Evidently, Sullivan still has no regrets about having labeled the left-wing critics who questioned Bush's invasion plans and their rationale -- you know, the people who it turned out were right -- as a treasonous "fifth column".
Even more conspicuous by its omission from Sullivan's list was the reality that he was snookered by Bush's lies. It was so much easier, after all, to impugn the patriotism of people who were not.
Moreover, Bush, you see, didn't lie per se, in Sullivan's little bubble-land. Oh no. He was misled by an incompetent intelligence apparatus:
- The first was to overestimate the competence of government, especially in very tricky areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an overestimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. When doubts were raised, they were far too swiftly dismissed. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed.
This is very similar to something John McCain said this weekend in his defense of President Bush. It kind of stood out for me, just because we've been hearing versions of it from the right ever since it became clear that Bush in fact led America to war under false pretenses:
- Mr. McCain praised the president for his failed effort to rewrite the nation's Social Security system, said he supported the decision to go into Iraq and blistered critics who suggested the White House had fabricated or exaggerated evidence of unconventional weapons in Iraq in order to justify the invasion.
"Anybody who says the president of the United States is lying about weapons of mass destruction is lying," Mr. McCain said.
This is an extension of the rationale we've been hearing from the Bushevistas ever since it became painfully obvious there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq: It wasn't a lie if he believed the WMDs were there. It was just a mistake.
Joseph Sobran offered up an early iteration of this back in 2003:
- Well? Does this mean he was lying all along? Not necessarily. In fact, I doubt that he was. And I don't say this out of any fondness for him or trust in his word.
People have subtle ways of misleading without actually lying. One of these is to exaggerate their own certainty. They pretend to be sure of things when they are only guessing.
... This doesn't mean that our rulers were lying to us; they largely believed what they said. It was an enormous and willful failure of judgment, history’s most expensive application of "Better safe than sorry."
So we needn’t accuse Bush of trying to deceive us. He probably deceived himself first. With all his advisors, experts, access to secret information, and intelligence sources, he simply didn't know what he was talking about. But this should teach us not to trust his judgment.
This line of reasoning has been pervasive on the right, and it couldn't be more plainly self-serving: it not only lets Bush off the hook, it also lets off everyone who not only gleefully accepted his blandishments, but even more gleefully assailed the patriotism of anyone who questioned them.
But the reality of Bush's lies never was completely rationalized away this way, and that's been a source of continual anxiety for the right. The Wall Street Jourtnal even offered an op-ed with the subhed, "What if people start believing that 'Bush lied'?"
- Pounding through the media that the prewar intelligence was a conscious lie may incline the American people to believe the whole Iraq enterprise is false, and worse, that the very notion of weapons of mass destruction is also doubtful. The psychology of the big lie can sometimes run out of control.
The problem with all these excuses is that the Bush White House didn't lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction: they lied about what they knew about them.
It wasn't simply on a couple of occasions that they did so. Rather, it was systematic and pervasive throughout their ceaseless beating of the war drums:
- Dick Cheney, August 26, 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."
Ari Fleischer, Jan. 9, 2003: "We know for a fact that there are weapons there."
George W. Bush, March 17, 2003: "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
Donald Rumsfeld, May 30, 2003: "If you think -- let me take that, both pieces -- the area in the south and the west and the north that coalition forces control is substantial. It happens not to be the area where weapons of mass destruction were dispersed. We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."
This is not, as lame apologists like FactCheck.org try to argue, a question of "whether or not he knew at the time that the weapons weren't there." It's a matter of claiming to possess real knowledge and hard factual evidence that the White House in fact did not have.
For politicians and rhetoricians, this might be forgivable. But it is a uniquely egregious kind of lie when it comes from the White House, particularly on a matter of national security.
That's because citizens somewhat naturally understand that the president has access to special knowledge that is not available to the rest of us, especially on matters of security; and indeed, this fact was often cited by Bush's defenders during the runup to the invasion. The nation depends upon the executive branch to be making its decisions based on a hard-nosed and accurate assessment of that intelligence, particularly when the lives of American soldiers are on the line.
As John Dean explained some time back, the prospect that Bush, rather than relying on factual analysis, instead skewed the data for the sake of selling a preordained war to the public was cause enough for impeachment, not least because it undermined public confidence in the integrity of the intelligence process:
- In the three decades since Watergate, this is the first potential scandal I have seen that could make Watergate pale by comparison. If the Bush administration intentionally manipulated or misrepresented intelligence to get Congress to authorize, and the public to support, military action to take control of Iraq, then that would be a monstrous misdeed.
This administration may be due for a scandal. While Bush narrowly escaped being dragged into Enron, it was not, in any event, his doing. But the war in Iraq is all Bush's doing, and it is appropriate that he be held accountable.
To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be "a high crime" under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony "to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose."
It's important to recall that when Richard Nixon resigned, he was about to be impeached by the House of Representatives for misusing the CIA and FBI. After Watergate, all presidents are on notice that manipulating or misusing any agency of the executive branch improperly is a serious abuse of presidential power.
Nixon claimed that his misuses of the federal agencies for his political purposes were in the interest of national security. The same kind of thinking might lead a president to manipulate and misuse national security agencies or their intelligence to create a phony reason to lead the nation into a politically desirable war. Let us hope that is not the case.
The intervening months have only strengthened the case that the White House manipulated the data -- and that, while the intelligence was flawed, that wasn't why we went to war:
- Paul R. Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, acknowledges the U.S. intelligence agencies' mistakes in concluding that Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. But he said those misjudgments did not drive the administration's decision to invade.
"Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war," Pillar wrote in the upcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. Instead, he asserted, the administration "went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq."
"It has become clear that official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between [Bush] policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized," Pillar wrote.
Nonetheless, a partisan Congress and a mendacious White House -- which set up a Whitewash Commission whose explicit purpose was to avoid the question -- made damned sure that the question of intelligence manipulation was never answered.
But the issue of the nature of Bush's lies not only has lingered, it remains very much in full force in the debate over Bush's use of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on American citizens. That's because Bush's cover -- that this is all super-secret information that must be kept under wraps in order to confound our enemies -- has not changed since the WMD debacle.
Just as subsequent evidence has made abundantly clear that Bush and his cronies lied about what they knew about WMDs, so is there sufficient reason to believe, as Glenn Greenwald points out, that they are almost certainly lying and have indeed rather nakedly broken the law in the process. And once again, in order to escape any consequences for their lies, they are depending on citizens' beliefs that they possess extra special, super duper triple-dog secret intelligence justifying those moves -- which means, as the execrable Joe Klein put it, that "a strong majority would favor the NSA program ... if its details were declassified and made known."
And of course, anyone seeking to bring the White House to ground over the NSA issue is labeled untrustworthy because they're anti-American Bush-haters.
Oddly enough, Andrew Sullivan has decided to pull off his blinkers regarding the NSA matter and has joined Bush's critics. Funny that he still hasn't figured out that he was wearing the same set of blinkers when it came time to invade Iraq.