The problem for the President is that he doesn?t have any credible evidence to support his claim, and yet, in spite of that, he persists in making that claim vigorously. So I would like to pause for a moment to address the curious question of why President Bush continues to make this claim that most people know is wrong. And I think it?s particularly important because it is closely connected to the questions of constitutional power with which I began this speech, and will profoundly affect how that power is distributed among our three branches of government.
To begin with, our founders wouldn?t be the least bit surprised at what the modern public opinion polls all tell us about why it?s so important particularly for President Bush to keep the American people from discovering that what he told them about the linkage between Iraq and al Qaeda isn?t true. Among these Americans who still believe there is a linkage, there remains very strong support for the President?s decision to invade Iraq. But among those who accept the commission?s detailed finding that there is no connection, support for the war in Iraq dries up pretty quickly.
And that?s understandable, because if Iraq had nothing to do with the attack or the organization that attacked us, then that means the President took us to war when he didn?t have to. Almost nine hundred of our soldiers have been killed, and almost five thousand have been wounded.
Thus, for all these reasons, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have decided to fight to the rhetorical death over whether or not there?s a meaningful connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. They think that if they lose that argument and people see the truth, then they?ll not only lose support for the controversial decision to go to war, but also lose some of the new power they?ve picked up from the Congress and the courts, and face harsh political consequences at the hands of the American people. As a result, President Bush is now intentionally misleading the American people by continuing to aggressively and brazenly assert a linkage between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
If he is not lying, if they genuinely believe that, that makes them unfit in battle with al Qaeda. If they believe these flimsy scraps, then who would want them in charge? Are they too dishonest or too gullible? Take your pick.
But the truth is gradually emerging in spite of the President?s determined dissembling. Listen, for example, to this editorial from the Financial Times: ?There was nothing intrinsically absurd about the WMD fears, or ignoble about the opposition to Saddam?s tyranny ? however late Washington developed this. The purported link between Baghdad and al Qaeda, by contrast, was never believed by anyone who knows Iraq and the region. It was and is nonsense.?
Of course the first rationale presented for the war was to destroy Iraq?s weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist. Then the rationale was to liberate Iraqis and the Middle East from tyranny, but our troops were not greeted with the promised flowers and are now viewed as an occupying force by 92% of Iraqis, while only 2% see them as liberators.
But right from the start, beginning very soon after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush made a decision to start mentioning Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same breath in a cynical mantra designed to fuse them together as one in the public?s mind. He repeatedly used this device in a highly disciplined manner to create a false impression in the minds of the American people that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Usually he was pretty tricky in his exact wording. Indeed, Bush?s consistent and careful artifice is itself evidence that he knew full well that he was telling an artful and important lie — visibly circumnavigating the truth over and over again as if he had practiced how to avoid encountering the truth. But as I will document in a few moments, he and Vice President Cheney also sometimes departed from their tricky wording and resorted to statements were clearly outright falsehoods. In any case, by the time he was done, public opinion polls showed that fully 70% of the American people had gotten the message he wanted them to get, and had been convinced that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
The myth that Iraq and al Qaeda were working together was no accident ? the President and Vice President deliberately ignored warnings before the war from international intelligence services, the CIA, and their own Pentagon that the claim was false. Europe?s top terrorism investigator said in 2002, “We have found no evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. If there were such links, we would have found them. But we have found no serious connections whatsoever.? A classified October 2002 CIA report given to the White House directly undercut the Iraq-al Qaeda claim. Top officials in the Pentagon told reporters in 2002 that the rhetoric being used by President Bush and Vice President Cheney was ?an exaggeration.?
And at least some honest voices within the President?s own party admitted as such. Senator Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said point blank, “Saddam is not in league with al Qaeda?I have not seen any intelligence that would lead me to connect Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda.”
But those voices did not stop the deliberate campaign to mislead America. Over the course of a year, the President and Vice President used carefully crafted language to scare Americans into believing there was an imminent threat from an Iraq-armed al Qaeda.
In the fall of 2002, the President told the country ?You can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam? and that the ?true threat facing our country is an al Qaeda-type network trained and armed by Saddam.? At the same time, Vice President Cheney was repeating his claim that ?there is overwhelming evidence there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government.?
By the Spring, Secretary of State Powell was in front of the United Nations claiming a ?sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network.?
But after the invasion, no ties were found. In June of 2003, the United Nations Security Council?s al Qaeda monitoring agency told reporters his extensive investigation had found no evidence linking the Iraqi regime to al Qaeda. By August, three former Bush administration national security and intelligence officials admitted that the evidence used to make the Iraq-al Qaeda claim was ?tenuous, exaggerated and often at odds with the conclusion of key intelligence agencies.? And earlier this year, Knight-Ridder newspapers reported ?Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence? of a connection.
So when the bipartisan 9/11 commission issued its report finding ?no credible evidence? of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection, it should not have caught the White House off guard. Yet instead of the candor Americans need and deserve from their leaders, there have been more denials and more insistence without evidence. Vice President Cheney insisted even this week that ?there clearly was a relationship? and that there is ?overwhelming evidence.? Even more shocking, Cheney offered this disgraceful question: ?Was Iraq involved with al-Qaeda in the attack on 9/11? We don?t know.? He then claimed that he ?probably? had more information than the commission, but has so far refused to provide anything to the commission other than more insults.
The President was even more brazen. He dismissed all questions about his statements by saying ?The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.? He provided no evidence.
Friends of the administration tried mightily to rehabilitate their cherished but shattered linkage. John Lehman, one of the Republicans on the commission, offered what sounded like new evidence that a Saddam henchman had attended an Al Qaeda meeting. But within hours, the commissions files yielded definitive evidence that it was another man with a similar name ? ironically capturing the near-miss quality of Bush?s entire symbolic argument.
They have such an overwhelming political interest in sustaining the belief in the minds of the American people that Hussein was in partnership with bin Laden that they dare not admit the truth lest they look like complete fools for launching our country into a reckless, discretionary war against a nation that posed no immediate threat to us whatsoever. But the damage they have done to our country is not limited to misallocation of military economic political resources. Whenever a chief executive spends prodigious amounts of energy convincing people of lies, he damages the fabric of democracy, and the belief in the fundamental integrity of our self-government.
That creates a need for control over the flood of bad news, bad policies and bad decisions also explains their striking attempts to control news coverage.
To take the most recent example, Vice President Cheney was clearly ready to do battle with the news media when he went on CNBC earlier this week to attack news coverage of the 9/11 Commission?s conclusion that Iraq did not work with Al Qaeda. He lashed out at the New York Times for having the nerve to print a headline saying the 9/11 commission ?finds no Qaeda-Iraq Tie? ? a clear statement of the obvious ? and said there is no ?fundamental split here now between what the president said and what the commission said.? He tried to deny that he had personally been responsible for helping to create the false impression of linkage between Al Qaeda and Iraq.