Media tout Bush's purported candor in ABC interview, ignoring substantial evidence to the contrary

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN & LILY YAN

Several media outlets touted President Bush's purported candor during an ABC interview with Charles Gibson in which Bush said the "biggest regret" of his presidency was the "intelligence failure" regarding the absence of WMD in Iraq and declined to "speculate" whether the administration would have invaded Iraq if the intelligence had shown no WMD. But none of these reports noted the substantial evidence that Bush had already decided to invade Iraq regardless of the available intelligence, or mentioned the substantial uncertainty about the evidence the administration cited in support of the war.

On December 1, ABC's World News aired an interview of President George W. Bush by anchor Charles Gibson in which Bush said the "biggest regret" of his presidency was the "intelligence failure" regarding the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and declined to "speculate" when asked by Gibson whether the administration would have invaded Iraq "if the intelligence had been right" and Bush "had known" that Saddam Hussein did not possess WMDs. Following the airing of the Gibson interview, multiple media reports described Bush as being either "candid" or "blunt" in his comments on ABC. However, none of these reports noted that there was substantial evidence Bush had already decided to invade Iraq regardless of the available intelligence, or that there was substantial uncertainty about the reliability of the evidence the administration cited in support of the war.

In the interview, Gibson asked what Bush would like as a "do-over" if he could have one. Bush said that the "biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said, you know, the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration. ... [T]hat's not a do-over, but ... I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess." When Gibson asked him if he would have invaded Iraq had he known there were no WMDs, Bush said, "[T]hat's an interesting question. It's -- that is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate."

Among the media reports touting Bush's candor during the ABC interview was a December 2 Washington Post article that said "the president was unusually blunt in identifying shortcomings during his tenure." And in a December 2 article, the New York Daily News reported that in the interview, "President Bush issued a stunningly candid critique of mistakes on his watch ... saying he was 'unprepared' for the 9/11 attacks and calling the flawed case for war in Iraq his 'biggest regret.' "Additionally, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said on the December 1 edition of The Situation Room, "For this president, it's pretty rare to hear him be as candid as he is in this sort of exit interview with ABC News." While Blitzer was referring specifically to Bush "saying that he was unprepared for war," he did not note the evidence pointing to a lack of candor by Bush during the interview.

Contrary to these media reports that Bush was "blunt" or "candid" while discussing the Iraq war during the ABC interview, according to numerous accounts, Bush had decided to oust Saddam within weeks of the September 11, 2001, attacks, reportedly well before he ordered the intelligence community to produce a formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the question of whether Iraq had WMD. Examples of U.S. government, British government, and media reports that Bush had decided to invade Iraq well before the October 2002 NIE was produced include the following:

  • The Downing Street Memo, a once-secret British intelligence memo, indicated that at a July 23, 2002, meeting of British intelligence officials, Britain's intelligence minister reported after a trip to the United States, "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
  • As Media Matters has noted, the 9-11 Commission's report stated that according to former national counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke, Bush asked him on the evening of September 12, 2001, to investigate possible Iraqi links to the previous day's attacks:

    Clarke has written that on the evening of September 12, President Bush told him and some of his staff to explore possible Iraqi links to 9/11. "See if Sad-dam did this," Clarke recalls the President telling them. "See if he's linked in any way." While he believed the details of Clarke's account to be incorrect, President Bush acknowledged [in an April 29, 2004, interview with the commission] that he might well have spoken to Clarke at some point, asking him about Iraq.

    The commission noted that, on September 18, 2001, Clarke's office sent then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice a response memo on the subject. It "found no 'compelling case' that Iraq had either planned or perpetrated the attacks." A March 29, 2004, New York Times article reported: "The White House acknowledged ... that on the day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush asked his top counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke, to find out whether Iraq was involved." The Times also noted Clarke's recollection -- disputed by the White House -- of his response to the president:

    Mr. Clarke was incredulous, he said in [his] book [Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror]. "But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this," he said he responded.

    Mr. Bush answered: "I know, I know, but ... see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred," according to Mr. Clarke's account.

