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WEAPONS OF MISDIRECTION (PART 3)! Bush’s critics are asking hard questions. Tony Snow didn’t seem to have heard:


ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES: What actual questions have critics raised about the Bush Admin’s pre-Iraq conduct? The questions are listed by Judis and Ackerman in their seminal TNR piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03). Here are a few of those questions:

Question: Why did Cheney keep saying Saddam had nukes when intelligence agencies seemed to think otherwise?

Question: Why did Bush say Saddam was trying to buy uranium in Africa when the claim had been discarded as a hoax?

Question: Why did Rumsfeld say Saddam was allied with al Qaeda when intelligence agencies seemed to think different?

Question: Why did Rice say the aluminum tubes could only be used for nukes when intelligence agencies had decided otherwise?

Question: Why did Bush say that Saddam’s UAVs could hit the US when they had an air range of 300 miles?

These are some of the actual questions which reflect real concerns of the actual critics. Of course, some of these questions may prove hard to answer. Which helps explain why some people want to substitute other questions—questions which are easy to handle.

Consider Robert Kagan, for example. On June 8, Kagan published a strange op-ed in the Washington Post, just as concern about these questions was beginning to crystallize. The headline was ominous: “A Plot to Deceive?” Here was his opening paragraph:

KAGAN (pgh 1): There is something surreal about the charges flying that President Bush lied when he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Yesterday The Post continued the barrage…
According to Kagan, people were charging that Bush had “lied” when he “claimed Saddam had WMDs.” Even the Post had made this charge, Kagan said. And Kagan fingered the New York Times too. According to Kagan, Bush’s critics were “really” trying to prove a strange proposition:
KAGAN (pgh 2): …[T]he critics’ real aim is to prove that, as a New York Times reporter recently put it, “the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may mean that there never were any in the first place.”
Could that possibly mean what it says? According to Kagan, critics really wanted to prove that the failure to find WMDs in Iraq “may mean that there never were any in the first place.” Of course, this would be a strange thing to “prove,” since everyone knows that it just isn’t true. Everyone knows that Saddam Hussein did have WMDs in the past. Maybe Kagan really wanted to say that Saddam had WMDs at the time of the recent war. Of course, few Bush critics have denied that possibility. But no matter! Ambiguity informing every sentence, Kagan sent his straw man flying:
KAGAN (pgh 3): The absurdity of this charge is mind-boggling. Yes, neither the CIA nor the U.N. inspectors have ever known exactly how many weapons Hussein had or how many he was building. But that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the ability to produce more? That has never been in doubt.
Straw man established, straw man destroyed. Apparently hoping to keep you from knowing what Bush’s critics were actually saying, Kagan said they were saying something absurd. Then he condemned their absurdity.

Maybe Kagan was just having a bad day. But readers need to be very careful as the debate on this matter unfolds. Bush-shill pundits will work quite hard to keep you from knowing what critics are saying. They’ll try to bury the actual questions. Instead, they’ll substitute their own preferred questions—questions few critics are raising. They’ll keep you from knowing what the real questions are, and shoot down their silly replacements.

For example, consider the roundtable panel discussion on this week’s Fox News Sunday. First, Tony Snow showed Senator Graham saying this: “This administration has had a pattern of deception and deceit of the American people.” Snow made no attempt to explain the specifics of Graham’s charges. Instead, he simply asked for the panel’s reactions. Charles Krauthammer was soon saying this:

KRAUTHAMMER: I think, in fact, Democrats are going out there on a limb, and I think they’re going to get it sawed off.

We know that Saddam had the weapons, and it’s extremely unlikely that he destroyed them gratuitously after the inspectors left in 1998. It makes no sense.

I think the chances of our locating them are fairly good, or at least the evidence of them. Democrats are going to make a case, which is essentially based on the premise that the weapons didn’t exist. They are going to get in trouble.

According to Krauthammer, Dems were “essentially” saying “that the weapons didn’t exist.” Like Brit Hume and Mara Liasson before him, Krauthammer mentioned none of the actual questions which Bush’s real critics have actually raised. Instead, he gave the impression that critics were saying that Saddam never had WMDs.

Very few Dems have made that charge. As we’ll see tomorrow, Graham has clearly said something quite different. But be careful! Various pundits will misdirect you—lead you away from the actual questions. Did Bush pretend that Saddam had nukes? Did Bush pretend Saddam was tied to al Qaeda? Those are the questions the critics are asking. But certain pundits don’t want you to know that. Careful! They’ll try to mislead.

TOMORROW: The Press Corps’ New Standards.

