual for the vice president to speak on such a major issue before the president, who was going to address the U.N. on Iraq on September 12. But Cheney couldn’t wait. Nature and Washington policy debates abhor a vacuum. He was not going to cede the field…He spoke privately with the president, who gave his okay without reviewing the details of what Cheney might say.
Yes, that’s what Plan of Attack really says. According to Woodward’s credulous account, Bush okayed this “highly unusual” speech without reviewing what Cheney planned to say! Cheney wanted to “put out administration policy” on Iraq—and Bush didn’t bother “reviewing the details.” If we still live on planet Earth, that seems rather hard to believe. But yes, that’s what Woodward wants us to think. Indeed, here’s how casual the transaction was—if you believe his account:
WOODWARD (continuing directly): At an NSC meeting, Cheney said to the president, “Well, I’m going to give that speech.”

“Don’t get me in trouble,” Bush half-joked.

Trouble is what Cheney had in mind.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that Bush gave the OK to Cheney without asking what he planned to say? If you do, we have a nice chunk of land in Woodward’s backyard that we are willing to sell you! But there’s little question what actually happened when Cheney gave this seminal speech (on August 26); Cheney went out and grossly misstated the intel about Saddam’s nuclear program, and, to a lesser extent, about WMD in general. Woodward downplays the nuclear aspects of Cheney’s speech, although he makes it clear that Cheney dropped a bombshell this day. Here’s his account of what happened:
WOODWARD (page 164): “Cheney Says Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack,” read the headline in the New York Times on Aug. 27. Powell was dumbfounded. The vice president had delivered a hard-line address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville and basically called weapons inspections futile…

The vice president also issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Hussein: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Ten days earlier, the president himself had said only that Hussein “desires” these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney’s.

“These remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely interpreted as administration policy,” Woodward writes. “Powell was astonished.” Woodward wants us to think that Bush didn’t know what Cheney was going to say this day. But Woodward makes it perfectly clear that Cheney overstated the existing intelligence—even as he tends to soft-soap the way Cheney pimped Saddam’s nukes.

Yes, Woodward notes that “nuclear” reference in the Times headline—and he notes that, in a second speech on August 29, Cheney said that Saddam was pursuing “an aggressive nuclear weapons program.” But for whatever reason, Woodward downplays Cheney’s claims about Saddam’s alleged nukes. In point of fact, in Cheney’s first speech, the Admin began scaring the nation silly about Saddam’s non-existent nuclear program. Here’s part of what Cheney said this day. As we’ll see, his key statements didn’t reflect the actual state of the intel:

CHENEY (8/26/02): The case of Saddam Hussein, a sworn enemy of our country, requires a candid appraisal of the facts. After his defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam agreed to U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, to cease all development of weapons of mass destruction. He agreed to end his nuclear weapons program. He agreed to destroy his chemical and his biological weapons. He further agreed to admit U.N. inspection teams into his country, to insure that he was in fact complying with these terms. In the past decade Saddam has systematically broken each of these agreements. The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents, and they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago.

These are not weapons for the purpose of defending Iraq.
These are offensive weapons for the purpose of inflicting death on a massive scale, developed so that Saddam can hold the threat over the head of anyone he chooses in his own region or beyond. On the nuclear question, many of you will recall that Saddam's nuclear ambitions suffered a severe setback in 1981, when the Israelis bombed the Osirik reactor. They suffered another major blow in Desert Storm and its aftermath. But we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Among other sources, we've gotten this from firsthand testimony from defectors, including Saddam's own son-in-law, who was subsequently murdered at Saddam's direction.

Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon. Just how soon, we cannot really gauge.

Simply put, Cheney was heavily pimping the nukes. The VP said that he and others were “convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.” And just how “soon” might “fairly soon” be? He suggested time might be short:
CHENEY (8/26/02): Let me give you just one example of what I mean. Prior to the Gulf War, America's top intelligence would come to my office in the Defense Department and tell me that Saddam Hussein is at least five or perhaps even ten years away from having a nuclear weapon. After the war, we learned that he had been much closer than that, perhaps within a year of acquiring such a weapon.
“Perhaps within a year”—no clear statement was made, but the implication was obvious. And in the part of the speech which Woodward did quote, Cheney made no bones about what Saddam’s pursuit of nukes meant:
CHENEY (8/26/02): Should all his ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous for the Middle East and the United States and for the peace of the world....Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.

