October Surprise: Bush Dodges Major Scandals

Election '04

As of today – at least as of this moment – there has been no dramatic October Surprise orchestrated by the Bush crowd: no invasion of Iran, no capture of Osama bin Laden, no anti-Kerry charge that derails the challenger's campaign. And the time for any last-minute play is passing quickly. But Bush and his aides have successfully prevented another sort of October surprise, for in the weeks leading up to E Day a number of inconvenient and uncomfortable questions for Bush have continued to go unanswered. On several fronts, the Bushies have been able to dodge controversies without providing complete accounts. For example, as has been widely reported, the CIA's inspector general's report on the screw-up over Iraq's WMDs is not being released before Nov. 2. With voting already under way – thanks to early voting – and about to finish in days, they have run out the clock on critical matters, several of which might have had an impact on the final tally. Here is merely a partial list.

Those MIA WMDs. The contentious issue of the supposed WMDs in Iraq was resolved recently when the Duelfer report confirmed the earlier findings of weapons hunter David Kay: Iraq had neither WMDs nor active WMD programs in the years before the invasion of Iraq. Months ago, the Senate intelligence committee released a report noting that the intelligence community's prewar conclusions on Iraq's WMDs were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." But what has gone uninvestigated is how Bush and his administration used that intelligence. The Senate intelligence committee, which is run by Republicans, promised a review of this important topic – but only after the election. The case is clear that Bush did overstate the flawed intelligence. For instance, the CIA reported (wrongly) that Iraq had an active bioweapons program, but Bush said publicly that Iraq had "stockpiles" of biological weapons. No official inquiry, however, has examined how Bush and his national security team misused – or abused – the intelligence presented to them. This would be a relatively easy endeavor. Investigators would review the intelligence reports presented to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others, and then compare this information to what these and other administration figures declared publicly. Senate intelligence committee aides have told me such an exercise need not take more than a few months. Yet the committee pushed back this part of its investigation until after the voting. The reason is obvious. And Bush has escaped having to deal with headlines noting that he stretched the intelligence to grease the way to war.

Prewar planning – or the lack thereof. It's no secret that the Bush administration did not prepare adequately for the aftermath of its invasion of Iraq. But there is not much in the public record about the conversations that did or did not occur within the White House on what to do after the invasion. Bob Woodward has reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell reminded Bush of the Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you've bought it. But there has been no congressional inquiry into the prewar planning. What exactly was Bush's attitude regarding the predictable and not-so-predictable post-invasion challenges? How did his national security team handle – or not handle – the matter? Was any of this ever discussed at the presidential level? If so, what was said? If not, why not?

The Wilson leak. It's been over 15 months since two administration officials leaked the CIA identity of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife. The Justice Department is still investigating, but Bush has displayed little interest in resolving this whodunit. These days it seems that the lead lawyer on the case, Pat Fitzgerald, has been targeting journalists more than the culprits. Bush has never said much publicly that would indicate he truly wants the leakers identified. (The leak – possibly a federal crime – derailed the career of Valerie Wilson, a covert CIA official working to counter the spread of WMDs, and undermined national security.) Moreover, after the leak appeared in an article by conservative columnist Robert Novak, White House aides talked it up and tried to push the story further. The White House has never acknowledged or explained fully how administration aides attempted to use the leak, once it happened, to discredit or punish Wilson for having challenged the administration on its claim that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger. Who was responsible for the leak? Which Bush aides tried to compound the harm done by the leak? What steps did Bush take to get to the bottom of all this? There are no answers.

The phony Niger documents. Someone tried to dupe the U.S. government and others into believing that Iraq had cut a deal with Niger to obtain uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapons program. Documents were forged, and they eventually ended up with U.S. intelligence. Who was behind this? And what was the motive? Was this merely a prank? Or did a foreign intelligence service or another government want to concoct evidence that could be used in the case for war? Perhaps more mysterious is the Bush administration's lack of public curiosity about this. Bush has never vowed to find out who tried to flimflam the U.S. government. There have been hints that congressional and federal investigators have been probing the matter. But the White House has been mostly silent, and Bush has said nothing to indicate that he wants answers, and he wants them now. Why is that?

The anthrax investigation. Why has the Bush administration failed to discover who was responsible for the anthrax attacks that targeted members of Congress and prominent media figures, forced the shut down of congressional offices, and killed several Americans? Why can't the FBI do this job?

Letting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi go. Bush has pointed to the horrific terrorist acts mounted in Iraq by Zarqawi and his followers – car bombs, beheadings, assassinations – as justification for the war in Iraq. Look, Bush argues, Zarqawi is evidence that the war in Iraq is indeed a critical component of the war on terrorism. But last March, NBC News reported that thrice before the war in Iraq the Pentagon drew up plans to attack Zarqawi and that each time the White House nixed the strike. The Wall Street Journal confirmed this several days ago. Why didn't Bush hit Zarqawi when he had the chance? The White House claims the intelligence was not sound enough, though former government officials told the Journal that was not so. NBC News reported, "Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." So did Bush pass up the chance to attack Zarqawi – whom he now cites as justification for the invasion of Iraq – because he was too obsessed with invading Iraq? The Zarqawi episode has drawn not much media attention, and Bush has avoided fielding tough questions about the decision to ignore Zarqawi before the war.