  • On February 13, 2002, Knight-Ridder Newspapers (now McClatchy Newspapers) reported that "President Bush has decided to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and ordered the CIA, the Pentagon and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic and covert steps to achieve that goal, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday." The article -- published eight months before the 2002 NIE on Iraq's purported WMD -- continued, "No military strike is imminent, but Bush has concluded that Saddam and his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs are such a threat to U.S. security that the Iraqi dictator must be removed, even if U.S. allies do not help, said the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity."
  • A September 11, 2002, USA Today article reported that Bush had made the decision to oust Saddam within weeks of the September 11, 2001, attacks:

    President Bush's determination to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein by military force if necessary was set last fall without a formal decision-making meeting or the intelligence assessment that customarily precedes such a momentous decision.

    Before the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Bush will make his case for "regime change" in detail and in public for the first time. But he decided that Saddam must go more than 10 months ago; the debate within the administration since then has been about the means to accomplish that end.

    [...]

    In late June or early July, Bush decided he would ask Congress for its formal endorsement. Senior State Department and Pentagon officials met with a group of Iraqi opposition leaders on Aug. 9 to ease concerns about a lack of strategy for a post-Saddam Iraq. With his speech to the United Nations, Bush will seek the world's support.

    But whatever the response, aides say Bush's determination to oust Saddam -- the decision he made in the seven weeks following the attacks on Sept. 11 -- hasn't wavered.

    "I'm deeply concerned about a leader who has ignored all -- who ignored the United Nations for all these years, has refused to conform to resolution after resolution after resolution; who has weapons of mass destruction," Bush said Tuesday in a visit to Afghanistan's embassy in Washington. "And the battlefield has now shifted to America.

    The article also reported:

    The White House still has not requested that the CIA and other intelligence agencies produce a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a formal document that would compile all the intelligence data into a single analysis. An intelligence official says that's because the White House doesn't want to detail the uncertainties that persist about Iraq's arsenal and Saddam's intentions. A senior administration official says such an assessment simply wasn't seen as helpful.

Examples of government and media reports showing that Bush ignored disagreements within the intelligence community about Iraqi WMD programs and possession of WMD include the following:

  • The Senate Intelligence Committee's June 5 "Report on Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information" concluded:

    Conclusion 1: Statements by the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor regarding a possible Iraqi nuclear weapons program were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates, but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.

    Prior to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, some intelligence agencies assessed that the Iraqi government was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program, while others disagreed or expressed doubts about the evidence. The Estimate itself expressed the majority view that the program was being reconstituted, but included clear dissenting views from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research [INR], which argued that reconstitution was not underway, and the Department of Energy [DOE], which argued that aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were probably not intended for a nuclear program.

  • In the same June 5 report, while the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that statements by the administration "regarding Iraq's possession of chemical weapons were substantiated by intelligence information," it also concluded:

    Conclusion 4: Statements by the President and Vice President prior to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq's chemical weapons production capability and activities did not reflect the intelligence community's uncertainties as to whether such production was ongoing.

    The intelligence community assessed that Saddam Hussein wanted to have chemical weapons production capability and that Iraq was seeking to hide such capability in its dual use chemical industry. Intelligence assessments, especially prior to the October 2002 NIE, clearly stated that analysts could not confirm that production was ongoing.

  • In his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, Bush claimed, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he [Saddam] has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

    In fact, as Media Matters has noted, while the majority of intelligence agencies agreed in the October 2002 NIE that the aluminum tubes were intended for uranium-enriching centrifuges, both INR and "technical experts" from the DOE argued that the tubes were "poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment." INR stated that the tubes were probably meant for a conventional weapons program, "most likely the production of artillery rockets."

    Then-National Journal investigative reporter Murray Waas reported on March 2, 2006, that in October 2002, Bush was informed in a one-page "President's Summary" of the NIE that INR and DOE believed the tubes were "intended for conventional weapons." Waas reported that "the one-page summary, several senior government officials said in interviews, was written specifically for Bush, was handed to the president by then-CIA Director George Tenet, and was read in [then-CIA Director George] Tenet's presence."