There was “no doubt;” Saddam planned to subject us to nuclear blackmail, “fairly soon.” And regarding his other WMD (his chemical and biological weapons), there was “no doubt” that he was “amassing them to use against our friends”—and “against us.”

Woodward makes no bones about it—Cheney was misstating the intelligence. In chapter 18 (pages 192-204), he describes the state of the intelligence regarding WMD in the summer and fall of 2002. Were Cheney’s frightening statements accurate? Was there “no doubt” that Saddam had WMD? That was not the state of the intel, a fact that Woodward makes clear:

WOODWARD (page 194): The CIA had never declared categorically that it believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. The formal 2000 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Saddam “retained a small stockpile” of chemical warfare agents—not actual warheads—perhaps up to 100 metric tons, and “might” have precursors for 200 metric tons more...

The classified December 2000 National Intelligence Estimate on biological weapons concluded that Iraq “continued” to work on development and was poised to, but did not yet have them.

Nor had the intel been ungraded by the time of Cheney’s speech. Woodward continues directly:
WOODWARD (page 194-195): Significantly, in public testimony before [Senator Bob] Graham’s committee on February 6, 2002, on worldwide threats, Tenet had not mentioned Iraq until page 10 of his 18-page testimony, devoting only three paragraphs to Iraq. He said, “Iraq continues to build and expand an infrastructure capable of producing WMD.” Its chemical industry was expanding “in ways that could be diverted quickly to CW production. We believe it also maintains an active and capable BW program.”
Yes, Cheney’s speech did overstate this part of the intel, although only to a minor degree. (In some ways, Woodward overstates the degree of overstatement.) But soon, Bush joined Cheney in this overstatement; on September 7, Bush unequivocally said—for the first time, Woodward stresses—that Saddam flat-out possessed WMD. As a result, Senator Graham “pressed the administration to provide a new comprehensive intelligence report or estimate on Iraq, which led to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate”—and Woodward stresses the fact that even this new report failed to back Cheney’s assertions. The intelligence community “had a massive amount of intelligence” about WMD, “much of it old and not very reliable,” Woodward writes. “The real and best answer was that [Saddam] probably had WMD, but that there was no proof and the case was circumstantial” (Woodward’s emphasis). Meanwhile, how about those frightening nukes—the nukes that Cheney pimped so robustly? Regarding Saddam’s nukes, the NIE’s claims were made with only “moderate confidence”—and the State Department disagreed altogether:
WOODWARD (page 199): On the issue of nuclear weapons, the NIE said with “moderate confidence” that “Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009.”

The State Department intelligence bureau filed an 11-page annex outlining its objections and disagreements with the NIE, particularly on nuclear weapons, saying the evidence did not add up to a “compelling case” that Iraq had “an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.”

In short, however “convinced” Cheney may have been that “Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon,” the excitable Veep had gone well beyond the actual state of the intel. But so what? Two weeks after Cheney spoke, Condoleezza Rice followed suit. Labor Day had finally passed, and it was time “to introduce the new product,” to apply the unfortunate phrase Andy Card had used in an August interview. Result? The Admin had leaked a story to the New York Times pimping the threat from Saddam’s alleged nukes (a story which later turned out to be bogus). And on the day the Times report appeared, Rice grossly misstated the intel on nukes, although Woodward again downplays the incident:
WOODWARD (page 179): The next morning, Sunday, September 8, The New York Times had a front page story headlined, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” The story reported that Iraq had allegedly tried to buy thousands of specially designed, high-strength aluminum tubes that could be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for a bomb. It was an administration claim that would grow a good deal more significant with time. That day the administration blanketed the Sunday morning television talk shows with Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice. Each highlighted the danger from Saddam, with Cheney taking the hardest line.

From all her years reading and sifting intelligence, Rice had reached the same conclusion as Rumsfeld: Intelligence generally underestimated threats, rarely overestimated them. On CNN she said, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Yes, Cheney took the hardest line, scaring NBC’s Tim Russert good. But Rice, appearing on CNN’s Late Edition, wasn’t far behind. Indeed, Rice said something blatantly bogus—she told Wolf Blitzer that those aluminum tubes could only be used for nukes:
BLITZER (9/8/02): 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.