The censored Senate report on 9/11. When the Senate intelligence committee released its report last year on the Sept. 11 attacks, the 27-page chapter on the Saudi connection to the hijackers was censored by the White House. What precisely did it say? And why did the Bush White House insist that it not be made public – even after the Saudi government publicly requested the pages be released?

Bush and his past. Bush's stint in the Texas Air National Guard and questionable episodes during his business career have attracted spasms of media attention during Bush's first term. Still, the key questions remain. Bush has yet to provide a definitive explanation of why he failed to take a flight test and was grounded as an Air National Guard pilot. And after all the fuss about his military service, he has failed to offer a full and convincing account of what he did to fulfill his Guard obligation from May 1972 to May 1973. As for his business dealings, Bush has never answered a question put to him in 2002. At the time, there was renewed media interest in his tenure as director of Harken Energy, a company that in the mid-1980s bailed out Bush's failing oil firm and placed him on its board. One piece of the Harken tale involved the company arranging an Enron-ish sham deal so it could understate its losses and keep its stock price inflated. Bush benefited from this untoward transaction. With the stock price high because of these shenanigans, he sold off much of his Harken shares and bagged $848,000, which he used to cover a bank loan he had taken to obtain an interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team. So the obvious question was, was Bush involved in the bogus deal? When a reporter asked him this in 2002, he said, "You need to go look back on the directors' minutes." But the minutes were not publicly available, and the White House declined to ask Harken to release them. To this day, Bush has not publicly said if he had a role in that transaction.

And another curious piece of Bush's past was in the news recently. Last week, Knight Ridder newspapers published a story reporting that people who worked with Bush at an inner-city program for troubled teens in Houston in 1973 said that Bush had been forced to work there because he had gotten into some sort of trouble. Bush has maintained that Josh White, a friend of his (who died in 1988), had asked Bush "to come help him run the program," which was called the Professional United Leadership League (PULL). But PULL veterans told Knight Ridder that White had taken in Bush as a favor to Bush's father and that Bush, an unpaid volunteer, had not helped run the program. One said PULL had to keep track of the hours Bush put in. This raises the possibility – which has been noted previously by Bush biographers – that Bush's tenure at PULL was a form of community service Bush was compelled to conduct for one reason or another.

The Neil Bush scandal. Last year, sordid and odd details of Neil Bush's private and business life were revealed during his divorce proceedings. It seems that Bush's younger brother – who in the mid-1980s was implicated in a $1.5 billion savings and loan scandal – signed a consulting deal in 2002 with Grace Semiconductor, a Shanghai-based company partly managed by the son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, that earned him (make that: awarded him) $2 million in stock over five years and $10,000 per board meeting. How much experience did Neil Bush have in the semiconductor field? None. And a firm called Crest Investment was paying Neil Bush $60,000 annually for providing what he called "advice" to the company's chairman. Neil Bush also acknowledged that while he was on business trips in Asia women showed up at his hotel room and had sex with him. (He was married to Sharon Bush at the time). So here's a presidential brother receiving millions of dollars from a Chinese source without offering much in return, and it hardly rates as a scandal. Imagine if Roger Clinton had scored such a sweet deal (with or without the sex). The GOPers in Congress would have decried the arrangement and held hearings for years. In this case, there are some rather obvious questions. Are any foreign interests trying to gain favor within the Bush clan? Has the Chinese firm tried to use Neil Bush to influence the action of the U.S. government or any other government? Does Neil Bush – or brother Marvin, another wheeler-dealer – have any other suspicious deals? How else might they be cashing in on their brother? Has George W. Bush asked Neil about his business dealings? And, by the way, who supplied the women?

Oh, there's so much the public still doesn't fully know. What exactly went on with that special intelligence unit set up in the Pentagon by the neocons and designed to provide the White House with factoids that supposedly indicated al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots? Did Cheney apply pressure upon intelligence analysts? (The Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee say no; others say yes.) What happened during those meetings with energy industry executives when Cheney was pulling together a White House energy plan? And with whom did Cheney's task force meet? What's the deal with former Secretary of State James Baker, who has been Bush's envoy on Iraqi debt but who also works with the Carlyle Group, which has sought to use its relationship with Baker to win a billion-dollar deal with Kuwait involving Iraq's debt? What actually occurred when a federal employee was prevented from releasing the real cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug benefits legislation (which were $156 billion higher than the administration's estimate)? What was Bush told about the threat from al Qaeda before 9/11? And did Bush really attack Iraq because of WMDs?

But the Bush gang has managed to keep much under wraps. They clearly do not believe in democracy as an activity predicated upon informed consent. This is a need-to-know crowd, and, from its perspective, there's plenty the public does not need to know – especially on Election Day.

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