Russert gave Warner a free pass on non-answer to Iraq question -- and grilled Biden instead
Research ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
On the November 27 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Sen. John Warner (R-VA) if he "believe[d], in all honesty, that the administration took the very best spin they could get in order to help buttress or support the case for war." Citing the Bush family's "integrity and public service," Warner responded: "Our president would not intentionally take any facts and try to mislead the American public, in my judgment." But rather than challenge Warner's non-answer by pointing to mounting evidence indicating the Bush administration did intentionally withhold or distort intelligence, Russert instead grilled Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-DE) on his vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq.
From the November 27 Meet the Press:
RUSSERT: Senator Warner, take the aluminum tubes that the administration talked about in terms of --
RUSSERT: -- being used for nuclear weapon development. The State Department was very, very clear about that; the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Department of Energy. And in the National Intelligence Estimate, there was a caveat which said, "We don't believe these tubes could be used for anything like that." Do you believe, in all honesty, that the administration took the very best spin on intelligence they could get in order to help buttress or support the case for war?
WARNER: You know, I've known the president quite well. I knew his father well. I actually knew his grandfather, met him. You remember, he served on the --
BIDEN: I only know the father and the --
WARNER: Well, anyway, the grandfather served on the Armed Services Committee as a senator. That's a family that's been known for its integrity and public service for generations. Our president would not intentionally take any facts and try and mislead the American public, in my judgment. What was before all leaders of the world at that time were facts that gave rise to the -- Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and some potential for nuclear weapons. When we went in, in '91, we underestimated how far he had proceeded in his programs. Now, we recognize he didn't have them, but he certainly had the infrastructure to which he was going to direct moneys, if he ever got it, to go back into the business of weapons of mass destruction, had not this invasion taken place.
Russert, however, failed to press Warner on the aluminum tube issue, in spite of evidence indicating President Bush may have intentionally distorted or withheld intelligence. The Senate Intelligence Committee and the Iraq Survey Group both concluded that aluminum tubes sought by Saddam Hussein were likely intended for use in a conventional rocket program and not in uranium centrifuges, as Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed in 2003. Specifically, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that "the information available to the Intelligence Community indicated that these tubes were intended to be used for an Iraqi conventional rocket program and not a nuclear program." In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush touted Saddam's pursuit of aluminum tubes, along with since-discredited reports of Iraqi attempts to procure uranium from Niger, as evidence of an emerging Iraqi nuclear weapons program.
Also, in a November 22 National Journal article, journalist Murray Waas revealed that 10 days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush "was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda." A recently declassified 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document, released by the office of Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), indicates that the White House and the National Security Council were likely aware that DIA questioned the reliability of claims made by Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi -- an Al Qaeda operative captured in November 2001 -- that Al Qaeda had received chemical and biological weapons training from Iraq. In 2003, Bush and Powell touted al-Libi's claims as evidence of a supposed link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Bush often asserted a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda as justification for the invasion of Iraq, reportedly referencing al-Libi's claims in making that connection.
Russert might also have noted other evidence that Bush administration officials may have deliberately twisted or withheld intelligence and might also have asked Warner to comment on whether he believed Bush had access to the intelligence his subordinates were touting. Vice President Dick Cheney often referred to a supposed meeting between 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague, Czech Republic, as evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, even though, as The New York Times reported on October 21, 2002, Czech president Vaclav Havel "quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports that Mohamed Atta, the leader in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague." The 9-11 Commission concluded in 2004 that the Prague meeting never occurred. According to an October 3, 2004, New York Times article, experts at the Energy Department believed the disputed aluminum tubes "were likely intended for small artillery rockets." They had conveyed their assessment to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice almost a year before she appeared on CNN's Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer and said the tubes were ''only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." Also, the administration's declassified version of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate omitted a number of crucial dissenting views and caveats that undercut the certainty with which administration officials were presenting disputed pieces of intelligence.
Biden responded to Warner's answer by explaining how the administration may have "misled" regarding the aluminum tubes and referred specifically to Rice's CNN appearance:
BIDEN: Tim, I'm not talking about the president. Let's get that straight. We're talking about Cheney when I said they lied. Let's -- let --
RUSSERT: You said the president misled.
BIDEN: Yeah, misled. Now, here, let me be precise. Aluminum tubes -- remember that whole issue? Casey [sic: Cheney] said the tubes were "irrefutable evidence" of their nuclear policy. Rice said they were "really only suited for nuclear weapons programs." And Bush said there was "no doubt" about this. In fact, the Energy Department expert said, as you pointed out, the tube -- they were not for nuclear. The Intelligence Research Bureau agreed and said, "no compelling case that Iraq's currently pursuing an integrated, comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." This is in 10/02. Now, this is evidence they had at the time. Yet they used words like "The weapons program is irrefutable."
Instead of pressing Warner using the mounting evidence, or even asking Warner to respond to Biden's explanation of how the administration may have taken "the very best spin" on the aluminum tubes to further the cause for war, Russert shifted his focus to Biden, whom he pressured to explain why he voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq:
RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you read the National Intelligence Estimate, at least the summary of it, it had a caveat in there from the State Department and the Department of Energy saying they did not believe the --
BIDEN: After the fact, Tim. Look, look --
RUSSERT: This was made available to senators before the vote. Only six read it.
BIDEN: No, no, no, no, no, no. That's true, that was before the vote.
RUSSERT: But you saw --
BIDEN: That was before the vote.
RUSSERT: You saw that information and you still voted for the war.
BIDEN: But remember -- no, remember what I voted for was for the president to be able to go to war, if, if -- I've got the resolution here -- if, in fact, it was to enforce the existing breaches that existed in the U.N. [United Nations] resolution, and if he could show there were weapons of mass destruction.
RUSSERT: Do you believe the Democrats and you were diligent enough in reading that National Intelligence Estimate and all the caveats and calling the president to task as to whether or not he was being candid about the intelligence and his interpretation?
BIDEN: Yes. And if I -- I'll leave with you because there's no time here all the statements I made at the time laying out my doubts about their assertions. But remember what the resolution said, Tim, it didn't say "go to war." It said, "Mr. President, if you can show these things, then you can use force."