The media has to be tougher on the president's tendency to dissemble about his policies, and then again when he's caught -- especially when it comes to war.
On Election Night, Republican candidates backed by President Bush won a resounding victory across the country. Facing a transformed political landscape, with a newly invigorated president and a war with Iraq looming, it’s time to ask a crucial question: Will the media finally hold the president and his staff accountable for their repeated evasions and dissembling?
In Washington, the maxim used to be that you get in trouble not by lying, but by trying to cover up the lie when you get caught. Bush has turned this tired piece of conventional wisdom on its head, running an administration that almost always tries to cover its tracks with misinformation rather than admit to an error or a lie — and often gets away with it.
Will reporters let the president continue this strategy in the second half of his term, especially when it comes to war with Iraq? The evidence isn’t reassuring.
So far, Bush has been protected by his reputation for honesty, the media’s distaste for complex policy issues and — since Sept. 11 — his status as a wartime president. As a result, the administration has gotten a pass when it has used deceptive, even dishonest arguments to sell key pieces of its agenda, most notably the tax cut and Bush’s plan to create private Social Security accounts. And even when serious questions about its arguments have been raised, the White House has dissembled wildly rather than admit mistakes or mendacity.
Take Bush’s false claim to have publicly listed three exceptions during the campaign under which budget deficits would be acceptable. As revenues declined last year and deficits appeared imminent, the president claimed the following to try to protect himself from criticism: “As I said in Chicago during the campaign, when asked about should the government ever deficit spend, I said only under these circumstances should government deficit spend: if there is a national emergency, if there is a recession, or if there’s a war.”
Bush repeated this at least 11 separate times (and told his “trifecta” joke based on it even more often). Yet there is no record of Bush ever saying what he claims during the campaign in Chicago or anywhere else, as Jonathan Chait first reported in the New Republic. After much investigation, it was discovered that Vice President Al Gore listed the exceptions during the campaign, not Bush. A Bush advisor did indicate at the time that he also supported them, but the White House has not produced any evidence to substantiate Bush’s Chicago story despite numerous requests from the press. The administration’s only substantive response was to direct a Washington Post reporter to two GOP primary debates and a post-election appearance by Bush, none of which support the claim.
Then, in July, the Office of Management and Budget issued a press release that severely underestimated the percentage decline in the 10-year federal budget surplus caused by the Bush tax cut (apparently an inadvertent error). Rather than admit its mistake publicly, OMB deleted the error and posted an altered version of the release (Adobe PDF file) on its Web site with no indication that it had been changed. After my initial report on this was picked up by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, OMB was finally forced to add a disclosure to the release.
Now, with matters far more grave at stake in the debate over Iraq, the administration has been no less brazen in its dishonesty. At a Sept. 7 appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush said, “I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied — finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic — the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], that they were six months away from developing a [nuclear] weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.”
An IAEA report in 1998 (around the time that inspectors were “finally denied access”) did say Iraq was six to 24 months away from developing a weapon before the Gulf War in 1991, but its efforts to produce weapons-grade uranium were largely crippled by the war and subsequent inspection regime. It appears Bush was referring to that estimate to underscore the point that Iraq has already come close to developing nuclear weapons and will try to do so again.
However, he should have been clearer about when that capacity was discovered. By tying the pre-Gulf War estimate to when inspectors were “finally denied access,” Bush appears to imply that IAEA’s conclusion that Iraq was “six months away from developing a weapon” dated from 1998, rather than 1991. The IAEA summary of the report he is referring to in fact stated that as of 1998 it “has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material.”
Rather than clarifying the point appropriately, Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan claimed the president was referring to an IAEA report published in 1991 (the organization says it did not issue such a report that year) and pointed a Washington Times reporter to two newspaper stories that do not corroborate Bush’s claim.
The White House shifted gears several weeks later, telling a Washington Post reporter that Bush was “imprecise” and that his statement was based on U.S. intelligence. Then, just two days after that story was published, press secretary Ari Fleischer tried a third approach, claiming that “it was in fact the International Institute for Strategic Studies that issued the report concluding that Iraq could develop nuclear weapons in as few as six months.”
But the IISS report Fleischer finally settled on as the president’s source was actually released on Sept. 9, 2002, two days after Bush’s original statement and years after inspectors were “finally denied access.” And if the president was briefed about the report in advance, he would have been told that it does not mention any such six-month estimate. An IISS summary does state that Iraq “could … assemble nuclear weapons within months if fissile material from foreign sources were obtained,” but this conditional assessment of the situation today was certainly not the basis for Bush’s claims in his press conference with Blair.
Nonetheless, Fleischer attacked the Post with righteous indignation. “The source may be different, but the underlying fact remains the same, despite the story’s declaration of the president’s argument, once again, as ‘dubious, if not wrong,’” he wrote. “It is The Post’s reporting that is dubious, if not wrong.”
This dissembling is a betrayal of Bush’s promise to restore honor and dignity to the White House. With so much at stake domestically and abroad, it’s time to hold the president and his administration to a higher standard of truth.
Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan. More Brendan Nyhan.
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