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Lying Along the Potomac

What a year for George W. Bush: war, occupation, the capture of Saddam Hussein, more tax cuts, Medicare legislation, a secret Thanksgiving Day visit to Baghdad. And through it all, he assaulted the truth. In fact, he achieved key goals by relying on false assertions. So as he enters the home stretch of his first (or final) term, let’s review — in loose chronological order — 10 significant falsehoods that Bush wielded this year.

1 After Bush unveiled a new package of proposed tax cuts in January, he was again blasted for concocting a plan tilted toward the rich. Defending his offering, he proclaimed, “These tax reductions will bring real and immediate benefits to middle-income Americans. Ninety-two million Americans will keep an average of $1,083 more of their own money.” Yet the Tax Policy Center found that nearly 80 percent of tax filers would receive less than $1,083, and almost half would pocket less than $100. The truly average taxpayer would receive about $265. Bush was using the word “average” in a flimflam fashion, for the large amounts well-to-do taxpayers would receive greatly inflated the average. His claim was akin to saying that if a street had nine households led by unemployed individuals but one with an earner making a million dollars, the average income of the families on the block was $100,000. The $1,083 figure was mathematically true, but it was slyly designed to create a false impression that average Americans would get much more from his tax breaks than they would.

2 Months after his January State of the Union address, Bush received flak for having maintained in that speech that Saddam Hussein had been shopping for uranium in Africa. And the White House conceded it should not have permitted that line to stay in the speech. But Bush had told a more important whopper in that address. He noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency “confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program.” This was lying by omission, for he left out the fact that the IAEA had also reported that it had dismantled this nuclear program. And the day before Bush’s speech, IAEA inspectors had said there were no new signs of a vigorous nuclear weapons program in Iraq. Bush neglected to mention that finding.

3 On February 7, Bush asserted that Iraq was “harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior al Qaeda terrorist planner.” He was referring to a terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Two days earlier, in a briefing to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell had pointed to Zarqawi as something of a middle-man between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But the bin Laden–to–Zarqawi–to–Hussein link was challenged by U.S. intelligence officials, who told reporters no solid evidence substantiated the allegation. Whatever the truth of Powell’s charge, he had not said that Zarqawi was a high-ranking al Qaeda officer. That did stop Bush from describing Zarqawi as such and overstating an overstatement.

4 On March 17, explaining his decision to launch an elective war, Bush said, “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Leaves no doubt. Not according to government officials who after the fall of Baghdad reviewed the prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The House intelligence committee — run by Representative Porter Goss, a Republican and a former CIA case officer — declared the intelligence had been outdated, “circumstantial” and “fragmentary” and had contained “too many uncertainties.” Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said the intelligence had been shoddy and inconclusive. David Kay, the chief weapons hunter for the Bush administration, told Congress that the prewar intelligence on WMDs was “bounded by large uncertainties and had to be heavily caveated.” That is, the prewar intelligence did not leave “no doubt” about Iraq’s supposed WMDs.

5 On May 1, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush stood beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” That was more wishful thinking than a lie. But he also said, “No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more.” That was a disingenuous remark. There was (and still is) no evidence Iraq had possessed WMDs that could be handed to terrorists. And Bush boasted, “We have removed an ally of al Qaeda” — even though there was no proof Hussein had maintained an operational collaboration with al Qaeda. (During an October 28 press conference, Bush claimed that the crew of the Lincoln, not the White House, had been responsible for the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Yet subsequent news reports disclosed the White House had produced the banner.)

6 “We found the weapons of mass destruction.” Bush issued this triumphant — and hyperbolic — remark in late May 2003, during an interview with Polish television. He was referring to two tractor-trailers obtained by U.S. forces in Iraq. The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded these vehicles had to be mobile bioweapons plants because there were no other explanations. Yet they found not a trace of biological agents on either. (And no bioweapons facility can be scrubbed completely clean.) After their report was released, it turned out that State Department analysts, the DIA’s own engineering experts and non-government experts did not concur with the CIA’s and DIA’s conclusion. Some of these skeptics accepted the explanation of Iraqis who claimed the trucks were built to produce hydrogen for weather balloons. In later months, the Bush administration produced no further information to support its original claim. In fact, Bush and his aides generally stopped talking about the trailers.

7 In July, while dealing with the uranium-from-Africa controversy, Bush tossed out a completely false rationale for the war: “We gave [Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.” Not so. Hussein had permitted the U.N. inspector to enter Iraq and examine sites there. Hussein’s overall record of cooperation with the inspectors had been mixed. But he had not banned the inspectors. That was not the reason for the war.

8 In early August, before departing for a monthlong “working” vacation, Bush said, “We’re doing everything we can to protect the homeland.” That was a reassuring statement, but not an accurate one. His administration has not enhanced security at chemical plants. It has provided less than one-third of the funds needed to beef up security at port authorities. According to a Council on Foreign Relations task-force report, the country will fall $98.4 billion short on funding for emergency responders over the next five years. And after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure compelling airlines to screen cargo carried by passenger airliners, the White House blocked the legislation in the Senate. This is hardly doing “everything we can.”

9 In early September, Bush claimed his education budget “for next year boosts funding for elementary and secondary education to $53.1 billion . . . In other words, we understand that resources need to flow to help solve the problems.” His math was way off. Bush’s proposed elementary and secondary education budget for the coming year was $34.9 billion, not $53.1 billion, according to his own Department of Education. Moreover, there was no “boost” in the elementary and secondary education budget. These programs received $35.8 billion in 2003. Bush’s 2004 budget proposed to cut that by nearly a billion dollars.

10 In a November speech, Bush credited President Ronald Reagan for having energized a worldwide movement for democracy that led to “new democracies in Latin America” and to the South Africa government’s 1990 release of Nelson Mandela. While Reagan had pushed for democracy in the Soviet bloc, he did the opposite elsewhere. His administration cozied up to the fascistic junta of Argentina and an El Salvador military that massacred peasants. It also normalized relations with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. As for South Africa, Reagan defended the racist regime by saying that South Africa had “eliminated” segregation — at a time when blacks there were not allowed to vote or to mix with whites in many public facilities. When Congress overwhelming passed bipartisan legislation to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, Reagan vetoed the bill.

Bush has paid little, if any, political price for most of his self-serving untruths. Referring to those missing WMDs in Iraq, Bush remarked in July, “When it’s all said and done, the facts will show the world the truth.” Americans who do care about truth in government can hope that in this general regard Bush is indeed correct.

David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown) and edits www.bushlies.com.