Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beyond "Bush Lied"

The Phase II report on Iraq intelligence was finally released last week--the one that Pat Roberts put on hold back in 2004, so it wouldn't hurt Bush's re-election campaign--and the press (along with Jay Rockefeller) are finding, in the words of Kate Klonick, a "chasm between what was said by the President and Vice President, and what was actually known."

WaPo editor Fred Hiatt...not so much. To him, the report is evidence that Bush never lied. For example, he notes,

On Iraq's nuclear weapons program? The president's statements "were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates."
Which, of course, isn't the whole sentence. What he's quoting is this1:
Statements by the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor regarding a possible Iraqi nuclear weapons program were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates, but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community. [emphasis added]
Yes, it's your standard garden variety misdirection-by-selective-quotation at work. Hiatt again:
On chemical weapons, then? "Substantiated by intelligence information."
The next conclusion in the report:
Statements by the President and Vice President prior to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq's chemical weapons production capability and activities did not reflect the intelligence community's uncertainties as to whether such production was ongoing.
On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information."
The report:
Statements by the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense regarding Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction were generally substantiated by intelligence information, though many statements made regarding ongoing production prior to late 2002 reflected a higher level of certainty than the intelligence judgments themselves....The Secretary of Defense's statement that the Iraqi government operated underground WMD facilities that were not vulnerable to conventional airstrikes because they were underground and deeply buried was not substantiated by available intelligence information. [emphasis added]
And so on. Shocking, isn't it: the guy who runs the WaPo editorial pages--home to some of the most egregious Iraq cheerleading over the last 5 years--writes a thoroughly dishonest editorial defending the Bush administration's dishonesty on Iraq.

(Also worth noting: aside from Hiatt's misrepresentation of the report, the report itself omits any mention of what turned out to be the most reliable source we had. But that's another story.)

That said, I've never been a fan of the 'Bush lied' line. The problem is that it leaves too many loopholes for Bush, because the common understanding of the word 'lie' is so easily narrowed to exclude. As long as Bush believed it, he wasn't 'lying'. As long as somebody told him something like what he said (Hiatt's defense), he wasn't 'lying'.

Froomkin's piece on the McClellan book last week offers a more useful perspective:
But when, time and again, the "lack of candor" conveniently furthers political goals, how are we not to conclude that it is, well, pretty much the same thing as lying?

Consider the way McClellan describes Bush in one particularly seminal case study. Recalling a conversation he overheard between Bush and a supporter in the 2000 race, when questions were being raised about Bush's possible cocaine use as a young man, McClellan quotes Bush as saying: "You know, the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day, and I just don't remember."

McClellan notes the absurdity of such a statement, then writes: "I know Bush, and I know he genuinely believes what he says. He isn't the kind of person to flat-out lie, particularly when speaking in private to a supporter or friend. So I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true and that, deep down, he knew was not true. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious: political convenience....

"In the years to come, as I worked closely with President Bush, I would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment....[emphasis added]
And of course, that isn't 'lying'--that is, it doesn't meet the narrow definition of 'lying' advanced by the wingnuts (and Fred Hiatt).

Which is why I argue that there is no useful moral distinction between a) willful ignorance, b) self-deception, and c) the deliberate and conscious deception of others. Any given statement by Bush at any given point could be any of the three (or a combination thereof), but there's no percentage in parsing out the difference. When the result is the same, 'intent' doesn't really matter.

1I had to OCR the .pdf, as it was provided in a no-text-information format.