What Bush knew, Take 4

The White House acknowledges that Bush was told more about Iran than he let on.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 6, 2007 11:54AM (EST)

At his press conference Tuesday, George W. Bush was asked whether it wasn't fair to say he'd "hyped" the threat of Iran when he ratcheted up his rhetoric even after being told in August or September that the Iranians may have halted their nuclear weapons program.

"I don't want to contradict an august reporter such as yourself," the president responded. "But I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was Mike McConnell came in and said, 'We have some new information.' He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze."

We knew at the time that the president's answer was implausible -- even for a man as notoriously uncurious as Bush, it's hard to imagine a conversation in which the director of national intelligence says he has some new information on Iran and the president doesn't ask what it is. Now we know that Bush's response was false on one count, and we have pretty good reason to believe it was false on another.

First, as the White House finally acknowledged late Wednesday, McConnell told Bush more than that there was some unspecified "new information."

What the White House now says happened: In August, McConnell told Bush that new intelligence confirmed that Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program, but that "it may be suspended ... Director McConnell said that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time, and it wouldn't be right to speculate until they had time to examine and analyze the new data."

White House press secretary Dana Perino insists there's no conflict between that account and the president's because the "president wasn't given the specific details" of what would be in the new NIE. But Bush didn't say that he hadn't gotten the "specific details." What he said was that McConnell "didn't tell me what the information was."

So that's falsehood No. 1. No. 2? That appears to have come when Bush said Tuesday, "I was made aware of the NIE last week." As the New York Times reports this morning, intelligence officials presented their findings in a contentious meeting two weeks ago with the "most senior members of President Bush's national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney." Is it possible that the "most senior members of President Bush's national security team" didn't share the news with the president? Maybe, but Seymour Hersh says Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the NIE on Nov. 26 -- two days before the White House claims National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley first briefed Bush on the report.

Speaking of Hadley, it appears that he has been telling something less than the whole truth, too. When he was asked Monday to explain why the president was "speaking about the Iranian threat in terms of World War III" in October if he'd been briefed on the new intelligence in August or September, Hadley said: "Because he was describing the threat as the intelligence community itself had been describing the threat both publicly and in their briefings to him." Except, of course, for that briefing in August when Bush was told that Iran's nuclear weapons "may be suspended."

Tim Grieve

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

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