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George W. Bush really did lie about WMDs, and his aides are still lying for him

Ari Fleischer’s latest excuses are pathetic.

Ari Fleischer’s Last Day at the White House
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (pictured in 2003) is still lying about his old boss.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Ari Fleischer is a liar. He lies about stuff big and small. And as President George W. Bush’s press secretary during the run-up to the Iraq War, he participated in a large effort to exaggerate and misrepresent what the intelligence community believed about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s (negligible) links to al-Qaeda.

But Fleischer does not like it when people point out that he’s a liar, so he took to Twitter on Tuesday night to mark the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and address what is, in his mind, a major tragedy surrounding the war: the fact that people sometimes point out that he and his friends are liars.

Some might argue the real victims of the war are the nearly 300,000 civilians and combatants killed due to an unnecessary invasion, but Fleischer would rather focus on his and his colleagues’ hurt feelings.

Fine. Let’s focus there. Fleischer is, once again, lying — and lying about the times his colleagues lied. There were numerous occasions when Bush and his advisers made statements that intelligence agencies knew to be false, both about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and about Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent links to al-Qaeda. The term commonly used for making statements that one knows to be false is “lying.”

Mother Jones’s David Corn has been excellent about chronicling specific examples over the years. Here are just a few:

  • In October 2002, Bush said that Saddam Hussein had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons. But as CIA Director George Tenet noted in early 2004, the CIA had informed policymakers it had “no specific information on the types or quantities of weapons agent or stockpiles at Baghdad’s disposal.” The “massive stockpile” was just literally made up.
  • In December 2002, Bush declared, “We do not know whether or not [Iraq] has a nuclear weapon.” That was not what the National Intelligence Estimate said. As Tenet would later testify, “We said that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon and probably would have been unable to make one until 2007 to 2009.” Bush did know whether or not Iraq had a nuclear weapon — and lied and said he didn’t know to hype the threat.
  • On CNN in September 2002, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.” This was precisely the opposite of what nuclear experts at the Energy Department were saying; they argued that not only was it very possible the tubes were for nonnuclear purposes but that it was very likely they were too. Even more dire assessments about the tubes from other agencies were exaggerated by administration officials — and in any case, the claim that they’re “only really suited” for nuclear weapons is just false.
  • On numerous occasions, Vice President Dick Cheney cited a report that 9/11 conspirator Mohamed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer. He said this after the CIA and FBI concluded that this meeting never took place.
  • More generally on the question of Iraq and al-Qaeda, on September 18, 2001, Rice received a memo summarizing intelligence on the relationship, which concluded there was little evidence of links. Nonetheless, Bush continued to claim that Hussein was “a threat because he’s dealing with al-Qaeda” more than a year later.
  • In August 2002, Cheney declared, “Simply stated, there’s no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” But as Corn notes, at that time there was “no confirmed intelligence at this point establishing that Saddam had revived a major WMD operation.” Gen. Anthony Zinni, who had heard the same intelligence and attended Cheney’s speech, would later say in a documentary, “It was a total shock. I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this, you know? In doing work with the CIA on Iraq WMD, through all the briefings I heard at Langley, I never saw one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing program.”

The Bush administration on numerous occasions exaggerated or outright fabricated conclusions from intelligence in its public statements. Bush really did lie, and people really did die as a result of the war those lies were meant to build a case for. Those are the facts.

Fleischer’s excuse doesn’t hold water

Fleischer does not address these concrete instances in which the administration lied. Instead, he outsources his analysis to the Robb-Silberman Commission, a bipartisan group empaneled by Bush in 2004 to figure out what went wrong in the intelligence community’s assessment of Iraq’s biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons capabilities.

The commission did conclude that the CIA and other intelligence agencies made numerous mistakes in the run-up to the war. This is uncontroversial. While some noble dissenters, like the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and technical nuclear weapons experts at the Department of Energy, pushed back on the prevailing view in the intelligence community, the community as a whole clearly failed and vastly overestimated the likelihood that biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs existed.

