WHY DID CHUCK HAGEL CALL THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION A BUNCH OF LIARS?

Perhaps it might have occurred to you that some of what is written here about George W. Bush’s veracity (vel non) might have some slight taint of partisan bias. Funny, the same thing had occurred to me. So I’m always looking for ways to conduct reality checks.

Consider, then, this story from today’s New York Times

September 28, 2002

Rumsfeld Says U.S. Has ‘Bulletproof’ Evidence of Iraq’s Links to Al Qaeda

By ERIC SCHMITT

ATLANTA, Sept. 27 – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that American intelligence had “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld said that recently declassified intelligence reports about suspected ties between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government, including the presence of senior members of Al Qaeda in Baghdad in “recent periods,” were “factual” and “exactly accurate.”

His comments today were the latest in a string of statements this week by senior administration officials – including Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman – that seemed to raise the prospects of new proof linking Al Qaeda and Iraq.

But in each case, the officials have offered no details to back up the assertions. Mr. Rumsfeld said today that doing so would jeopardize the lives of spies and dry up sources of other information. He also acknowledged that the information he described was probably not strong enough to hold up in an American court.

“If our quest is for proof positive, we probably will be left somewhat unfulfilled,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon here. “We’re not going to have everything beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The statements this week by senior administration officials have reopened a debate over the extent to which Iraq has ties to Al Qaeda. The administration had set aside serious efforts to prove this link in favor of a strategy that focused on what it contends is the threat from Iraq posed by weapons of mass destruction.

Administration officials say there is still no evidence to link Mr. Hussein directly to the attacks on Sept. 11 in the United States. Some intelligence and law enforcement officials said today, in addition, that there was little new in what Mr. Rumsfeld and others were describing.

But the new statements of suspected links between Al Qaeda and Iraq happen to come at a time when the administration is trying to muster support both on Capitol Hill and at the United Nations for a resolution backing military action against Iraq, should Mr. Bush chose that path.

Mr. Bush on Wednesday talked about the danger “that Al Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam’s madness.”

On Wednesday night, Ms. Rice said that “there are some Al Qaeda personnel who found refuge in Baghdad” after the American air campaign in Afghanistan began last October. She also said high-ranking prisoners at the United States Naval Station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had told investigators that Iraq had provided some training to Al Qaeda in developing chemical weapons.

On Thursday, Mr. Rumsfeld said that contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq had increased since 1998. “We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of Al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad,” he said. “We have what we consider to be very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts going back a decade, and of possible chemical- and biological-agent training.”

But Mr. Rumsfeld added that the report of training in chemical and biological agents came from only one source. Other intelligence supports that report, but comes from less-reliable sources, officials said.

Even as Mr. Rumsfeld appeared to be offering new proof, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met significant skepticism on Thursday from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“To say, `Yes, I know there is evidence there, but I don’t want to tell you any more about it,’ that does not encourage any of us,” said Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. “Nor does it give the American public a heck of a lot of faith that, in fact, what anyone is saying is true.”

[SNIP]

So a Republican Senator is not convinced that, on a matter of utmost national importance, “what anyone is saying is true,” where “anyone” includes the President and his top advisors. And he’s prepared to say so out loud.

[So is Josh Marshall, with some convincing detail; but that’s no surprise. Josh does remind us that the atrocity stories that helped build support for the Gulf War turned out to have been fabricated; he doesn’t mention my favorite detail, which is that the story about the babies torn from their incubators and left to die was made up by the PR firm of Hill & Knowlton, with the daugher of the Kuwaiti ambassador presented to a credulous press as a nurse who had witnessed it all.]

Not knowing much about Hagel, it’s hard for me to guess why he said what he said. He’s no dove in general; he supported withdrawal from the ABM treaty, for example. But he has taken a dovish position on attacking Iraq. It seems unlikely that he’s angling for Democratic votes in the most Republican state in the Union. Even if the Iraqi business goes sour, he’s not going to get any thanks from Republicans for having opposed it; loyalty matters more to Republican voters than pescience. Maybe he’s just an old-fashioned Plains State isolationist. Perhaps he got crossways with Bush on a judgeship or a dam or a regional administrator.

But whatever the motive, he was prepared to challenge Bush’s veracity in public. And that challenge hasn’t, as of this writing, provoked much of a fuss: certainly nothing like what happened after Tom Daschle finally snapped back at the Bush’s insults to the patriotism of the Democrats in Congress. (The fuss would have been much bigger if Hagel had accused Bush of corruption or sexual misconduct or illicit drug use; that just testifies to the pervasive cynicism of reporters, politicians, and voters about the standards of veracity in public life.)

One possible explanation: Bush and his crew are in fact habitual liars — or worse, people so indifferent to truth and falsehood that they doesn’t even bother to check, but just make it up as they go along — and are known in Washington to be so. Again, I’m not claiming this as some great revelation; that’s what I’ve thought ever since the campaign, and especially the recount struggle. But it’s nice to have confirmation from a source whose partisan biases, at least, aren’t the same as mine.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com