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David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation  and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception  (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com .
In the months before the 2004 election, I was part of a road show with Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review . We traveled to college campuses and debated the merits (or liabilities) of the two leading candidates. Knowing that my case against George W. Bush was based partly on the argument that Bush steered the nation into war by telling falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Lowry, whenever possible, would try to fire a preemptive blow by reciting what I came to think of as The List. He would recite quotes from Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry and other prominent Democrats, all of whom had said at one time that Iraq was a threat because it possessed WMDs. In a moment of rhetorical gotcha, Lowry would proclaim that if Bush lied, then Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Kerry and the others had lied, too.
The List is in wide and frantic circulation these days. Bush's pre-war assertions about WMDs in Iraq, now known to be untrue, are back in the news—due to the historic indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff; Patrick Fitzgerald's not-yet-over investigation of the Plame/CIA leak; and the tussle in the Senate over the delayed Phase II report, which was supposed to examine how the Bush White House used (or abused) the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. In response, Bush-backers have been zapping around these Democratic statements. Last week, for instance, the Republican National Committee posted a collection of these comments. It noted that, in 1998, when Bill Clinton ordered a bombing attack on Iraq, he stated that the mission was "to attack Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs." In 2002, the RNC points out, Hillary Clinton said that "intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program." There's this assertion from John Kerry: "Iraq has developed a chemical weapons capability and is pursuing a nuclear weapons development program." And the RNCers giddily note that Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader who forced the Senate into a closed session last week to complain about the GOP stall on the Phase II report, once said that "Saddam Hussein's near success with developing a nuclear weapon should be an eye-opener for us all."
The day after the RNC posted these quotes, conservative columnist David Brooks pulled out an assortment of similar quotes in an effort to show that Reid was a paranoid loon obsessed with "his personal investigation into the Republican plot to manipulate intelligence to trick the American people into believing Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." Brooks cited Clinton from 1998 ("Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions and the capacity to restart quickly its production program") and Al Gore from 2002 (Saddam Hussein "has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country"). Conservative bloggers, too, have circulated lists of past statements from leading Democrats.
Several of these quotes are easy to dismiss. Reid uttered those words in 1992, and Kerry's warning came from 1990. This was years before sanctions and successful weapons inspections destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. The RNC list highlights a 2002 comment from Sen. Joseph Biden: "We don't know exactly what [Saddam Hussein] has...We know he continues to attempt to gain access to additional capability, including nuclear capability. There is a real debate how far off that is, whether it's a matter of years of whether it's a matter of less than that. And so there's much we don't know." That remark hardly put Biden in the we're-damn-sure-he's-a-WMD-threat-today camp.
But, yes, some Democrats did plainly say in the run-up to the war that Iraq possessed WMDs. This doesn't matter. Few, if any of them, advocated going to war in March 2003 on the basis of whatever intelligence they had seen (or heard of). At that time, the inspections process was still under way—and, as is now clear, succeeding—and leading Democrats tended to support the give-inspections-a-chance position. Though the White House and its allies have maintained that prior to the war everybody believed Iraq had WMDs and everybody was wrong, this argument is phony. Before the war, the on-the-ground U.N. inspectors led by Mohamed El Baredei, the recent Nobel peace prize winner, and Hans Blix were finding no evidence of WMDs. El Baradei and his International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iraq had not revived its nuclear weapons program, which the IAEA had destroyed years earlier.
Citing bad intelligence is one thing; going to war based on it is another. It was George W. Bush—not any Democrat—who decided to invade on the basis of the current intelligence, and two key questions remain: Did he perform due diligence before leading (or misleading) the nation to war, and did he misrepresent the nature of the intelligence to whip up popular support for the war?
This is what the Phase II report is supposed to examine. And these issues are dangerous for Bush and his fans. There already is plenty of evidence on the public record to back up the charge that Bush, who (according to the White House) did not bother to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq before ordering the invasion, did hype the intelligence. That means that more than 2,000 Americans sacrificed their lives under false pretenses. If an official investigation reached such a conclusion, Bush and his war would be seriously undermined. Consequently, Republicans and conservatives are frantic to protect Bush with the everybody-messed-up defense and to depict Reid and the Dems as hypocritical, partisan wingnuts.
So it's smear-and-distract time, with the goal being the discrediting of Democrats who believe the Phase II investigation is important and ought to be done right. It's no secret what such an inquiry ought to focus on. It should explore Bush's pre-war claim that U.S. intelligence left “no doubt” about Iraq’s WMDs. In fact, many doubts were raised on such critical issues as Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes, its alleged pursuit of uranium in Africa, its development of unmanned aerial vehicles, and its stockpiling of chemical weapons. Why did Bush claim Iraq had stockpiles of ready-to-go biological weapons when the CIA had only reported—and wrongly—that Iraq had nothing but a biological weapons R&D program? (Actually not even an active R&D program existed.) Then there were Bush's attempts to link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, even as U.S. intelligence concluded there was no operational relationship between the two. How did Bush and his senior aides come to disseminate specific and provocative information on this purported connection that had been questioned or discounted by the government's intelligence services?
Such matters warrant examination—whatever John Kerry said 15 years ago. The RNC, Brooks and the others are playing word games, while Americans continue to die in a war that Bush justified with flawed intelligence (for which the intelligence community bears responsibility) and overstated intelligence (for which Bush and other administration officials are accountable). When Bush ran for president in 2000, he christened his campaign plane Responsibility One . So where's the responsibility now?
Even if the Republican-controlled Senate intelligence committee does proceed with the Phase II inquiry that its chairman, Pat Roberts, promised more than a year ago, it's a good bet that Roberts and the committee will do all that is possible to avoid confronting head-on Bush's misrepresentation of the intelligence. Last spring, Roberts told me that the committee did intend to scrutinize statements from Democrats. So the spin is firmly in place: from party headquarters to friendly columnists to supportive blogs to the intelligence committee. But at least—as the war becomes increasingly unpopular and more evidence of the pre-war chicanery emerges—the spinners are being forced to gyrate ever so quickly. And in an attempt to help Bush duck responsibility for greasing the way to war with false and exaggerated statements, Republicans and conservatives have come to this: Instead of supporting a straightforward accounting of what Bush said to sell the war, they are hiding behind Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. How desperate can get they get?