The White House plan on prewar intelligence: Discredit the Democrats

When all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Published November 10, 2005 5:40PM (EST)

The White House has found itself back in the thick of questions about its use and misuse of prewar intelligence in large part because it chose to discredit a critic rather than confront his questions the first time around. So how will the White House respond this time? By trying to discredit its critics again.

Ken Mehlman delivered a preview of the new White House strategy yesterday when, during a conference call with reporters and a lot of other people, he rattled off a string of old quotes from various Democrats who declared Saddam Hussein dangerous. As CNN reported earlier this week, the White House is arming its surrogates with copies of early statements by Democrats in order to "hit back" against those who are continuing to raise questions about the president's march to war.

The Democrats' charges are plainly working. As we reported earlier today, 57 percent of the respondents in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll say that the president "deliberately misled" the country about the case for war. The president could address that charge head-on. He could go before the American people and explain how discredited claims about Iraq and Niger made it into his State of the Union address. He could explain why he and other administration officials were playing up the story told by a captured al-Qaida member even after the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the story wasn't credible. He could explain why Colin Powell told the United Nations about claims made by an informant called Curveball long after questions had been raised about the accuracy of his information. And he could explain why his administration relied on and passed along information about the loved then loathed then loved again Ahmed Chalabi.

Instead, the White House is doing what it has always done before: Ignore the criticism and attack the critics. Just before yesterday's terrorist attacks in Jordan -- the ones apparently carried out by the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida -- called into question once again the president's strategic choices, Mehlman suggested that Democrats in Congress have been insufficiently proactive in the war on terror. CNN says the White House is arming other surrogates, including Republicans in Congress, with old quotes and other talking points aimed at criticizing the critics.

But in the president's new political reality, coordinated GOP attacks might not be as coordinated as they once were. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Harriet Miers debacle, the Scooter Libby indictment, the Karl Rove embarrassment and the message sent by voters Tuesday, Republicans on Capitol Hill are feeling the need for some distance from the White House. The president will spend part of Veterans Day in Pennsylvania tomorrow, but Sen. Rick Santorum, who is up for reelection next year, will be kept away by a "prior commitment," his office says. Yesterday, a Republican congressman from Arizona said flatly that he'd prefer that the president not campaign for him just now. With a plurality of Americans now saying that they want the Democrats to take control of Congress, Republican senators and House members may be more concerned about saving their own skins than the president's.

Meanwhile, the Democrats press on. As a result of Harry Reid's motion last week to put the Senate into closed session -- the move Bill Frist dismissed as a "stunt" and an "affront" -- Democrats succeeded yesterday in forcing Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to commit to at least a tentative plan for finishing a long-delayed investigation into the administration's use of prewar intelligence. Officials tell the Washington Post that the committee's staff will now begin to collect statements administration officials made before the war and then determine whether intelligence available at the time either supported or undercut them. It sounds like something that should have been done a long time ago -- and it is -- but it isn't what the Republicans originally had in mind. According to the Post, Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts had originally planned to check whether there was any intelligence to support the administration's claims -- and not to bother looking to see if there was also intelligence that undercut them.

"We're not looking to place blame," California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said yesterday. But there was "discrediting information in the mill" about some of the statements the administration was making, she said, and it's time for the American people to know about it.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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