  • The Senate Intelligence Committee's June 5 report also concluded: "Statements and implications by the President and Secretary of State suggesting that Iraq and al-Qa'ida had a partnership, or that Iraq had provided al-Qa'ida with weapons training, were not substantiated by the intelligence." The report also stated: "Intelligence assessments, including multiple CIA reports and the November 2002 NIE, dismissed the claim that Iraq and al-Qa'ida were cooperating partners. According to an undisputed INR footnote in the NIE, there was no intelligence information that supported the claim that Iraq would provide weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa'ida."

From the December 2 broadcast of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as president. If you had one?

BUSH: I don't know. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said, you know, the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration. [break] And, you know, that's not a do-over, I -- but I -- you know, I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.

GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?

BUSH: If he had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.

GIBSON: No. If you had known he didn't.

BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, I -- that's an interesting question. It's -- that is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate.

From the December 2 Washington Post article, headlined "Reflecting on His Tenure, Bush Shows New Candor":

President Bush, who has long brushed aside questions about his legacy, is opening up a bit during his final weeks in office.

At the White House yesterday, for example, Bush called his program to combat HIV/AIDS "one of the most important initiatives of my administration" and praised it as a resounding success.

And in a separate television interview, the president was unusually blunt in identifying shortcomings during his tenure -- saying that his "biggest regret" was getting the intelligence wrong in Iraq, and conceding that he was not ready to be a wartime president when he first took office.

[...]

The self-criticism is notable for a president who has long resisted looking back at his time in the White House and once was unable to provide an example of a mistake he had made in office. Since the election of President-elect Barack Obama on Nov. 4, however, Bush has appeared increasingly reflective and willing to discuss his legacy, joking about his "forced retirement" and telling the Chinese president that he "felt a bit nostalgic" during their final meeting as heads of state.

From the December 2 New York Daily News article:

President Bush issued a stunningly candid critique of mistakes on his watch Monday night, saying he was "unprepared" for the 9/11 attacks and calling the flawed case for war in Iraq his "biggest regret."

[...]

Members of Congress from both parties and the spy agencies of other nations also concluded that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but "the biggest regret of all" in his term as commander in chief Bush said, "has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq."

GOP strategists have argued that toppling Saddam was worth going to war whether or not Iraq had nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but Bush said he wasn't sure.

From the December 3 edition of NPR's News and Notes:

TONY COX (alternate host and contributor): All right. Let's fast-forward four years. President Bush now preparing to exit the White House, and in an interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, the president was much more reflective about the shortcomings of his administration.

BUSH: I don't know. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said, you know, the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration. [break] And, you know, that's not a do-over, I -- but I -- you know, I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.

From the December 1 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: President Bush in an interview with ABC News is now saying he was unprepared for war. Listen to what he said, and I'll read it to you. He said, "I think I was unprepared for war. In other words, I didn't campaign and say, 'Please vote for me, I'll be able to handle an attack.' In other words, I didn't anticipate war. Presidents -- one of the things about the modern presidency is that the unexpected will happen." For this president, it's pretty rare to hear him be as candid as he is in this sort of exit interview with ABC News.

LESLIE SANCHEZ (CNN political contributor and Republican strategist): Wolf, that's exactly correct. I think the one thing that was probably the most telling: His biggest regret is that he had not had incorrect information related to Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. And they had built this on faulty intelligence. I think that was probably the most telling. A lot of people wanted to hear him say that, and he did.

But I think to say that he was not prepared to the extent of anticipating a 9-11 or that there was going to be this extreme jihadist movement against, you know, our culture and the Western world was something the globe didn't anticipate. So, with respect to that, I think we have to be careful how we read into it.

BLITZER: How do you read it, James?

JAMES CARVILLE (CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist): Well, first of all, he shouldn't have started the war in Iraq. And a lot of people in the intelligence community had warned him that there was a good chance they didn't have them. There were two stories in The Washington Post before the war that they didn't have it. They looked for the so-called chemical weapons, and they didn't find them. And secondly, if you were unprepared, you should have -- again, it would have been beneficial to have not started one.

With respect to terrorism, people knew that they were a threat. There was a -- all summer before 9-11, there were people warning the White House. George Tenet and I think it was Cofer Black went into Condi Rice's office in August and said, "Look, there's something going on." So we could have been very well prepared for this. But I give the president some credit for being -- I give the president some credit for at least being candid. And, I mean, I think being reflective is sort of a good thing at the end of a term.

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