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Dirty Tricks

When Republicans fret, they tend to lash out. Desperate times call for desperate negative ads.
Here come the dirty bombs.

I'm not referring to the most recent terror alert, which just so happened to coincide with the conclusion of the Democrats' successful convention. (Isn't it awful that the public – quite justifiably – cannot approach the Bush administration's terror announcements without a healthy dose of cynicism?) No, the dirty bombs being launched these days are coming from GOP HQ.

No sooner had Commander Kerry accomplished his mission in Boston – by presenting himself as a serious, smart, firm and sensible alternative to George W. Bush – the Bush campaign declared its intention to rip the former war-hero-turned-war-foe into small pieces. It's not as if the Bush crew hadn't already tried to blast Kerry to smithereens. In the first half of this year, it spent tens of millions of dollar on ads that claimed Kerry was a flip-flopping, equivocating, say-anything pol (who voted for the liberal position 97 percent of the time). Those negative ads took a toll; polls showed that some folks absorbed the GOP's anti-Kerry message. But they did not produce as big a bang as many GOPers expected for all those bucks.

And in the wake of a convention that highlighted Kerry's resolve as a soldier (who actually killed the enemy) and his commitment to certain bedrock principles (such as being honest when assessing threats to the national interest) it might be tough for the campaign of a missing-in-nonaction Guardsman who misled the nation into war to portray Kerry as a weak, vacillating and untrustworthy fellow. So Bush's first post-convention line of attack was to assail Kerry for having achieved little in his 19 years as a senator.

Desperate times call for desperate negative ads. Bush is doing okay in some polls against Kerry, not-so-okay in others. But his approval rating has been on a steady decline for months. A majority of Americans tell pollsters they believe the Iraq war was a mistake; more than 60 percent say the war was not worth it, and in the past two months, Bush's credibility has fallen dramatically, according to the polls.  Republicans ought to be worried. And when they fret, they tend to lash out.

Two recent examples show how reckless and vicious GOPers can get. When the news broke weeks ago that former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger had removed classified documents related to terrorism and notes from a secured viewing room at the National Archives, leading Republicans and conservative commentators – including House Speaker Denny Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – went berserk.  With little information available about what Berger had done – he claimed he had taken papers out with him by accident and returned most of them later – they accused Berger of stuffing documents down his pants and suggested he had swiped documents to cover up misdeeds or mistakes committed by the Clinton administration and to prevent the 9/11 Commission from finding out truths that would trouble or embarrass the Clinton gang. 

But days ago, The Wall Street Journal reported, "Officials looking into the removal of classified documents from the National Archives by former Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel Berger say no original materials are missing and nothing Mr. Berger reviewed was withheld from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.... The conclusion by archives officials and others would seem to lay to rest the issue of whether any information was permanently destroyed or withheld from the commission." This, of course, doesn't explain what actually happened, but it does take the fizz out of attacks initiated by Republicans before the facts were in.

Before Berger became the target of the GOP hit squad, former ambassador Joseph Wilson – whose wife was outed by unnamed Bush officials as an undercover CIA officer after Wilson challenged Bush's claim that Iraq had been uranium shopping in Africa – was in their crosshairs. The fuss began when the Senate intelligence committee released its report on the prewar intelligence on Iraq. The GOP-led committee declared that the intelligence community had "overstated" and "mischaracterized" the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It noted that prewar claims about Iraq's WMDs "were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." The committee also concluded that the CIA had "reasonably assessed" there was no working relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq.  This meant that Bush's primary rationale for the war – Iraq posed an "immediate" threat to the United States because Saddam Hussein was loaded with WMDs he could share with his pals in Al Qaeda – was bullshit. But how did leading voices of the right – The National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times columnist William Safire – respond to the damning report, which was bad news for Bush? They pounced on Wilson and claimed that he, not Bush, was the liar.

One section of the report focused on the claim that Iraq had been trying to procure yellowcake uranium in Niger. In examining the Niger allegation – and Bush's reference to it in his 2003 State of the Union address – the committee looked at Wilson's role in the episode. And Wilson's detractors, who also are supporters of Bush and the war, have cited material in this chapter to charge that Wilson lied when he claimed his wife did not set up his trip to Niger as an unofficial CIA envoy and when he declared his trip had provided evidence that the Niger allegation was "highly doubtful."

But Wilson's foes made highly selective use of the committee's report. For instance, Wilson's detractors pointed to the section of the report that stated that some intelligence analysts had considered the information Wilson reported back to CIA to be partial confirmation of the Niger allegation. A-ha, his critics exclaimed, this shows that Wilson lied when he said his trip proved the Niger allegation was unlikely. But here's what happened: When Wilson was in Niger, he met with past and present government officials and people connected to the uranium industry. After these discussions, Wilson concluded it was unlikely such a uranium deal could have transpired, given the tight controls imposed on Niger's uranium business by the international consortiums in charge of it.  But, according to the Senate report, some analysts thought that because a former prime minister had told Wilson he had met with an Iraqi business delegation that the prime minister had assumed was interested in uranium, the Wilson trip was partial corroboration of the Niger allegation – even though the former prime minister also said this meeting led to no further action. A senior State Department analyst, however, told the committee that he considered Wilson's report to confirm the State Department's view that the allegation was "highly suspect."

Wilson's interpretation was not initially accepted by all the analysts. That hardly makes him a liar. And the intelligence community eventually came to the same conclusion he did. Over a year later, the CIA wrote a memo saying, "we no longer believe that there is sufficient... reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from aboard." Ultimately, Wilson's record on accuracy has been better than that of his critics, who have twisted and manipulated information in an effort to discredit Wilson and to change the subject from Bush's false prewar assertions. But by throwing so much dirt at Wilson, his conservative assailants managed to muddy the waters. And Wall Street Journal editorialists, citing the phony charges against Wilson, called for ending the criminal investigation into the leak that disclosed his wife's CIA identity – as if it would be fine for the White House to out a CIA officer if his or her spouse had fibbed in public.

No doubt, part of the motivation for the right's hyperbolic attacks on Berger and Wilson was their position as foreign policy advisers to Kerry. (Berger has since resigned from the campaign.) And in looking to destroy the Democrats' top dog, the Bush campaign and its comrades will continue to comb through the 6,000 votes Kerry has cast in the Senate. They will be looking for votes they can depict as inconsistencies. (See, he voted for this welfare reform bill, but voted against that welfare reform bill.) And they will be searching for votes that can be misrepresented. (He's weak on defense: He voted to slice a nickel out of this military appropriations bill.) They will mock his positions (He wants to put the UN in charge of U.S. security!). They will encourage various whispering campaigns (He wasn't wounded that badly in Vietnam).

Political consultants always say that it is easier for a candidate to bring down his opponent's numbers (with attacks) than to boost his or her own (with positive messages). Bush's numbers have been trending south for most of this year. He will have a difficult time convincing a majority of voters he is trustworthy and has been doing a good job. So he and his team will have to tear Kerry apart. After the Democratic convention, that is a tougher assignment. But Republicans will not be reluctant to do whatever it takes to make sure this mission gets accomplished. Just ask Berger or Wilson.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and author of "The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception."
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