WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidates have been arguing over the past week that, in hindsight, President George W. Bush made the best decision he could have based on faulty intelligence when he launched the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
In this telling of history, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are cast as victims, and therefore blameless for the carnage and chaos that has resulted. But the man who briefed Bush and Cheney in the run-up to the war, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, punctured that story Tuesday evening during an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews.
It wasn't that the intelligence community was giving the administration wholesale faulty intelligence. It was that the administration was lying to the American people about what the intelligence actually showed.
In two key areas, Morell said, Cheney gave out false information, both on the connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda, and on Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Remove those two charges, and there is little way to justify an invasion to the public -- even if one assumed, incorrectly, that Hussein was in possession of chemical or biological weapons. With no missile system to deliver such weapons to the U.S., and no connection to al Qaeda, the mere presence of such weapons -- some of which the U.S. had delivered to Iraq years earlier -- would hardly warrant war. Indeed, Syria's Bashar Assad, sitting just next door to Iraq, was in possession of chemical weapons and wasn't invaded.
Matthews played a clip of Cheney saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" in March 2003: “We know [Saddam Hussein] has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”
Here is Matthews' conversation with Morell that followed:
MATTHEWS: You’re the briefer for the president on intelligence. You’re the top person to go in and tell him what’s going on. You see Cheney make this charge he’s got a nuclear bomb and then they make subsequent charges he’s knew how to deliver it … and nobody raised their hand and said, "No that’s not what we told him."
MORELL: Chris, Chris Chris, what’s my job, right? My job --
MATTHEWS: To tell the truth.
MORELL: My job -- no, as the briefer? As the briefer?
MATTHEWS: OK, go ahead.
MORELL: As the briefer, my job is to carry CIA’s best information and best analysis to the president of the United States and make sure he understands it. My job is to not watch what they’re saying on TV and say --
MATTHEWS: You think TV’s a joke?
MATTHEWS: You think it’s a joke that Cheney said that?
MORELL: That’s not my job. That’s not my job.
MATTHEWS: Did you know he did that?
MORELL: No, I wasn’t paying attention, I was studying what was on my desk every morning.
MATTHEWS: So you’re briefing the president on the reasons for war, they’re selling the war, using your stuff, saying you made that case when you didn’t. So they’re using your credibility to make the case for war dishonestly, as you just admitted.
MORELL: Look, I’m just telling you --
MATTHEWS: You just admitted it.
MORELL: I’m just telling you what we said --
MATTHEWS: They gave a false presentation of what you said to them.
MORELL: On some aspects. On some aspects.
MATTHEWS: He had a nuclear weapon!
MORELL: I’m telling you what we said.
MATTHEWS: That’s a big deal.
MORELL: Chris, I’m telling you what we said.
MATTHEWS: Do you agree? It’s a big deal that they claimed they had a weapon when you knew they didn’t.
MORELL: It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal.
Matthews later quizzed Morell on the Bush administration's implication that Iraq was connected to al Qaeda:
MORELL: What they were saying about the link between Iraq and al Qaeda publicly was not what the intelligence community --
MATTHEWS: Why were they doing it?
MORELL: I don’t know, you need to ask them.
MATTHEWS: But what do you think is the reason, do I have to tell you the reason? To get us into the freaking war!
MORELL: I think they were trying to make a stronger case for the war.
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