About That Massive Cover-Up
Ever since the tragic attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, "Benghazi" has been the Republican response to almost every question. Despite receiving the report of the State Department's Accountability Review Board (whose recommendations were immediately endorsed by the Obama administration), hearing the testimony of the outgoing Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and head of the CIA, and getting additional information demanded from the White House, GOP Senators have threatened to block the nominations of the President's entire national security team.
Over the last few weeks, that grandstanding has crossed the line from cynical obstruction to slander. While South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham proclaimed "Hillary Clinton got away with murder," John McCain (R-AZ) charged the Obama administration with perpetrating a "massive cover-up." When pressed for evidence by Meet the Press host David Gregory, McCain could muster only:
"Do you care whether four Americans died?...Shouldn't people be held accountable for the fact that four Americans died?"
There was a massive cover-up, all right, just not involving Libya but Iraq. That U.S. catastrophe cost over 4,400 American lives, wounded over 30,000 and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Ten years and over $1 trillion later, no one was held accountable. Instead, many got medals.
As the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches, it's worth remembering how that war was sold to the American people in the fall of 2002. (And it was "sold"; as Bush chief of staff Andy Card explained that summer, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.") In an October 7 address in Cincinnati, President Bush warned, "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." That echoed the talking point National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice mouthed a month earlier, when she fretted, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Addressing the VFW nearly six months before Colin Powell would make his infamous presentation to the United Nations, Vice President Dick Cheney was unequivocal about the threat from Saddam Hussein:
"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors -- confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today, and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth."
For his part, John McCain was on board 100 percent. He didn't just agree that the Iraq war would be a short one and that Americans would be "greeted as liberators." Three months after the invasion in June 2003, McCain announced:
"I remain confident that we will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
But it didn't work out that way. Bush, Cheney, Rice and McCain (among others) were, as Iraq Survey Group Charles Duelfer testified in October 2004, "almost all wrong."
In April 2004, George W. Bush told a White House press conference that he couldn't think of a single mistake he had made as President. And when it came to his disastrous decision to invade Iraq after selling Americans on the mythical threat from Saddam's WMD, Bush and his GOP allies made sure that no light would be shed. No light, that is, at least until after Bush was safely reelected in November 2004.
That evasion was central to two separate investigations of pre-war intelligence which published reports in 2004. After the White House initially opposed calls to create an independent panel to probe the intelligence used to make the case for war, President Bush relented. On February 6, 2004, he named the members of the Silberman-Robb Commission which included, among others, Senator John McCain. But Bush's panel, led by Judge Laurence Silberman (the same judge who overturned Oliver North's felony Iran-Contra conviction), would not include the subject of intelligence manipulation within its charter. The report concluded that the CIA had been "dead wrong" about Iraq WMD. But as Silberman himself noted about the 600 page report deliver in March 2005:
"Well, on the [that] point, we duck. That is not part of our charter. We did not express any views on policymakers' use of intelligence -- whether Congress or the president. It wasn't part of our charter and indeed most of us didn't want to get into that issue because it's basically a political question and everybody knows -- you can look at the newspaper and see what people said and make your own judgment."
Meanwhile, an even more egregious farce was underway in the Republican-controlled Senate.
On June 20, 2003, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence began its own work. Led by Republican Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Democratic Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the SSCI promised a two-phase report on the march to war in Iraq. Phase 1 would examine the failings of the American intelligence community. Phase 2 would investigate the uses of pre-war intelligence and whether the administration had manipulated it to fabricate a causus belli. Conveniently for the Bush White House, the potentially damaging Phase 2 inquiry would not come until after the election.
Not surprisingly, the SSCI Phase 1 Report released in July 2004 sought to lay the blame for faulty intelligence all at the feet of the CIA. Chairman Roberts concluded that "what the President and the Congress used to send the country to war was information that was...flawed" and "most of the key judgments in the October 2002 national intelligence estimate on Iraq's WMD programs were either overstated or were not supported by the raw intelligence reporting." But Roberts also presumed the conclusion of the as-yet-uncompleted Phase 2 report, "The committee found no evidence that the intelligence community's mischaracterization or exaggeration of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities was the result of politics or pressure."
But during that very same June 2004 press conference announcing their findings, Vice Chairman Rockefeller in response expressed his frustration and alarm over Roberts' unsupported statements:
"And I have to say, that there is a real frustration over what is not in this report, and I don't think was mentioned in Chairman Roberts' statement, and that is about the -- after the analysts and the intelligence community produced an intelligence product, how is it then shaped or used or misused by the policy-makers? So again there's genuine frustration -- and Chairman Roberts and I have discussed this many times -- that virtually everything that has to do with the administration has been relegated to phase two. My hope is that we will get this done as soon as possible."
