Volume 75, Number 27 | November 23 - 29, 2005

Talking Point

Point man on W.M.D. claims skilled at doublespeak

By Joshua Micah Marshall

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley has now been tapped as the White House’s chief point man for pushing back against Democratic charges that President Bush and other senior administration officials exaggerated threats, lied to or otherwise misled the American people in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2002 and early 2003.

It’s a logical role, I suppose, for the president’s chief foreign policy adviser. But it’s one the White House may actually grow to regret. Because Hadley turns out to be a poster boy for the particular sort of doublespeak upon which most of the White House’s current defense rests.

Allow me to explain.

The White House has been all over the news in recent weeks claiming that both the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the report of the presidentially appointed Silbermann-Robb commission exonerate them from any charges of manipulating prewar intelligence or attempting to deceive the American people.

But of course neither investigation said any such thing.

Indeed, they couldn’t. Because it was a question neither was allowed to investigate.

The White House is hanging its case on a slippery and quite misleading distinction. The two major investigations of the W.M.D. debacle found little if any evidence that the White House pressured analysts to alter their analytic judgments or estimates of Iraqi W.M.D. capacity. But neither investigation was allowed to examine how the White House used the analyses it got from the C.I.A. or elsewhere in the intelligence community.

As we’ll see in a moment, you don’t really need to pressure analysts to change their reports if you all but ignore those reports when making your case to the public.

Which brings us back to Steve Hadley.

Twice during the lead-up to war, Hadley pushed the C.I.A. to sign off on allowing Bush to use the Niger uranium story in high-profile speeches dramatizing the danger Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. The first instance was in October 2002, for a speech the president was to give in Cincinnati. That time he failed. The second case was for the 2003 State of the Union address, in which case he succeeded in inserting a modified version of the claim.

Those essential facts aren’t even in dispute.

In the summer of 2003, in the midst of the controversy over Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger and the infamous “16 words,” Hadley stepped forward with an awkwardly choreographed apology to the president for allowing the claim into the 2003 State of the Union address.

“The high standards the president set were not met,” said Hadley.

In October 2002, the C.I.A. had sent two separate memos to Hadley and his staff expressing doubts about Niger claims and arguing the president should not publicly make such an unsubstantiated claim. When those memos didn’t get the White House’s attention, then-C.I.A. Director George Tenet called Hadley directly to insist. That nixed Niger from the October 2002 speech. But Hadley claimed that by January 2003 he had forgotten all about that tussle with the C.I.A. and signed off on putting it in the State of the Union address.

This little charade never completely cleared up why, having allegedly forgotten the episode from October, Hadley and his staff again proceeded to fight with the C.I.A.’s Alan Foley over whether they could get Niger into the State of the Union address.

But let’s set that aside and focus on the pattern this illustrates and the difference between what the C.I.A. reports and what the White House does with the information.

You have, on the one hand, the C.I.A.’s analysis: that the Niger claim was unsubstantiated and not credible.

Then, on the other hand, you have what Hadley and the White House wanted to do with it: have the president level the charge in a high-profile speech with no indication the president’s intel advisers doubted it was true.

So, C.I.A.: claim not credible. White House: Tell public the story is true.

I think this pretty nicely captures the distinction between pressuring analysts to change their judgments and what the president and his chief advisers do with the intelligence.

This is far from the only instance of White House bamboozlement or misinformation on Iraqi W.M.D.’s or ties to terrorism. But it seems to capture the essential point with great clarity. And with Hadley making so many press appearances defending the White House, claiming it’s been exonerated and mauling its critics, it shouldn’t be hard to ask him just what happened in these two cases.

Why did Hadley twice fight to get the C.I.A. to sign off on the president’s making a claim that it didn’t think was true?

Someone should ask him.

No time like the present.

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