It’s patriotic to ask questions

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 15, 2005

In a Veterans’ Day speech in Pennsylvania, President George W. Bush said this about criticism of the war in Iraq: “While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” Then the president promptly rewrote history.

Mr. Bush’s version goes like this: Before the war, Democrats in Congress and allied intelligence agencies agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; after the war, bipartisan inquiries concluded the administration did not misrepresent that intelligence.

Mr. Bush must be counting on short memories because both claims are inaccurate.

There was general agreement across party lines and among intelligence services that Saddam had tried to develop weapons of mass destruction. But in the months before the war, there were multiple challenges to the accuracy of the administration’s intelligence claims:

The administration claimed that Iraq had imported hightest aluminum tubes for making nuclear bombs; U.S. Energy Department officials believed the tubes were for rockets, not nukes.

The administration claimed that Saddam was trying to import uranium from Niger for its nuclear weapons program; U.N. officials said the Niger documents were forgeries.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations that satellite photos of a chemical weapons site showed deception by the Iraqis; U.N. officials saw “routine” activity.

The president warned that Saddam would turn over WMDs to his al-Qaida allies; the CIA found that Saddam and al-Qaida did not have close ties and that Saddam would not turn over WMDs unless backed into a corner by the United States.

It was partly because of these pre-war weaknesses in the intelligence case that the United Nations refused to approve the U.S.-led invasion.

Now fast-forward to the post-war inquiries into the use of the intelligence. The president said critics “are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments.”

While it is true that the Senate found no evidence of the administration pressuring intelligence agencies to change their conclusions, it put off the related question of whether the administration distorted those conclusions. This was the so-called Phase 2 inquiry on which the White House and Senate Republicans have dragged their feet.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley claimed last week that the bipartisan Silberman-Robb commission concluded that “intelligence wasn’t manipulated.” Actually, Judge Laurence H. Silberman said his commission did not have the authority “to deal with the use of intelligence by policy makers.”

Mr. Bush’s speech and his well-timed use of servicemen and women as props amounted to a transparent attempt to play the patriotism card to silence critics of the war. Supporting the troops and opposing the war are not mutually exclusive. It is the height of patriotism to insist that the president tell the truth to the American people and that the nation learn from past mistakes.

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