Rockefeller was wrong to have trusted his Republican colleague. Despite Roberts' July 9 promise that "It is a priority...I made my commitment and it will get done," on March 10, 2005 he reversed course and declared Phase 2 was now "on the back burner." Roberts' stonewalling for the Bush administration didn't end there. Upon the release of the Silberman-Robb Commission report which avoided the question of White House intelligence manipulation altogether, Roberts just three weeks later on March 31, 2005 instead concluded his work was done:
"I don't think there should be any doubt that we have now heard it all regarding prewar intelligence. I think that it would be a monumental waste of time to replow this ground any further. To go through that exercise, it seems to me, in a post-election environment--we didn't see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress. I think everybody pretty well gets it."
On November 2, 2005, Democrats had enough. Minority Leader Harry Reid forced the Senate into a rare closed session to demand Roberts and the Republicans "speed up an inquiry into the Bush administration's handling of intelligence about Iraq's weapons in the run-up to the war." When Larry King asked the next day," Is the Senate going to have a full investigation of what led up to Iraq?" John McCain said he didn't want to "waste a lot of time and energy."
'Well, Larry, I think that we have investigations going on and we have had investigations. I was on a commission of weapons of mass destruction where we reached several conclusions, including the obvious one that there was a colossal intelligence failure but also that every intelligence agency in the world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he did a pretty good job of convincing his own generals that he had them.
The Intelligence Committee is supposed to report out by November 14th an investigation that they've been conducting and I think we ought to have a look at their conclusions and I'm not against investigations. I just want to make sure that we don't waste a lot of time and energy."
Of course, that November 14, 2005 deadline never happened. As ThinkProgress documented, GOP Chairman Pat Roberts delayed the Phase 2 analysis yet again, ensuring there was "virtually no chance of being completed before the fall  elections."
But Democrats won those 2006 midterm elections in what President Bush called "a thumpin'." And finally, on June 5, 2008, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence now chaired by Senator Rockefeller published its Phase 2 report. As McClatchy reported, Republicans Chuck Hagel and Susan Collins joined the Democratic majority in concluding that "Bush knew Iraq claims weren't true."
"Statements by the President and the Vice President indicating that Saddam Hussein was prepared to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups for attacks against the United States were contradicted by available intelligence information," the report concluded.
Claims by President Bush that Iraq and al Qaida had a partnership "were not substantiated by the intelligence."
The president and vice president misrepresented what was known about Iraq's chemical weapons capabilities.
Rumsfeld misrepresented what the intelligence community knew when he said Iraq's weapons productions facilities were buried deeply underground.
Cheney's claim that the intelligence community had confirmed that lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001 was not true.
These were not the only assessments concluding, as Chairman Rockefeller did, that the Bush administration "deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate." As the Baltimore Sun reported in September 2006, the SSCI "found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaida or provided a haven for one of its most notorious operatives, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- conclusions that contradict claims by the Bush administration before it invaded Iraq." In March 2008, an extensive Pentagon review of 600,000 captured documents similarly concluded there was "no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network." So much for Rumsfeld's 2002 claim that the case for such links was "bulletproof."
It's no wonder that as late as August 2006, half of Americans thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As for the mythical link between Iraq, Al Qaeda and 9/11, Bush propagandists like Ari Fleischer tried to keep falsehood alive even his boss left office. As Fleischer put it in March 2009:
"After September 11th having been hit once how could we take a chance that Saddam might strike again? And that's the threat that has been removed and I think we are all safer with that threat removed."
Amazingly, just days later former Bush National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Charlie Rose, "No one was arguing that Saddam Hussein somehow had something to do with 9/11." Of course, Condi had done just that as late as September 2006:
"There were ties going on between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime."
No Bush official, including Rice, was ever held accountable for mistakes, misstatements, dissembling and deception over the disaster in Iraq. Some, like Condi Rice, were promoted. Rice, who had warned of smoking guns in the form of a mushroom cloud, casually linked Iraq to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, and wrongly insisted "I don't think anybody could have predicted" someone would use a hijacked airplane as missile, went before the Senate in January 2005 to be confirmed as Secretary of State. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin lamented that "Dr. Condoleezza Rice was in the room, at the table, when decisions were made, and she has to accept responsibility for what she said." California's Barbara Boxer went further, telling Rice during her confirmation hearing that "your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth," especially when it came to warning the American people about the threat from Iraqi WMD. As CNN recalled the exchange:
"If you can't admit to this mistake, I hope that you will rethink it," Boxer said.
"Senator, we can have this discussion in any way that you would like," Rice replied. "But I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity."
As they slandered President Obama and Chuck Hagel and tried to hold up his confirmation as Pentagon chief over the Benghazi tragedy, Lindsey Graham and John McCain might have kept Rice's confirmation in mind. After all, while Republicans engaged in the first-ever filibuster of a Defense Secretary last week, in 2005 Secretary Rice was confirmed by 85-13. Among those who voted for the Rice despite her obvious role in President Bush's fiasco in Iraq and the real massive cover-up which ensued were Democratic Senators Biden, Clinton and Obama.
(This piece first appeared at Dailykos.)