George W. Bush's political adviser Karl Rove claims "one of the biggest mistakes" of that presidency was not aggressively challenging critics who charged that Bush "lied" to the American people about the reasons for the Iraq War, an accusation that Rove insists was false and unfair.
In his forthcoming book, Courage and Consequence, Rove calls the "lie" charge "a poison-tipped dagger aimed at the heart of the Bush presidency" and blames himself for "a weak response" that underestimated "how damaging this assault was."
But the problem with Rove's account is that not only did Bush oversee the twisting of intelligence to justify invading Iraq in March 2003 but he subsequently lied and lied repeatedly about how Iraq had responded to United Nations inspection demands.
So, while it may be impossible to say for certain what Bush believed about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, it can't be argued that Bush didn't know that Iraq declared that it had destroyed its WMD stockpiles and let U.N. inspectors in to see for themselves in the months before the invasion.
Nevertheless, Bush followed up his false pre-war claims about Iraq's WMD with a post-invasion insistence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had barred U.N. inspectors from his country, a decision that Bush said left him no choice but to invade. Bush began reciting this faux history just months after the invasion and continued the tall tale until the end of his presidency more than five years later.
Tellingly, throughout that period, as Bush blithely lied about the Iraq War history, he was never challenged to his face by the mainstream U.S. journalists who politely listened to the lies. Indeed, some big-name journalists even adopted Bush's false narrative as their own.
Now, it appears Rove is intent on rehabilitating Bush's record by insisting that the ex-President never lied at all. The historical record, however, is clear: Hussein and other Iraqi officials did say they no longer possessed WMD and they did let UN arms inspectors into Iraq in the fall of 2002 to search any site of their choosing.
The inspectors in their white vans drove around Iraq for months, with their excursions covered daily by the international news media. In trip after trip, guided by the best available U.S. intelligence, the inspectors came up empty.
Hussein and his government also backed up their claims to be WMD-free by providing the United Nations a 12,000-page declaration on Dec. 7, 2002, explaining how Iraq's stocks of chemical and biological weapons had been destroyed in the 1990s.
Though the Bush administration mocked these Iraqi disclosures, U.S. intelligence had its own independent facts supporting the Iraqi statements, including information from Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel al-Majid who defected and described his work destroying the stockpiles after the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. [When he returned to Iraq, he was killed.]
With the help of French intelligence, the CIA also had "turned" Hussein's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, who conveyed real-time intelligence to the U.S. government, passing along information in September 2002 about the absence of Iraqi WMD. Here is how author Ron Suskind described that intelligence in his 2008 book, The Way of the World:
"The upshot of Sabri's account was that Saddam neither possessed WMD nor was trying very hard to procure or develop them. If Saddam was eager for a nuclear weapon, he was as far as ever from having one and was making no progress on that front; any vestige of a bio-weapons program was negligible; and if any chemical weapons remained in Iraq, they were no longer in the hands of either Saddam Hussein or his military.
"[CIA Paris station chief Bill] Murray flew down to Washington to deliver the news and briefed John McLaughlin, CIA's deputy director. McLaughlin was enthusiastic about the intelligence but pointed out that it was contradicted by information from Curveball, the best source on Iraqi WMD to that point. Sabri's account was relayed to [CIA Director George] Tenet, who delivered it personally to Bush the following day.
"But the administration quickly lost interest in Sabri when it heard what he had to say. Bush dismissed the intelligence as disinformation, and the White House said it would be interested in Sabri only if he chose to defect."
Though the CIA found additional information to corroborate Sabri's story and regarded Curveball as a highly unreliable source, Bush pressed forward on his course to war. Suskind further reported that the written report on Sabri's intelligence was distorted to lend greater credence to the WMD suspicions, "almost certainly altered under pressure from Washington."
Yet, it may never be fully known whether Bush didn't care about the truth or simply chose to believe the "stove-piped" intelligence that was coming from neoconservatives salted throughout the national security bureaucracy and who were determined to go to war with Iraq.