SYNOPSIS: Our disgracefully obsequious press corps is making excuses for the Bush administration instead of doing its job and holding the administration accountable for lying in order to begin the Iraq War
Politics is full of ironies. On the White House Web site, George W. Bush's speech from Oct. 7, 2002 — in which he made the case for war with Iraq — bears the headline "Denial and Deception." Indeed.
There is no longer any serious doubt that Bush administration officials deceived us into war. The key question now is why so many influential people are in denial, unwilling to admit the obvious.
About the deception: Leaks from professional intelligence analysts, who are furious over the way their work was abused, have given us a far more complete picture of how America went to war. Thanks to reporting by my colleague Nicholas Kristof, other reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a magisterial article by John Judis and Spencer Ackerman in The New Republic, we now know that top officials, including Mr. Bush, sought to convey an impression about the Iraqi threat that was not supported by actual intelligence reports.
In particular, there was never any evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda; yet administration officials repeatedly suggested the existence of a link. Supposed evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program was thoroughly debunked by the administration's own experts; yet administration officials continued to cite that evidence and warn of Iraq's nuclear threat.
And yet the political and media establishment is in denial, finding excuses for the administration's efforts to mislead both Congress and the public.
For example, some commentators have suggested that Mr. Bush should be let off the hook as long as there is some interpretation of his prewar statements that is technically true. Really? We're not talking about a business dispute that hinges on the fine print of the contract; we're talking about the most solemn decision a nation can make. If Mr. Bush's speeches gave the nation a misleading impression about the case for war, close textual analysis showing that he didn't literally say what he seemed to be saying is no excuse. On the contrary, it suggests that he knew that his case couldn't stand close scrutiny.
Consider, for example, what Mr. Bush said in his "denial and deception" speech about the supposed Saddam-Osama link: that there were "high-level contacts that go back a decade." In fact, intelligence agencies knew of tentative contacts between Saddam and an infant Al Qaeda in the early 1990's, but found no good evidence of a continuing relationship. So Mr. Bush made what sounded like an assertion of an ongoing relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but phrased it cagily — suggesting that he or his speechwriter knew full well that his case was shaky.
Other commentators suggest that Mr. Bush may have sincerely believed, despite the lack of evidence, that Saddam was working with Osama and developing nuclear weapons. Actually, that's unlikely: why did he use such evasive wording if he didn't know that he was improving on the truth? In any case, however, somebody was at fault. If top administration officials somehow failed to apprise Mr. Bush of intelligence reports refuting key pieces of his case against Iraq, they weren't doing their jobs. And Mr. Bush should be the first person to demand their resignations.
So why are so many people making excuses for Mr. Bush and his officials?
Part of the answer, of course, is raw partisanship. One important difference between our current scandal and the Watergate affair is that it's almost impossible now to imagine a Republican senator asking, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
But even people who aren't partisan Republicans shy away from confronting the administration's dishonest case for war, because they don't want to face the implications.
After all, suppose that a politician — or a journalist — admits to himself that Mr. Bush bamboozled the nation into war. Well, launching a war on false pretenses is, to say the least, a breach of trust. So if you admit to yourself that such a thing happened, you have a moral obligation to demand accountability — and to do so in the face not only of a powerful, ruthless political machine but in the face of a country not yet ready to believe that its leaders have exploited 9/11 for political gain. It's a scary prospect.
Yet if we can't find people willing to take the risk — to face the truth and act on it — what will happen to our democracy?
Originally published in The New York Times, 6.24.03