What is a false statement? If the New York Times, relying on an outside team of meteorologists, reports that there is 100 percent probability of rain in Central Park tomorrow, but tomorrow comes and the sun shines all day, has the newspaper lied to the American people?
The question arises because of an article in today’s paper about a new online tool developed by an organization specializing in “investigative journalism in the public interest.”
In a story by John Cushman, the Times reports that “[s]tudents of how the Bush administration led the nation into the Iraq war can now go online to browse a comprehensive database of top officials’ statements before the invasion, connecting the dots between hundreds of claims, mostly discredited since then, linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda or warning that he possessed forbidden weapons.”
The database has been created by The Center for Public Integrity and can be found online here. It is introduced on the website by a statement declaring that “the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003.” The most visible officials in the administration “made the most false statements, according to this first-ever analysis of the entire body of prewar rhetoric.” On some 532 separate occasions, ranking officials “stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration’s case for war.”
But, reports the Center, “it is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose “Duelfer Report” established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq’s nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.”
What are we to make of all this? After delving into the database and reading the Center’s analysis, the question arises: did the Bush administration “methodically” lie to the public? The Center’s own answer is yes, and the same answer is the impression left by the news pages of the New York Times. Indeed, the paper reports that what the database exposes is akin to the worst political scandal of the American presidency: “Muckrakers may find browsing the site reminiscent of what Richard M. Nixon used to dismissively call ‘wallowing in Watergate.’”
Toward the end of its story, the Times notes that “officials have defended many of their prewar statements as having been based on the intelligence that was available at the time — although there is now evidence that some statements contradicted even the sketchy intelligence of the time.”
But that is an absurd way of putting it, minimizing and obscuring some central facts. Would it not have been more honest for the newspaper of record to recall that however “sketchy” the intelligence, it was not presented by the CIA to the administration as sketchy at all? Rather, it was presented as an iron-clad case, most memorably by CIA director George Tenet as a “a slam-dunk.” And would it not have been more honest to point out that the post-war studies of Iraq’s WMD program, like the Duelfer Report, had the benefit not merely of hindsight but the ability of investigators to roam freely through Iraqi archives and facilities? Back in 2002 and early 2003, when the U.S. was gearing up for war, things looked very differently than they did afterward.
This brings us back to the question which we began. What is a false statement? Did the Bush administration lie when it relied on the CIA’s estimates of Iraq’s WMD program, or is it the Center for Public Integrity that is now doing some lying, with the New York Times brazenly helping them along?