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SCOT LEHIGH

Truth, lies, and intelligence

YOU KNOW Dick Cheney is feeling the heat when he hides behind John McCain.

This week, the man lobbying to exempt the CIA from Senator McCain's antitorture amendment used the popular Arizona senator as a shield against renewed questions about the administration's characterization of prewar intelligence.

''The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped, or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false," Cheney said in a Monday speech. ''Senator McCain put it best: 'It is a lie to say that the president lied to the American people.' "

At a press availability later that day, US Senator John Kerry shied away from the term lie. ''I've never used that word," Kerry said. ''I've said they misled America. . . . They are still misleading America."

Certainly much that wouldn't necessarily fit the definition of a lie would undoubtedly fall into the category of a misleading, irresponsible, or reckless use of intelligence in pursuit of a predetermined conclusion. And of that, this administration is surely guilty.

The Massachusetts senator underscored this important point: The vice president was wrong in suggesting that Congress had access to the same intelligence as the administration.

''That is just plain flat not true," said Kerry, stepping through five instances where Congress hadn't been informed of intelligence agency doubts on key administration claims about Iraq.

Bush's now discredited assertion in his January 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Niger -- an assertion a dubious CIA had previously warned the White House not to make -- is well known.

To revisit two others: Cheney himself claimed several times that lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service that spring in Prague. Cheney repeated that claim in a Sept. 8, 2002, appearance on ''Meet the Press," insisting it was credible, and again in January of 2004. We now know that the CIA raised doubts about such a meeting in both June of 2002 and January of 2003.

Several times in September of 2002, Bush, citing information from the British government, said Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes.

''They made that statement, and it was influential to us, without clearing it with the CIA, which mistrusted the source so much that they refused to include it in the [October 2002] national intelligence estimate," Kerry noted. ''Congress was not told that."

Certainly if Republicans believed the record would vindicate the administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee wouldn't have dragged its feet for so long on examining how administration figures used prewar intelligence. Only because of shrewd parliamentary maneuvering by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has the committee's dilatory Republican chairman finally been forced to make that a priority.

To date, some of the best work on the use of prewar intelligence has been done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank. Its painstaking study, from January 2004, compared what the various intelligence agencies were estimating about Iraq in the runup to the war to what administration officials were saying.

The authors arrived at this conclusion: ''Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon programs and ballistic missile programs."

In his Monday speech, Cheney labeled ''dishonest and reprehensible" the suggestion ''that the president of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence."

But in a finding that speaks to that very point, the Carnegie Endowment report offered a detailed examination of the way the administration officials distorted intelligence by ''the wholesale dropping of caveats, probabilities, and expressions of uncertainty present in intelligence assessments" from their public statements.

In an interview this week, Joseph Cirincione, the endowment's director for nonproliferation and the lead author of that important study, made the same essential point that Kerry did on Monday.

''We don't use the word 'lie' because it is hard to prove intent or the knowledge of the individual at the time, but it is clear that senior administration officials systematically misled the Congress and the American public about the nature and the immediacy of the threat," he said.

No matter how many speeches Cheney and Bush give, no matter how hard they deflect or whom they try to blame or hide behind, that's a truth they can't escape.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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