They’re baaack

Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus attempt to pick at the Bush administration’s defense of its handling of pre-war intelligence and its statements about what that intelligence showed. But they succeed only in showing that the attacks on Bush in these regards are meritless and hypocritcal.

Milbank and Pincus concede the essential point in their third paragraph:

The administration’s overarching point is true: Intelligence agencies overwhelmingly believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and very few members of Congress from either party were skeptical about this belief before the war began in 2003. Indeed, top lawmakers in both parties were emphatic and certain in their public statements.

If that’s true, two questions arise: (a) what’s all the fuss about and (b) why didn’t Milbank and Pincus write this before, as the “Bush lied” meme went essentially unchallenged for weeks.

Milbank and Pincus devote most of the rest of the article to arguing that two sub-claims made by the Bush administration are “not wholly accurate.” The first is the claim by Stephen Hadley that “those people who have looked at that issue [manipulation of intelligence], some committees on the Hill in Congress, and also the Silberman-Robb Commission, have concluded it did not happen.” Milbank and Pincus note that these bodies concluded only that that the administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to change their conclusions, not that the administration did not exaggerate these conclusions. However, the two Postmen have already conceded that the intelligence agencies concluded that Saddam clearly had WMD. So how did President Bush, in making this same claim, exaggerate their conclusions? Milbank and Pincus imply that this could have happened through the omission of caveats and dissenting opinions. But if the intelligence was “overwhelming,” it would have made no sense to discuss caveats and dissenting opinions. The administration lied or misled only if it affirmatively stated that there were no caveats or dissents, which (as far as appears) it never did.

Milbank and Pincus also want to quibble with President Bush’s claim that Democrats in the House and Senate had access to the same intelligence he did. They note that members of Congress do not have access to the president’s daily brief. But Bush didn’t claim that the Dems received every piece of paper Bush saw — he merely said they had access to the same intelligence. Milbank and Pincus do not suggest that the daily brief contained anything materially different from what Congress had access to. They do point out that Congress didn’t get the National Intelligence Estimate (summarizing the intelligence community’s views about the threat from Iraq) until “just days before the vote to authorize the use of force in that country.” But how does this rebut Bush’s statement about what Congress had access to? Are the Dems who are feeding Milbank and Pincus this talking point claiming that they didn’t have time to read the report, which consisted of a mere 92 pages? What was on their plates that was more important?

Milbank and Pincus also complain that some of the “doubts” expressed in the NIE either were not cleared for public disclosure until the last minute or were not cleared at all. But the legislators still had the right to consider this material when they voted; indeed if they credited those doubts, they had an obligation to do so. As noted, though, the intelligence community overwhelmingly thought that Saddam possessed WMD.

To their credit, Milbank and Pincus ultimately seem underwhelmed by the efforts of hypocritical, gutless, and/or lazy Dems to explain away their vote to go to war. But it’s unfortunate that they give voice to these lame explanations and, in doing so, suggest that the Bush administration is being less than honest in defending itself.

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