The Ticking Lie Scenario

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

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.