On Iraq, critics touch a White House nerve

The Bush administration pushes back against a critique of the president's attacks.

Published November 14, 2005 6:02PM (EST)

When George W. Bush defended himself Friday against charges of manipulating prewar intelligence by insisting that his critics had "the same" intelligence he had, we explained that the president wasn't exactly telling the truth. At the time they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, Democrats, by and large, had access to whatever intelligence the White House had chosen to give them. And the White House hadn't chosen to give them intelligence that called into question some of the more terrifying claims the administration was making.

Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus made much the same point in an analysis that ran on the front page of the Washington Post Saturday. The president and his aides, they explained, "had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material."

To varying degrees, papers like the Post have been fact-checking the president like this for years. And over the years, the White House has generally responded by ignoring the fine print and pushing forward with the big-picture spin. Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. John Kerry flip-flopped on Iraq. And if the president was wrong about WMD in Iraq, well, so was everyone else. But with the president's reputation for honesty tanking almost as quickly as his approval ratings, saying it -- even saying it again and again and again and again -- doesn't make it so anymore.

So rather than ignoring critiques like those in the Post Saturday, the White House seems to understand now that it has to take them on. Yesterday, it did just that, posting on the White House Web site a document titled "Setting the Record Straight: The Washington Post on Pre-War Intelligence." But as you might expect by now, the White House push-back doesn't do much to set the record straight at all.

The Post analysis said that Bush does not share his "most sensitive intelligence, including the President's Daily Brief, with lawmakers"; that the administration didn't provide Congress the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate until just days before the vote on the authorization for war; that the NIE didn't reflect "doubts within the intelligence community"; and that even the doubts that were set forth in the NIE couldn't have been used in public debate in Congress because some of the information was deemed classified until the eve of the Senate vote.

The White House response to those points: The PDBs on Iraq were even worse than the NIE. That's what the Robb-Silberman Commission concluded, and it may well be true. But it doesn't address the larger point: On alleged links to al-Qaida, on mobile weapons labs, on aluminum tubes, on Niger and on other fronts, the Bush administration knew that there were doubts and questions and discredited sources that members of Congress -- and the public at large -- weren't given the chance to consider until it was too late.

By Tim Grieve

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

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