I have a column this morning in The Hill on the ever-tightening web of circumstantial evidence that several of the president’s top advisors, if not the president himself, knew the Niger uranium story was almost certainly bogus well before they included it in the president’s January 2003 State of the Union speech. Many of you have probably already read the Ackerman/Judis article in The New Republic, which adds a number of important details to the story. And I discuss those points. But I also draw attention to a Tom Gjelten piece on NPR, in which a senior intelligence source told Gjelten that intelligence officials explicitly warned the administration off the Niger/uranium story while the White House was putting the speech together. The White House disputes the account. But I’m surprised this kernel hasn’t drawn more attention. In any case, see my piece in The Hill for the details.
Along a related line, I want to discuss a post that Andrew Sullivan has up on his website today on the WMD/deception issue.
First, I want to give Sullivan credit — and that’s not meant facetiously. Though I strenuously disagree with his reasoning on this question, he’s been one of the few conservatives to take the issue itself seriously. Early on, he recognized the importance of our inability to find evidence of WMD. (As I understand his position, he feels the war was justified on humanitarian and geostrategic grounds even if we never find WMD or even if there was never any WMD.)
He’s also trying to grapple with the deception issue.
Most conservative commentators are either unwilling even to credit the debate or approach it only in the most polemical fashion. Their tacit reasoning seems to be, as long as the boots are on the ground and the poll numbers hold, who really cares who said what? At best, they’re willing to advance the ludicrous argument that the CIA — the institution most hostile to maximalist intelligence estimates on Iraq — was responsible for the hype.
Now, back to Sullivan.
In a post yesterday evening he discusses the deception debate and particularly the Ackerman/Judis article. He concedes that the administration hyped some of the evidence. But he sees the Ackerman/Judis article as an argument that the administration exaggerated the threat rather than lied about it. Yet he finds “a premise here that strikes me as off-base. The premise is that after 9/11, only rock-solid evidence of illicit weapons programs and proven ties to terrorists could justify a pre-emptive war to depose Saddam.”
What Sullivan goes on to argue is essentially that in the post-9/11 world we’re operating under a ‘better safe than sorry’ standard. By that standard the administration is justified in pointing out the most ominous interpretations of admittedly incomplete evidence.
Here, though, Sullivan has his own problem with premises. Logically, his reasoning works, but it’s not an apt analogy or description of what happened.
If the ‘better safe than sorry’ doctrine is what we’re now operating under, there shouldn’t be any need for exaggeration. The president might just have said, “They had chemical and biological weapons in the past. It’s a brutal regime that’s used these weapons in the past. They probably have them now. They might even be trying to develop nuclear weapons or strike up ties with al Qaida. We don’t have much evidence on these latter points. But the possibility is just too dire to chance. Better safe than sorry.”
Yet the administration seems to have understood that this wouldn’t quite cut it. So they tried something different. At best, they kept the ‘better safe than sorry’ reasoning to themselves. They decided it was better to be safe than sorry in their arguments to the American people. And, to make sure, they stripped all the ambiguity out of the evidence and removed it from the public debate. (Conservative defenders of the administration are engaging in a rhetorical sleight of hand here, arguing that under ‘preemption’ we don’t need as much evidence, and conflating this with the idea that we needn’t present the evidence we have accurately.) Actually, they did more than that. On many occasions they presented evidence that they, at best, should have known was highly dubious and in some cases certainly knew was bogus.
So, Sullivan may be right that we can no longer wait for “rock-solid evidence.” But the folks at the White House who made the case apparently weren’t too confident that the American people agreed. So they told the American people that they knew much, much more than they did.
My own sense is that what the administration did was analogous to the actions of the cop who frames someone whom he’s sure is guilty. They believed Saddam was dangerous, in many cases believed it deeply. And they believed he must be doing this stuff. But they didn’t have a lot of evidence. So, well, they made it up. Either they hyped what they knew to the point of outright deception. Or they passed along information that they had to know or should have known was probably bogus. Again, it’s like the cop who tries to put someone away on the say-so of an unreliable jailhouse snitch because he knows the guy’s guilty anyway. After all, he doesn’t know the snitch isn’t telling the truth, right? So if the jury buys it, what’s the problem? Mix in a touch of intellectual dishonesty and willingness to spin yourself and you see how this all works.
I really don’t think the president necessarily knew a lot of this was going on. But I think he created a climate within his national security team in which this sort of scamming and self-scamming was acceptable and tolerated.
Let’s keep in mind that this is all working under the assumptions of what we might call the conservatives’ ‘exaggeration’ argument. A measure of exaggerations are necessary and apparently acceptable.
If this is true, though, I think we need the administration to spell out for us now just how this ‘exaggeration’ exception works. How far does it go? Let’s take Iran. We’re now being told that the Iranians are close to getting nukes and that we may have to go to war to stop them. I take this issue very seriously, largely because I think they may be quite close. But to make up my own mind on this I really want to know now whether the ‘exaggeration’ rules apply to Iran too because war with Iran would make war with Iraq look like a cake-walk.
So, fine, we’re working under the ‘exaggeration’ rules now. But let’s just get straight what those rules are. And can we get a heads-up on when they’re being applied and when they’re not? Like maybe a chyron under the screen when top administration officials are talking? Do they mean Iran’s maybe not really far along to developing nuclear weapons? Do they cover that too? Does the ‘exaggeration’ doctrine cover 10% of the truth, 50%, 75%? As long as we can get this straight I guess we can still have some idea of what’s actually going on.