But the commission was not allowed under its mandate to consider whether political actors misused or lied about the intelligence they received. “We were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received from the Intelligence Community,” the report clearly states. “Accordingly, while we interviewed a host of current and former policymakers during the course of our investigation, the purpose of those interviews was to learn about how the Intelligence Community reached and communicated its judgments about Iraq’s weapons programs — not to review how policymakers subsequently used that information.”

That means the report did not cover the Bush administration’s decision to ignore warnings about fabricated documents meant to suggest that Iraq sought uranium from Niger. In his State of the Union address in 2003, Bush stated, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” despite the fact that, as the Washington Post’s Peter Eisner reported, “Dozens of interviews with current and former intelligence officials and policymakers in the United States, Britain, France and Italy show that the Bush administration disregarded key information available at the time showing that the Iraq-Niger claim was highly questionable.”

Eisner added, “In February 2002, the CIA received the verbatim text of one of the documents, filled with errors easily identifiable through a simple Internet search, the interviews show. Many low- and mid-level intelligence officials were already skeptical that Iraq was in pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

The Robb-Silberman report also ignored institutions like the Office of Special Plans, a group at the Defense Department set up by Undersecretary Douglas Feith to feed raw, unanalyzed intelligence to senior policymakers. While more focused on alleged links between Iraq and al-Qaeda than WMDs, the OSP “developed, produced and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al-Qaeda relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the intelligence community, to senior decision-makers,” according to a later report by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

What’s more, while the report found no evidence of direct political pressure for intelligence community members to change conclusions, it nonetheless suggests that the prevailing prewar climate altered judgments of intelligence analysts.

An analyst at the Department of Energy told the commission, “DOE did not want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn’t reconstituting.” The atmosphere of impending war, the commission continues, “contributed to the too-ready willingness to accept dubious information as supporting the conventional wisdom and to an unwillingness even to consider the possibility that the conventional wisdom was wrong.”

Furthermore, as explored in the commission report, part of the failure within the intelligence community was a failure of senior appointed officials like George Tenet, not of their subordinates. Two senior CIA officials — James L. Pavitt, former head of clandestine operations, and Tyler Drumheller, former head of the CIA’s Europe division — said that there was massive internal debate about whether to trust “Curveball,” the key source for claims about bioweapons in Iraq.

Curveball has since admitted to fabricating his whole story, but Pavitt and Drumheller insist that they and many others in the CIA had issued warnings before the war that he should not be trusted. Tenet and his No. 2 at the CIA, John McLaughlin, did not heed those warnings and said publicly that they had received no such warnings. “They know what the truth is,” Drumheller told the Los Angeles Times.

Was Tenet a Bush administration official, and thus blameless under Fleischer’s account, or an intelligence community figure, and thus blameworthy? I’d argue he was both, and his eagerness to ignore warnings from subordinates is suggestive of a broader problem in which the Bush administration ignored evidence that did not serve the purpose of building a case for war.

It is time to apologize

One of the most galling things about the 16 years since the US decided to destroy Iraq is the failure of any major policymakers, or even ancillary policymakers, to apologize for their choice to launch a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Even former Secretary of State Colin Powell, commonly thought to be one of the more even-keeled members of the Bush administration, has insisted that the decision to invade was just, based on the intelligence he had. Bush speechwriter David Frum, who has recently enjoyed a rehabilitated reputation as someone who agrees with Donald Trump on basically everything but nonetheless dislikes him, has accused Iraqis of choosing to be slaughtered after the invasion.

To engage in world politics is to weigh in on matters of life and death. Policymakers will get things wrong and they will cause people to lose their lives. But engagement in world politics does not necessitate lying to the American people and the world at large. And it does not require the vile score-settling posture that Bush administration veterans have chosen to take.

Fleischer and his friends got away with it, and they all have lucrative careers now. The least they could do is apologize to the thousands of Iraqis whose fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters were killed. To instead mark the anniversary of a decision that ruined their lives with nonsensical ass-covering isn’t just ridiculous. It’s morally obscene.