Kristol erroneously cited polls; falsely claimed that, since March, “no new information” Bush misled U.S. into Iraq

In his November 21 article in The Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol claimed that because of an “unanswered assault by Bush's enemies” since the president's second inauguration in January, there has been an increase of 20 percentage points in those who believe that President Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq.” But this argument rested on two false assertions.

First, the polling data Kristol cited was incorrect. Kristol erroneously claimed that NBC/Wall Street Journal polling data showed that eight months ago, only 41 percent of Americans thought Bush had “misled” the nation into war and five months ago, only 44 percent though he had done so, compared with 57 percent today. However, the poll numbers Kristol cited were not from NBC/WSJ polls taken in January and March of this year, as he claimed, but were, in fact, from 2004. They show that, in June 2004, a plurality of Americans believed that the administration “deliberately misled people to make the case for war.”

Second, Kristol falsely asserted that “no new information” has emerged in the past eight months to justify the shift he purported to identify; in fact, new evidence has emerged. Some of the events and documents shedding further light on the Bush administration's case for war include the recently revealed Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment of Al Qaeda operative Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi and June 2005 reports on certain British prewar memos, including the so-called "Downing Street Memo." Since March 2004, when the correct NBC/WSJ polling data indicates that the downward trend Kristol identified began, other significant pieces of “new information” that may have influenced public opinion have also come to light.

From Kristol's November 21 Weekly Standard article, titled "Bush Fights Back":

And the attacks have been working. In last week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, 57 percent of Americans endorsed that proposition that the president “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq,” compared to 35 percent who thought he “gave the most accurate information he had.” Five months ago, those numbers were 44 percent “misled” versus 47 percent “accurate information.” Eight months ago, shortly after Bush's second term began, there were only 41 percent who thought Bush had “misled” them, while 53 percent credited the president with being “accurate.” No new information has appeared in those eight months. All that has happened is an unanswered assault by Bush's enemies. The White House figured the election was over and didn't recognize that the anti-Bush campaign would continue.

But while Kristol cited the most recent NBC/WSJ poll (conducted November 4-7) correctly, he appeared to be a year off on his historical claims -- the polling data he cited from “five” (June 2005) and “eight months ago” (March 2005) are apparently from 17 (June 2004 - subscription required) and 20 months (March 2004 -- subscription required) ago, respectively. Between June 2004 and November 2005, NBC/WSJ pollsters did not ask about how Bush made the case for war, and NBC/WSJ did not conduct polls in March 2005 or June 2005. Further, Kristol incorrectly cited the June 2004 data, which showed that a plurality of 47 percent believed that the administration had “misled people to make the case for war,” while 44 percent said that Bush “gave the most accurate information he had.” Kristol incorrectly switched the two figures.

Other NBC/WSJ poll questions show that, even in mid-2004, most Americans questioned how truthful the administration had been in making the case for war. The March 2004 poll, which reported that 41 percent of respondents believed Bush had misled them, while 53 percent did not, also reported that respondents split 49-49 on whether Bush had “exaggerated information to make the case for war” or had given “the most accurate information he had.” But by the June 2004 poll, 53 percent of respondents said they believed that Bush had “exaggerated” the intelligence, versus 42 percent who thought he had been accurate. According to the poll data, an initial shift in public opinion did occur during the 2004 campaign season -- when, contrary to Kristol's point, the election was not yet over, and between March and June 2004, the administration did forcefully defend itself against questions about its truthfulness.

Regardless of Kristol's flawed timeline, new information has surfaced in the past eight months that further cast doubt on the administration's truthfulness when pushing for the Iraq war:

  • June: The so-called "Downing Street Memo", which contains the recorded minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting of senior British cabinet officials and advisers and includes British intelligence chief Richard Dearlove's statement, based on meetings with U.S. officials in Washington, that President Bush was determined even then to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq “through military action” and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
  • October 16: Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, said in a speech that there had been no consensus about whether Iraq posed an imminent threat at the time of the invasion -- despite repeated claims by the president and his administration that the Iraqi threat was “urgent,” “gathering,” and “mortal,” and, in response to press questions, agreement that the threat was “imminent.” Wilkerson described the administration officials who led the push for war in Iraq as a "cabal" that made far-reaching decisions in private and excluded dissent:

[T]he case that I saw for four-plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, perturbations, changes to the national security decision-making process. What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made. And then when the bureaucracy was presented with the decision to carry them out, it was presented in a such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.

  • October 27: A National Journal article reported that Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, had “decided to withhold crucial documents” from the Senate Intelligence Committee during its 2004 investigation into pre-war intelligence on Iraq. The withheld documents included “Libby-authored passages in drafts of a speech that Powell delivered to the United Nations in February 2003 to argue the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq” and “intelligence data that Cheney's office -- and Libby in particular -- pushed to be included in Powell's speech.” The article cited “administration and congressional sources” in asserting that the withheld information “likely would have shifted a portion of the blame away from the intelligence agencies to the Bush administration.”
  • November 6: The Washington Post reported that in early 2002, the DIA sent a report to the National Security Council and the White House expressing serious doubts about information provided by Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured Al Qaeda operative. Despite the DIA's objections, al-Libi's claims later became the basis for the alleged Al Qaeda-Iraq link that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell described in his February 5, 2003, speech before the United Nations Security Council. Al-Libi's false claims were also used in prewar statements by Bush and Cheney.

In addition, “new information” revealed in 2004 further called into question the case the Bush administration made for war in Iraq:

  • July 2004: In its final report, the 9-11 Commission found, among other things, that Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, nor did it have any “collaborative relationship” with Al Qaeda, as the administration had repeatedly asserted and implied. For example, throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, Cheney suggested that Iraq had been involved in the 9-11 attacks by citing a Czech intelligence report that lead 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta likely met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in April 2001. While Cheney did backtrack in June 2004 from his 2001 claim that such a meeting was “pretty well confirmed,” he continued to push the connection even after the 9-11 Commission concluded that "[w]e do not believe that such a meeting occurred."
  • September 2004: The CIA's Iraq Survey Group finished its report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and concluded that “Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war.” The report stated that the ISG “found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the [nuclear] program.” It also found that, at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, Iraq did not possess chemical weapons stockpiles, having destroyed them in 1991. The survey group found “no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW [biological weapons] program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes.”