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December 04, 2007

What Did the President Know, and When Did He Know It?
Posted by Michael Cohen

As Greg Sargent points out over at TPM there is a serious and pretty important contradiction in the White House spin about the NIE.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday:

The assessment, under preparation for more than 18 months, was completed on Tuesday and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were briefed on Wednesday, intelligence officials said. Hadley said Bush first learned in August or September about intelligence indicating Iran had halted its weapons program and was advised it would take time to evaluate.

And yet, here is what Bush said today in his press conference:

He denied that he knew about the new assessment before his Oct. 17 remarks, saying he was briefed on the latest NIE only last week. He said the director of national intelligence, John M. McConnell, informed him in August that the intelligence community had "some new information" about Iran's program. "He didn't tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze."

Now as Ilan points out, this is absurd - how could the director of NIE not mention to the President a piece of blockbuster intelligence like Iraq has stopped work on its nuclear program? Either the President is lying or McConnell should be fired. I'd be good with both conclusions.

But here's the other question; did Dick Cheney really not know about this alternative assessment on Iran's nuclear program? That seems unfathomable to me considering his reputation for intelligence accumulation. Indeed there is evidence that his office fought tooth and nail to keep this negative assessment out of the NIE. If he did know, then the VEEP, if not a liar, certainly is guilty of pretty openly misleading the American people. Maybe someone at the Post could follow up with the Veep's office about this.


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They're all lying. It's as natural as breathing for them, as it is for most government officials and political types. They believe the lying is often appropriate, and is just part of their jobs. However, they probably don't use the unpleasant word "lie" when discussing their lies among themselves, but prefer the usual political euphemisms such as "spin", "frame", and "play".

Going back to 1960, we have had Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush in the White House. All were inveterate liars and tale-spinning fabulists except for Carter and Ford, whose untruths were kept to a decent minimum.

As has been noted at least since the time of Socrates, a noisy and abundant market in untruth is just one of the drawbacks of democracy, where both personal power and policy achievements depend heavily on the art of persuasion in the public sphere, and the frequent daily benefits of the useful lie are just too tempting for all but the most discursively ascetic to resist.

Indeed what seems to distinguish politicians from normal people is that politicians are uniquely sanguine about wallowing in this epistemic muck, and some even relish the task. In a way they're heroes. I know I couldn't last for very long in their world of bullshit without going completely crazy.

President Bush, as a creature of the permanent campaign, sought in today's press conference to meet one of the permanent campaign's most important requirements. This is message discipline.

In American campaign politics there is hardly any charge more dreaded than the accusation that one has "flip-flopped." Positions must taken may be modified incrementally over time, or they may simply cease to be restated, but a straightforward change of position by a campaigning politician is a rare thing. It exposes the politician to charges of inconsistency, wishy-washiness, opportunism and other shifty-sounding unsatisfactory traits of temperament and character. George Bush is, as he has been since he entered politics and will be until his retirement, a campaigning politician.

In this he is more like other modern politicians than he is different, but on this subject all he sought to do today was maintain the consistency of his message in a way that did not suggest he was ignoring an intelligence assessment that is leading all the news. He did not succeed; the last question of the press conference, about the credibility gap that he faces now, was just left hanging. Most likely, Bush did know about the just-released NIE weeks in advance, tried to adjust his message on Iran incrementally before it came out, and when asked about it today simply lied -- perhaps in the expectation, which up to now has often been well-justified, that the White House press corps wouldn't track a story like this for very long. His purpose in doing so was simply, without deviating from the message discipline that by now must be second nature to him, to attempt to make a bad story go away. We'll see if it does.

Incidentally, the Gareth Porter story linked to here alleges that the NIE was held up for many months because administration officials sought to remove dissenting views from it. In the event, the assessments of the report released this week were much farther from administration statements on Iran than anyone thought possible in an NIE. That's a puzzle right there; suddenly the dissenting views or something like them became the intelligence community's consensus. How did that happen?

The most obvious explanation is recent access to new sources of information about Iran's nuclear programs, and that may even be the correct explanation. But it is passing strange that an NIE alleged to have been kept under wraps because administration officials were unhappy with its dissenting -- i.e. minority -- views, should when released express high confidence in consensus findings that directly contradict repeated statements of the President and Vice President on a subject of great importance.

I can't remember anything like this happening before, certainly not recently.

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