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Bush's Long War with the Truth

By Robert Parry
January 2, 2006

George W. Bush’s dysfunctional relationship with the truth seems to be shaped by two complementary factors – a personal compulsion to say whatever makes him look good at that moment and a permissive environment that rarely holds him accountable for his lies.

How else to explain his endless attempts to rewrite history and reshape his own statements, a pattern on display again in his New Year’s Day comments to reporters in San Antonio, Texas? In that session, as Bush denied misleading the public, he twice again misled the public.

Bush launched into a defense of his honesty by denying that he lied when he told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2004 that “by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order.”

Two years earlier, Bush had approved rules that freed the National Security Agency to use warrantless wiretaps on communications originating in the United States without a court order. But Bush still told the Buffalo audience, “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”

On New Year’s Day 2006, Bush sought to explain those misleading comments by contending. “I was talking about roving wiretaps, I believe, involved in the Patriot Act. This is different from the N.S.A. program.”

However, the context of Bush’s 2004 statement was clear. He broke away from a discussion of the USA Patriot Act to note “by the way” that “any time” a wiretap is needed a court order must be obtained. He was not confining his remarks to “roving wiretaps” under the Patriot Act. [For Bush’s 2004 speech, click here.]

In his New Year's Day remarks, Bush further misled the public, by insisting that his warrantless wiretaps only involved communications from suspicious individuals abroad who were contacting people in the United States, a policy that would be legal. Bush said the eavesdropping was “limited to calls from outside the United States to calls within the United States.”

But Bush’s explanation was at odds with what his own administration had previously admitted to journalists – that the wiretaps also covered calls originating in the United States, which require warrants from a special court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

The White House soon “clarified” Bush’s remarks to acknowledge that his warrantless wiretaps did, indeed, involve communications originating in the United States. [NYT, Jan. 2, 2006]

Though occasionally the news media notes these discrepancies in Bush’s claims, it rarely makes much of an issue out of them and often averts its collective gaze from the deceptions altogether.

Lying & Enabling

For years now, there has been a troubling pattern of Bush lying and U.S. news media enabling his deceptive behavior, a problem especially acute around the War on Terror and the Iraq War, which has now claimed the lives of nearly 2,200 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Yet, even on something as well known as the pre-war chronology, Bush has been allowed to revise the history. In one favorite fictitious account, he became the victim of Hussein’s intransigence, leaving Bush no choice but to invade on March 19, 2003, in search of Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Less than four months later – facing criticism because no WMD was found and U.S. soldiers were dying – Bush began to claim that Hussein had barred United Nations weapons inspectors from Iraq and blocked a non-violent search for WMD. Bush unveiled this rationale for the invasion on July 14, 2003.

“We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power,” Bush said. [See the White House Web site.]

The reality, however, was that Hussein had declared that Iraq no longer possessed WMD and let the U.N. inspectors into Iraq in November 2002 to check. They were allowed to examine any site of their choosing. It was Bush – not Hussein – who forced the U.N. inspectors to pull out in March 2003, so the invasion could proceed.

But this historical revisionism – which Bush has repeated in varying forms ever since – spared him the need to defend his decisions forthrightly. By rewriting the history, he made it more palatable to Americans who don’t like to see themselves as aggressors.

Iraqi Goals

Even before the invasion, Bush pushed the fiction that he went to war only as a “last resort,” rather than as part of a long-held strategy that had a variety of goals including changing regimes in Iraq, projecting U.S. power into the heart of the Middle East, and securing control of Iraq’s vast oil reserves.

For instance, on March 8, 2003, 11 days before invading Iraq, Bush said he still considered military force “a last resort.” He added, “we are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq. But if Saddam Hussein does not disarm peacefully, he will be disarmed by force.”

But former Bush administration insiders, such as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, have since disclosed that Bush long wanted to conquer Iraq, an option that became more attainable amid the American fear and anger that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Those insider claims about Bush's Iraq War premeditation – heatedly denied by the White House – were buttressed in 2005 by the release of the so-called “Downing Street Memo,” which recounted a secret meeting on July 23, 2002, involving British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top national security aides.

At that meeting, Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, described his discussions about Iraq with National Security Council officials in Washington.

Dearlove said, “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The memo added, “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Despite the Downing Street Memo, Bush and his spokesmen continued to deny that the White House was set on a course to war in 2002. On May 16, 2005, White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected the memo’s implication that Bush’s pre-war diplomacy was just a charade.

“The president of the United States, in a very public way, reached out to people across the world, went to the United Nations and tried to resolve this in a diplomatic manner,” McClellan said. “Saddam Hussein was the one, in the end, who chose continued defiance.” [For more on Bush's pretexts for war, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

Media Hypnosis

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Bush’s historical revisionism still has mesmerized even elite elements of the U.S. news media.

During an interview in July 2004, for instance, ABC News anchor Ted Koppel repeated the administration’s “defiance” spin point in explaining why he thought the Iraq invasion was justified.

“It did not make logical sense that Saddam Hussein, whose armies had been defeated once before by the United States and the Coalition, would be prepared to lose control over his country if all he had to do was say, ‘All right, U.N., come on in, check it out,” Koppel told Amy Goodman, host of “Democracy Now.”

This media fear of questioning Bush’s honesty seemed to have reached a point where journalists would rather put on blinders to the facts than face the wrath of Bush’s defenders.

So, as Koppel showed, Bush had good reason to feel confident about his ability to manipulate the Iraq War reality. He even made his phony Hussein-defiance case during an important presidential debate on Sept. 30, 2004.

“I went there [the United Nations] hoping that once and for all the free world would act in concert to get Saddam Hussein to listen to our demands,” Bush said. “They [the Security Council] passed a resolution that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. I believe when an international body speaks, it must mean what it says.

