Editorial: Truth / Too little of it on Iraq
Richard Cheney is not a public relations man for the Bush administration, not a spinmeister nor a political operative. He's the vice president of the United States, and when he speaks in public, which he rarely does, he owes the American public the truth.
In his appearance on "Meet the Press" Sunday, Cheney fell woefully short of truth. On the subject of Iraq, the same can be said for President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. But Cheney is the latest example of administration mendacity, and therefore a good place to start in holding the administration accountable. The list:
• Cheney repeated the mantra that the nation ignored the terrorism threat before Sept. 11. In fact, President Bill Clinton and his counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, took the threat very seriously, especially after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. By December, Clarke had prepared plans for a military operation to attack Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, go after terrorist financing and work with police officials around the world to take down the terrorist network.
Because Clinton was to leave office in a few weeks, he decided against handing Bush a war in progress as he worked to put a new administration together.
Instead, Clarke briefed national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Cheney and others. He emphasized that time was short and action was urgent. The Bush administration sat on the report for months and months. The first high-level discussion took place on Sept. 4, 2001, just a week before the attacks. The actions taken by the Bush administration following Sept. 11 closely parallel actions recommended in Clarke's nine-month-old plan. Who ignored the threat?
• Cheney said that "we don't know" if there is a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He's right only in the sense that "we don't know" if the sun will come up tomorrow. But all the evidence available says it will -- and that Iraq was not involved in Sept. 11.
Cheney offered stuff, but it wasn't evidence. He said that one of those involved in planning the attack, an Iraqi-American, had returned to Iraq after the attack and had been protected, perhaps even supported, by Saddam Hussein. That proves exactly nothing about Iraq's links to the attack itself.
Cheney also cited a supposed meeting in Prague between hijacker Mohamed Atta and a senior Iraqi intelligence officer -- but the FBI concluded that Atta was in Florida at the time of the supposed meeting. The CIA always doubted the story. And according to a New York Times article on Oct. 21, 2002, Czech President Vaclav Havel "quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports" of such a meeting.
Moreover, the United States now has in custody the agent accused of meeting with Atta. Even though he must know how much he would benefit by simply saying, "Yes, I met Atta in Prague," there has been no announcement by the administration trumpeting that vindication of its belief in an Iraq-Sept. 11 link.
• In trying to make that link, Cheney baldly asserted that Iraq is the "geographic base" for those who struck the United States on Sept. 11. No, that would be Afghanistan.
• On weapons of mass destruction, Cheney made a number of statements that were misleading or simply false. For example, he said the United States knew Iraq had "500 tons of uranium." Well, yes, and so did the U.N. inspectors. What Cheney didn't say is that the uranium was low-grade waste from nuclear energy plants, and could not have been useful for weapons without sophisticated processing that Iraq was incapable of performing.
Cheney also said, "To suggest that there is no evidence [in Iraq] that [Saddam] had aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons, I don't think is valid." It's probably not valid; Saddam wanted nuclear weapons. But Cheney is changing the subject: The argument before the war wasn't Saddam's aspirations; it was Saddam's active program to build nuclear weapons.
Cheney also said "a gentleman" has come forward "with full designs for a process centrifuge system to enrich uranium and the key parts that you need to build such a system." That would be scientist Mahdi Obeidi, who had buried the centrifuge pieces in his back yard -- in 1991. Obeidi insisted that Iraq hadn't restarted its nuclear weapons program after the end of the first Gulf War. The centrifuge pieces might have signaled a potential future threat, but they actually disprove Cheney's prewar assertion that Iraq had, indeed, "reconstituted" its nuclear-weapons program.
Cheney also said he put great store in the ongoing search for Saddam's WMD program: "We've got a very good man now in charge of the operation, David Kay, who used to run UNSCOM [the U.N. inspection effort]." In fact, Kay did not run UNSCOM; for one year he was the chief inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency's team in Iraq.
But it's funny Cheney should mention Kay. Last summer, the leader of the 1,400-person team searching for WMD expressed great confidence that they would find what they were looking for. He said he wouldn't publicize discoveries piecemeal but would submit a comprehensive report in mid-September. Apparently he has submitted the report to George Tenet at the CIA. The question now is whether it will ever be made public; several reports in the press have suggested that Kay has come up way short. In five months, 1,400 experts haven't found the WMD locations that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said before the war were well-known to the United States.
Cheney also said that an investigation by the British had "revalidated the British claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa -- what was in the State of the Union speech." The British investigation did nothing of the kind. A parliamentary investigative committee said the documents on the uranium are being reinvestigated, but that, based on the existence of those documents, the Blair government made a "reasonable" assertion and had not tried to deliberately mislead the British people.
To explore every phony statement in the vice president's "Meet the Press" interview would take far more space than is available. This merely points out some of the most egregious examples. Opponents of the war are fond of saying that "Bush lied and our soldiers died." In fact, they'd have reason to assert that "Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz lied and our soldiers died." It's past time the principals behind this mismanaged war were called to account for their deliberate misstatements.
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