Last week I noted that Karl Rove, Ross Douthat, and Peter Wehner had so far declined my challenge to a duel—that is, to respond to an article I had written (in response to their claims that George W. Bush had not misled the American public into the Iraq war) that listed a sampling of false Bush administration statements that went far beyond good-faith reliance on faulty intelligence. But a day later, Wehner, a PoliticsDaily.com columnist who worked in the W. White House, took a stab at it in an article addressing the false assertions I had highlighted. One problem: Wehner ignored several of the extreme and significant Bush misrepresentations I had listed. Thus, regrettably, I had to reply to his reply:
Let me remind readers -- those who are not weary of all this -- about the statements Wehner declines to confront. In August 2002, as the Bush White House was ramping up its sales campaign for war in Iraq, Cheney delivered a high-profile speech in which he declared that there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein was "amassing" WMDs "to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Yet a few months earlier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency had testified to Congress that Saddam was only maintaining "residual" amounts of WMDs (which, as it turned out, was itself an overstatement). Perhaps more important, at the time of Cheney's speech, there was no intelligence indicating that Hussein intended to use WMDs against the United States, which would have been suicidal. In fact, intelligence reports suggested he was not interested in a WMD showdown with Washington. That is, there was no factual basis for Cheney's dramatic statement. No wonder Wehner avoids dealing with it.
Wehner also ducks addressing Bush's pre-war attempt to link Hussein to al-Qaeda. That was a key part of the administration's pitch for war. On Nov. 7, 2002, Bush proclaimed that Hussein "is a threat because he's dealing with al-Qaeda." Yet as the 9/11 Commission later noted, there was no intelligence confirming an operational relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, in March 2003, Cheney insisted that Hussein had a "long-standing relationship" with al-Qaeda. Moreover, Cheney again and again tried to tie Hussein to al-Qaeda by referring to an unconfirmed intelligence report indicating that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. The CIA and FBI, though, had discounted this report, and the 9/11 Commission later said that it was indeed bogus. So here was the vice president of the United States pushing phony information, after his government's own intelligence experts had said there was no confirmation for it. How reckless was that? It's not surprising that Wehner ignored this part of the challenge.
And Wehner overlooks one of Bush's biggest whoppers. At a Dec. 31, 2002, press conference, Bush maintained, "We don't know whether or not [Hussein] has a nuclear weapon." This comment suggested that Hussein -- oh my God! -- might already possess these dangerous weapons. The faulty intelligence available at the time had errantly declared that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, but it had also concluded Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon for years. There was no basis for Bush to say that Hussein already could be nuclear-armed. Clearly, Bush was doing so to rile up the public. Wehner is silent on this point.
So Wehner has nothing to say about (1) Cheney hurling an intelligence-free claim that Saddam was developing WMDs so he could attack the United States; (2) Bush and Cheney hyping the connection between Saddam and the mass murderers of 9/11; or (3) Bush resorting to scare-'em rhetoric about a nuclear Iraq that had no foundation in the available intelligence. On these fronts, Bush, Cheney, and their aides exhibited a reckless disregard of the facts as they tried to whip up public support for their war. But none of that is on Wehner's radar screen. Which calls into question his entire attempt to beat back the proposition that Bush bamboozled the public.
As for those statements Wehner does attempt to address, he mostly ends up defending Bush-Cheney spin. That's not surprising. If you care about the back and forth, I unwind all this spin here. And I note that Wehner side-steps a fundamental point:
I closed my [original] column with a question:
Can Wehner, Rove and Douthat state that Bush carefully reviewed the intelligence in order to present to the public an accurate depiction of what was known and not known about the WMD threat possibly posed by Saddam?
It's telling that Wehner does not attempt to concoct a response to that query.
...The bottom line is undeniable: Bush and Cheney repeatedly issued false statements to guide the nation to war, and they made no concerted efforts to guarantee that they were providing the public with the most realistic depiction of the threat. They were not interested in an honest debate; they wanted war.
The Bush gang will wage this battle for years to come—until their dying days, I presume. But no matter how hard they try to explain away all of the false assertions Bush made to sell this war, they simply cannot argue that he met his first obligation as commander in chief: to take great care in assessing a potential threat to the United States before sending Americans overseas to kill and die for their country.