“But Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming. Why should he? He had 16 other resolutions and nothing took place. As a matter of fact, my opponent talks about inspectors. The facts are that he [Hussein] was systematically deceiving the inspectors. That wasn’t going to work. That’s kind of a pre-Sept. 10 mentality, the hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make this world a more peaceful place.”

Virtually every point in this war justification from Bush was wrong. The reality was that Hussein had disarmed. Rather than the U.N. resolutions having no consequence, they apparently had achieved their goal of a WMD-free Iraq. Rather than clueless U.N. inspectors duped by Hussein, the inspectors were not finding WMD because the stockpiles weren’t there. Bush’s post-invasion inspection team didn't find WMD either.

Despite the importance of this setting for Bush’s rendition of these falsehoods – a presidential debate viewed by tens of millions of Americans – most U.S. news outlets did little or no fact-checking on the president’s bogus history.

One of the few exceptions was a story inside the Washington Post that mentioned Bush’s claim that Hussein had “no intention of disarming.” In the middle of a story on various factual issues in the debate, the Post noted that “Iraq asserted in its filing with the United Nations in December 2002 that it had no such weapons, and none has been found.” [Washington Post, Oct. 1, 2004]

But there has been no media drum beat – either in mid-2003 when Bush began revising the history of the U.N. inspections or since then – that drove the point home to Americans that Bush was lying. So his pattern has continued.

Snowing the Times

New revelations about Bush’s secret warrantless wiretaps indicate that the Bush administration undertook another disinformation campaign against the press during Campaign 2004 – to keep the lid on his wiretapping program.

In December 2005, explaining why the New York Times spiked its exclusive wiretap story for a year, executive editor Bill Keller said U.S. officials “assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions.”

But the Bush administration was concealing an important fact – that a number of senior officials had protested the legality of the operation.

In the months after the Times agreed to hold the story, the newspaper “developed a fuller picture of the concerns and misgivings that had been expressed during the life of the program,” Keller said. “It became clear those questions loomed larger within the government than we had previously understood.”

In March 2004, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey refused to sign a recertification of the wiretap program, the Times learned. Comey’s objection caused White House chief of staff Andrew Card and Bush’s counsel Alberto Gonzales to pay a hospital visit on then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery. But Ashcroft also balked at the continuation of the program, which was temporarily suspended while new arrangements were made. [NYT, Jan. 1, 2006]

After disclosure of Comey’s objection on New Year's Day, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a congressional examination of the “significant concern about the legality of the program even at the very highest levels of the Department of Justice.” [NYT, Jan. 2, 2006]

But at a crucial political juncture – before the Nov. 2, 2004, election – the Bush administration kept its secret wiretapping operation under wraps by misleading senior editors of the New York Times. The Times, which had been fooled about Iraq’s WMD, was fooled again.

This tendency to always give George W. Bush the benefit of every doubt raises serious questions about the health of American democracy, which holds that no man is above the law. It’s also hard to imagine any other recent president getting away with so much deception and paying so little price.

Charmed Life

Yet, the lack of accountability has been a hallmark of Bush’s charmed life, from young adulthood through his political career. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

When Bush ran for president in 2000, American political reporters – both conservative and mainstream – tilted that pivotal U.S. election toward him by applying starkly different standards when evaluating the honesty of Democrat Al Gore in comparison with Bush and Dick Cheney.

Reporters went over Gore’s comments with a fine-toothed comb searching for perceived “exaggerations.” Some of Gore’s supposed “lies” actually resulted from erroneous reporting by over-eager journalists, such as misquotes about Gore allegedly claiming credit for discovering the Love Canal toxic waste problem. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore vs. the Media.”]

By contrast, Bush and Cheney were rarely challenged over falsehoods and misstatements, even in the context of their attacks on Gore’s honesty. Cheney, for instance, was given almost a free pass when he falsely portrayed himself as a self-made multimillionaire from his years as chairman of Halliburton Co.

Commenting on his success in the private sector during the vice-presidential debate in 2000, Cheney said “the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.” However, the reality was that Halliburton was a major recipient of government contracts and other largesse, including federal loan guarantees from the Export-Import Bank.

But Cheney was allowed to get away his own resumé -polishing even as he went out on the campaign trail to denounce Gore for supposedly puffing up his resumé. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

This pattern of “protecting Bush-Cheney” intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when the U.S. news media rallied around the embattled president and concealed evidence of Bush’s shaky reaction to the crisis.

Though pool reporters witnessed Bush sitting frozen for seven minutes in a Florida classroom after being told “the nation is under attack,” the national news media shielded that nearly disqualifying behavior from the public for more than two years, until just before the release of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a 2004 documentary that featured the footage.

War Cheerleaders

Major news organizations were equally solicitous of Bush and Cheney during the run-up to war in Iraq. While Fox News and other right-wing outlets were unabashed cheerleaders for the Iraq War, the mainstream media often picked up the pom-poms, too.

It took more than a year after the invasion and the failure to find WMD caches for the New York Times and the Washington Post to run self-critical articles about their lack of skepticism over Bush's war claims.

Nevertheless, the Times’ top editors were still willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt in fall 2004 when his aides offered more false assurances about the legal certainty surrounding Bush’s warrantless wiretap program.

Now Bush's latest comments in San Antonio suggest that he still feels he has the magic, that he still can convince the U.S. press corps and the American people that whatever he says is true no matter how much it diverges from the well-known facts.

One might also presume – given the continued deceptions in his San Antonio remarks – that Bush did not make a New Year’s resolution to stop lying.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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