In an unusual development, Rice was actually right on one point. You would “get different estimates about how close” Saddam was—depending on how much various spokesmen exaggerated. Seeming to embellish everywhere, Rice now said that Saddam had been only six months away from having a nuke back in 1991; this trumped Cheney’s “within a year” claim from his initial speech, two weeks earlier. And Rice also said that those aluminum tubes could only be used to build nukes. That was a blatant misstatement of the intel, as Judis and Ackerman laid out in detail in the New Republic some nine months later (links below)—after Rice’s pimping of nukes had helped drive the nation to war.

To what extent was the Bush Admin faking the intel at this point? Plainly, Woodward says that Cheney overstated the intel about chemical and biological WMD. But Woodward also says and implies that major Bush figures did think Saddam had such weapons. For example, here’s what he says about Tommy Franks as of September 2002:

WOODWARD (page 173): Franks believed that Saddam did, in fact, have WMD, specifically weaponized chemicals. Intelligence officials from other countries had told him they believed Saddam had some weaponized biologicals. Over the years, Franks had seen thousands of pieces of intelligence that indicated that the guy had a terrific capability in WMD. He thought Saddam would use it if the U.S. military invaded, and he was preparing plans and protective chemical-biological suits for his troops fully expecting the worst case.
“But suspicion is not knowledge,” Woodward writes. Indeed, Franks was also telling Bush at this time that these WMD had proven quite elusive. Franks is quoted at a September 6 meeting. “Mr. President,” Franks tells Bush, “we’ve been looking for Scud missiles and other weapons of mass destruction for ten years and haven’t found any yet, so I can’t tell you that I know that there are any specific weapons anywhere. I haven’t seen Scud one.” Again, Woodward stresses the way the Admin overlooked such matters in its unequivocal statements that Saddam “no doubt” had WMD. According to Woodward, Franks’ statement “could, and should, have been a warning that if the intelligence was not good enough to make bombing decisions, it probably was not good enough to make the broad assertion...that there was ‘no doubt’ that Saddam had WMD.” However, in his next paragraph (quoted above), Woodward asserts that Franks did believe that Saddam “did, in fact, have WMD.”

Did the Bush Admin start faking the intel shortly after the Downing Street memo? In Woodward’s book, it’s clear that they did. Woodward clearly says they overstated the intel about the general WMD question. Indeed, as Woodward stresses, after Cheney overstated the intel on August 26, and the president himself shortly followed, making unequivocal claims for the first time about Saddam’s possession of WMD. Was there “no doubt” that Saddam had WMD? That just wasn’t the state of the intel, Woodward stresses. But he also stresses that major players did believe that Saddam had such weapons.

But those scary nukes were different. Although Woodward downplays this part of the story, it is perfectly clear that the Bush Admin began pimping the nukes shortly after the Downing Street memo. Cheney’s speech on August 26 raised the specter of nuclear attack. “Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon,” Cheney said—and he implied that “fairly soon” might mean “within a year.” Cheney may have been “convinced” of this fact—some are convinced that the earth is flat—but this plainly wasn’t the state of the intel, nor were Cheney’s claims supported in the subsequent October NIE. And uh-oh! Two weeks after Cheney’s speech, Rice went and out and embellished further, baldly misstating the actual intel regarding those aluminum tubes. Soon Bush himself was scaring the voters; in a major speech on October 7, he said “we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” In short, within a few weeks of the Downing Street memo, the Bush Admin was “fixing the intel” by lustily pimping Saddam’s scary nukes. Sadly, though, the liberal and Democratic establishments haven’t put this info to good use in their critiques of the route to war in Iraq. More on their fumbled presentations as we continue tomorrow.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Bungling the argument

JUDIS DISAPPEARED: Nine months after Rice’s misstatements, Judis and Ackerman examined her claims in a lengthy report in the New Republic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03). But alas! Reading such reports takes lots of time, and this part of the tale has largely disappeared. This, of course, is the kind of disappearance that doesn’t get covered on cable.

More on this matter tomorrow.