"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course. Absolutely," declared President Bush during his most recent news conference. And yet weeks of debate and discussion went into parsing a mere sixteen words from Bush's State of the Union speech in which he falsely claimed to have knowledge that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Niger.
Rather than taking responsibility for his words, Bush and his advisors did everything to avoid taking responsibility. They first attempted to justify the inclusion of the Niger claim, which they knew was dubious, by attributing it to Tony Blair's government. CIA director George Tenet stepped forward to accept the blame for Bush's words and was rewarded by Bush declaring his confidence in Tenet.
The purpose behind this game of musical chairs, of course, is to muddy the waters so that no one has to take responsibility for the president's false remarks. Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that read, "The buck stops here." If Bush had a plaque on his desk, it would say, "The buck stops with Blair, or Tenet, or Condoleeza Rice -- but I forgive them all." In addition to treating responsibility for the president's words like a hot potato, his public relations advisors have tried to pretend that expecting him to tell the truth about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction is petty quibbling over details. The subtle spin behind all this talk about a mere 16 words was the insinuation that everyone is making a mountain out of a molehill. Why make such a big deal, they implied, over a single sentence in which the president may have misspoken.
The reality is that the Bush administration's phony claims about Iraq go well beyond those mere 16 words in the State of the Union address. With respect to weapons of mass destruction alone, those falsehoods included the following:
- On Sept. 7, 2002, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency which he said proved that the Iraqis were on the brink of developing nuclear weapons. "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic--the IAEA--that they were six months away from developing a weapon," he said. "I don't know what more evidence we need." Actually, no such report existed. The IAEA did issue a report in 1998, around the time weapons inspectors were denied access to Iraq, but what it said was, "Based on all credible information to date, the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material." Responding to the Bush speech, IAEA chief spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said, "There's never been a report like that issued from this agency."
- In his Sept. 12, 2002 address to the United Nations, Bush spoke ominously of Iraq's "continued appetite" for nuclear bombs, pointing to the regime's purchase of thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes, which he said were "used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." In fact, the IAEA said in a January 2003 assessment, the size of the tubes made them ill-suited for uranium enrichment, but they were identical to tubes that Iraq had used previously to make conventional artillery rockets. Nevertheless, Colin Powell repeated the aluminum-tubes charge in his speech to the UN on Feb. 5, 2003.
- In an Oct. 7, 2002 speech to the nation, Bush warned that Iraq has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used "for missions targeting the United States." Actually, the aircraft lacked the range to reach the United States.
- In the same speech, Bush also stated that in 1998, "information from a high-ranking Iraqi nuclear engineer who had defected revealed that despite his public promises, Saddam Hussein had ordered his nuclear program to continue." Bush's statement implied that this information was current as of 1998. In fact, the nuclear defector to whom he referred was Khidhir Hamza, who had actually retired from Iraq's nuclear program in 1991 and fled the country in 1995. Bush also neglected to note that Hussein Kamal, whose earlier defection and debriefing by UNSCOM investigators served as the basis for part of the Bush administration's claims about Iraqi weapons, told investigators that he regarded Hamza as a "professional liar."
- Hussein Kamal -- Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who was later murdered by the Iraqi regime as punishment for his defection from Iraq -- was also cited repeatedly by the Bush administration to bolster its case that inspections were not working and that Iraq's weapons programs were continuing. Actually, Kamal had told UNSCOM interrogators during his debriefing that "after the Gulf War, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them. ... Nothing remained. ... All weapons -- biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed." Kamal also told his debriefers that UN inspection teams were "very effective in Iraq."
This list shows only a few of the lies and distortions related to the Bush administration's claims about Iraqi weapons. If space permitted, we could provide an even longer list of falsehoods with which the Bush administration made the rest of its case for war, such as its attempt to insinuate that Iraq was in cahoots with Al Qaeda, or its promises that the Iraqi people would welcome American troops as liberators.
Since Bush's news conference, the mass media has all but dropped the subject of the 16 words, and it has failed to press further with investigations into the many other instances of phony claims for war that we document in our book. The complacent pseudo-journalists who acted as state propagandists in helping sell this war show little interest now in examining the way it was sold. To look closely would risk exposing their own complicity. If the public wants a real investigation into the lies that led us into war, it will have to look outside the narrow window of the corporate media and seek alternative sources of information.
Bush claims to "take responsibility" for his words, but taking responsibility means facing the consequences, and thus far the Bush administration has suffered no consequences whatsoever. The people who have experienced the consequences of Bush's many deceptions are the U.S. soldiers who remain targets of daily attack inside Iraq, the Iraqi people themselves, and of course the American taxpayers who are footing the bill for it all. Everyone, it seems, is expected to shoulder some of the burden of responsibility for the President's words, except for Bush himself.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are the authors of "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq," published this month by Tarcher/Penguin. The book includes a chapter of false statements and deliberate distortions by Bush and his top officials.