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The Ticking Lie Scenario

12/06/2007 06:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Bush, at his press conference on Tuesday, pleaded ignorance as his

excuse for statements going back many months--statements which, if made with

knowledge and not from ignorance, were treacherous, deceptive, and entailed a

deliberate risk to the security of the United States.

He said he didn't know the contents of the December 2007 National Intelligence

Estimate until a few days ago. This, he implied, was the reason why he spoke

freely and provocatively through the summer and fall about the direness of the

international threat posed by Iran. A pardonable error, since he was using the

best intelligence available to him at the time.

The NIE seems to have been made public as a result of pressure within the

intelligence community. The new findings about Iran, if kept secret and

distorted, might deeply affect the future of the United States; and so their

release became a patriotic obligation. A similar motive can be heard in some

recent court decisions and in public statements by leaders of the armed forces.

The National Intelligence Estimate of December 3 says: "We judge with high

confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." It

adds: "We assess with moderate confidence that Tehran has not restarted its

nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007." And: "We continue to assess with

moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear

weapon." And finally: "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program

suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been

judging since 2005." There are several other judgments, all in the same vein.

President Bush said in his December 4 press conference: "I was made aware of the

NIE last week. In August, I think it was Mike McConnell came in and said, we

have some new information. He didn't tell me what the information was; he did

tell me it was going to take a while to analyze." Anyone who has ever told a

lie or detected a lie, and who heard those words as the president spoke them,

could pick out the tell-tale signs: the odd pause, the empty negative ("he

didn't tell me"), the needless symmetry ("he did tell me"), the calculated

vagueness about an entity already as vague as the month of August ("I think it

was"), for which precise words had not been charted. It was not only a lie but

a shallow lie, easy to expose, unworthy of him.

Compare the press conference of October 17 at which the president said: "We got

a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've

told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like

you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge

necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear

weapon very seriously." The deliberate fudging around "the knowledge

necessary," and the citation of the Iranian president's repulsive words about

Israel as the worst we knew about Iran, together now suggest that on October 17

the president already knew the shape of the actual intelligence. He was doing

the most he could with non-incendiary materials; but he didn't yet expect that

the NIE would tell the country what he himself had been made to see.

Very likely, he knew of Iran's cutback already when he shot out the major

quotation of the day on August 28, in his American Legion address in Reno:

"Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons

threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the

shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Iran's actions threaten the security of nations

everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies

around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will

confront this danger before it is too late." Note the mention of Israel,

conjoined with the ambiguous, exploitative use of the word holocaust (a word,

in connection with "nuclear," seldom heard since the 1960s). Bush may have

wanted to pique the interest of the American Legion, but his real audience for

this part was Israeli politicians and the Israel Lobby. The president, moving

our country closer to war, was reassuring a Middle East ally that he was still

on course. A hidden indication that he knew of the NIE but thought it would

stay a secret may be found in the words "active pursuit." A phrase that

carefully says nothing but makes your pulse race anyway; implying, without

asserting, that Iran's nuclear program is active.

In August, the president was sure of his cover; all he needed was plausible

deniability. In December, he was caught in the open. He had to feign an

innocence so ludicrous it amounts to a confession of incompetence in itself.

One set of reactions has been revealing. The power of anger is not in the

Democrats. Some essential ingredient of the human passions has passed out of

their system. Senator Biden, before the NIE appeared, had threatened to impeach

the president if he went to war against Iran without authorization; but here was

plain evidence of a four-year instigation toward a war, without authorization:

why not now summon Cheney, Hadley, and Bush to testify what they knew and when

they knew it before they try a similar experiment by a different route? And,

while you are at it, call on Senator Lieberman, the author of two incendiary

and (as they now appear) ill-informed resolutions on Iran. Many people would

like to know who gave Lieberman his certain knowledge of the state of Iranian

nuclear knowledge--a question the more interesting since, evidently, that

certainty did not come from the United States.

Harry Reid issued a statement of consummate nervelessness. "I hope this

Administration reads this report carefully and appropriately adjusts its

rhetoric and policy vis-a-vis Iran. The Administration should begin this

process by finally undertaking a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively

address the challenges posed by Iran." Hillary Clinton, for her part,

implicitly sided with the president when she did not have to, and, saying

nothing about the abuse of intelligence, declared that the problem remains how

to "stop Iran's nuclear ambitions"--for which she said (steering a middle path

against the romantic illusions of the CIA) the cure is "neither saber rattling

nor unconditional meetings." She spoke on December 4 as if she knew exactly as

much as any of us knew on December 2. Barack Obama, a quarter-shade to the left

of Clinton, noted without excitement that the NIE "makes a compelling case for

less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy." Of the leading candidates, only

Edwards drew the obvious lesson with some sharpness: the NIE "shows that George

Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran is, in fact, a rush to war."

Edwards implied that stopping the rush would call for continued pressure

against Cheney and Bush by a determined opposition.

These local tremors would have ended the story within two days, had it not been

re-opened elsewhere. For the president's plea of ignorance was exploded once

and for all in a country with a free press: Israel. Amos Harel reported in

Haaretz on December 6
: "Israel has known about the report for more than a

month." Harel specified the Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, as one of

those who knew the contents of the NIE; it was also, he said, a subject of

discussion at Annapolis between George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert. The Haaretz

story incidentally carries a subtext. Israel was surprised by the fact that

American intelligence acted in American interests and made the report public,

thus rendering questionable the case for a U.S. attack on Iran. One can

understand the disappointment. The fears of a Barak may be warranted, as those

of a Bolton are not, given the proximity to a hostile power and the danger even

of a non-nuclear threat. But maybe these private understandings based on public

falsification of the facts, on which Olmert and Bush had relied, are a

consolation well lost to the leaders of two professing democracies. They should

not be in the business of keeping secrets from their people in order to lead

their countries into new wars of aggression. The Israeli analyst Harel keeps

his balance more steadily than one can imagine an American doing, were the

positions reversed. Israeli estimates differ in degree from those of the NIE,

he remarks; so who is right? "It just might possibly be the Americans."

Suppose for experiment's sake the innocent hypothesis. The president ran into

Michael McConnell some time in August, and heard there was something

radically new in the NIE, but he didn't care to follow-up before the public

release of the estimate. This is an old story with him. We heard it about

George Tenet and the presidential daily briefing a month before the World Trade

Center catastrophe, when the president was told Bin Laden intended to strike

within the U.S. and he thought nothing of it. The lack of curiosity alone, in

these cases, amounts to a public menace. Combine that with the arrogance, the

restless anxiety, the love of vicarious action and the ability to look us in

the face and lie -- and it makes a very toxic brew.

This president is a danger-maker, convinced he lives for all of us when he lives

on the edge; and his authority must be curbed. Every statement issuing from the

White House or its vicinity may now be assumed to be false unless supported by

interests that are demonstrably separate from those of the White House. Trust

has completely broken down. We are better off recognizing the truth and acting

on the recognition than pretending for a moment longer. The pattern, from Iraq

to Katrina to Iran, is not accident but character.