Who will test the testers? In this morning’s “On Education” column, Michael Winerip reports the latest implosion of a statewide high-stakes testing program. In New York state, 70 percent of high school seniors flunked this year’s graduation math exam. Yesterday, the state decided to throw out the test—becoming the latest in a long line of states to abandon a bungled program. Meanwhile, Winerip describes another boondoggle. In June 2001, 11 percent of New York seniors failed the state’s 12th grade physics exam. Last year, “[s]tate officials ignored their own consultants…and, at the last minute, changed the scale to make it harder.” Result? In June 2002, 39 percent failed! Over and over, state education agencies have showcased their stunning technical incompetence as they develop these high-stakes tests. New York becomes the latest state to acknowledge a high-profile boondoggle.

Final point: Aside from the technical incompetence of state ed agencies, we must also note the conceptual foolishness of denying diplomas to students like Kimberly Rollman (see Winerip’s column). There are constructive ways to use exit exams to challenge students and record their skill levels—without denying diplomas to kids who have attended school and done what they’re told. Under these programs, the state gives Kim Rollmann the same reward as the kid who dropped out in eighth grade to deal drugs. The absurdity of such a procedure is obvious. And make no mistake—no homogeneous school district on the face of the earth would ever treat its children this way. This is the kind of program with which angry, detached, upper-class bureaucracies seek to punish lower-class children. But as Winerip’s column clearly shows, these bureaucracies aren’t simply heartless. No, they tend to be technical bunglers as well. Who is going to test these testers? Be sure to read Winerip’s column.

The Daily update

SEE KAGAN QUOTE: Most charitably read, Kagan was trying to reinforce the claim that Saddam had WMDs through the start of the war. He quoted UN officials to support that claim. Here was his first such citation:

KAGAN: Go back and take a look at the report Hans Blix delivered to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 27. On the question of Iraq’s stocks of anthrax, Blix reported “no convincing evidence” that they were ever destroyed. But there was “strong evidence” that Iraq produced more anthrax than it had admitted “and that at least some of this was retained.”
Clearly, Kagan wanted to convince his readers that Saddam had anthrax as of January 2003. (Few critics have asserted that he didn’t.) But ironically, Kagan seemed to be willing to goose up a quote—the same conduct charged against Bush. Here at THE HOWLER, we did review that Blix report. Here is the fuller text from which Kagan crafted his excerpt:
BLIX (1/27/03): I have mentioned the issue of anthrax to the Council on previous occasions and I come back to it as it is an important one.

Iraq has declared that it produced about 8,500 liters of this biological warfare agent, which it states it unilaterally destroyed in the summer of 1991. Iraq has provided little evidence for this production and no convincing evidence for its destruction.

There are strong indications that Iraq produced more anthrax than it declared, and that at least some of this was retained after the declared destruction date. It might still exist.

The anthrax “might still exist,” Blix said—implying that it might not exist, too. Did Saddam have anthrax? We don’t have a clue. But this statement by Blix was hardly conclusive. Kagan clipped it down well.

Meanwhile, another Kagan quote grabbed our attention—the one from that “New York Times reporter.” Again, here was the passage in question:

KAGAN: [T]he critics’ real aim is to prove that, as a New York Times reporter recently put it, “the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may mean that there never were any in the first place.”
Had a Times reporter really made such a statement? Frankly, we were dubious. We couldn’t find the quote in various archives, so we asked Kagan who said it—and a Kagan rep fingered David Stout. We were told that the statement appeared on-line, not in a hard-copy edition.

We’re still in the weeds on the matter. NYT archives did record a June 4, on-line piece in which Stout made this perfectly accurate statement:

STOUT: Critics of the war have asserted that the Baghdad regime’s supposed links to terrorists were never proved, and that the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction may mean that Iraq no longer has them.
Clearly, Stout is reporting what others have said, a point Kagan renders ambiguous. But beyond that, the highlighted phrase is different from the phrase Kagan quoted. According to Kagan, someone was claiming that the failure to find WMDs “may mean that there never were any in the first place.” Kagan swatted this odd claim down. But in the piece we found on-line, a much more sensible claim was reported. In Stout’s rendering, the failure to find WMDs “may mean that Iraq no longer has them.”

Did the Kagan quote ever appear? In the past several days, we’ve sent e-mails to three different NYT editors, asking that question. It would seem like a simple matter to resolve. Magisterially, they have chosen not to answer. Stout has offered several replies, but hasn’t quite nailed it down either.

On, the travails of the media hound! But in fact, Bush’s critics have rarely said that Saddam didn’t have anthrax or other WMDs. They have made a long list of serious charges. Bush shills don’t seem to have heard.