White House Takes On Iraq Critics

The White House is striking back at critics of the administration's use of pre-Iraq war intelligence. Bush officials are stressing that everyone — including senators critical of the White House — saw the same data. National security correspondent Jackie Northam assesses the strategy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush was across the globe today in Korea, but even there he couldn't avoid the issue of Iraq. The president kept up a strategy the White House began in earnest last week: a fierce counterstrike to critics of the administration's policy in Iraq and the use of prewar intelligence.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It is irresponsible to say that I deliberately misled the American people when it came to the very same intelligence they looked at and came to--many of them came to the same conclusion I did.

NORRIS: Vice President Dick Cheney took a page out of the same playbook for a speech last night in Washington, DC.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: That the president of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: We're going to take a look at some of the statements members of the administration have been making recently to assess their accuracy. Here to help us out is NPR's Jackie Northam.

Jackie, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been saying that Congress had access to the same intelligence that they had in the lead-up to the war. Is that, in fact, correct?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

No, it's not. First of all, Congress is not privy to something called the president's daily brief, which is a compilation of highly classified recent intelligence regarding real national security concerns, and that information is often accompanied by a verbal brief. Before the war, the presidential daily brief was sent to President Bush by then-CIA Chief George Tenet, and there's no way of knowing for sure what was in those briefs each day and definitely it's hard to say how much, if any, was actually kept from Congress.

The other issue about prewar intelligence is that much of what the administration used in building its case to go to war was based on really bad information, most of which has proved to be false. For example, listen to President Bush in early October of 2002.

(Soundbite of October 2002 speech)

Pres. BUSH: We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making, in poisons and deadly gases.

NORTHAM: Now this is the type of intelligence that was widely disputed at the time by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The president made the speech we just heard in October 2002. However, eight months earlier, the DIA said that that information--which came from an al-Qaeda operative--was unreliable and it said essentially that it should not be used. As you heard, the president made the speech and relied on that information eight months after the DIA said that. So this is the type of thing that has caused many members of Congress to say that they were misled.

NORRIS: Now, Jackie, certainly the al-Qaeda/Iraq link was one of the key reasons for going to war. So, too, was the whole weapons of mass destruction issue. And Democrats and also some Republicans say intelligence officials faced enormous pressure to come up with information that actually beefed up the administration's case to go to war. There was an investigation that looked into whether intelligence officials were pressured to change their assessment. Here's President Bush speaking on that point last week on Veterans Day.

(Soundbite of November 11, 2005, speech)

Pres. BUSH: Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.

NORRIS: As we heard the president say, `no evidence of political pressure,' Jackie, can you tell us about that investigation?

NORTHAM: Well, in fact, that was one of two investigations that were set up to really look at the prewar intelligence. One of those was carried out by a commission that actually the president appointed and it was completed in March of this year. And as you say, and as the president said, it found no evidence that senior members of the Bush administration had pressured intelligence officers to change their conclusions regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.

However, that commission did not look into how intelligence was presented both to Congress and then, by extension, the public. So they got it that they weren't pressurized, but they didn't know how it was used after that essentially and, in fact, whether the government exaggerated the threat that Iraq posed at the time. And the authors of this report made it clear on its completion that that wasn't in their mandate. They were not set out to examine that at all, so they left it.

The second report is by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and it, too, found no evidence that intelligence agents were forced to change their findings. But it did find that the agents were constantly being questioned by senior administration officials, including the vice president himself, to go back, look at the information again, rethink it, think outside the box, that type of thing. So they said there was a huge pressure at the time.

NORRIS: Jackie, we should point out here that many of the lawmakers that now criticize the White House and the Iraq policy themselves voted for the war and voted in favor of funding the war in Iraq. So they have some explaining to do of their own.

NORTHAM: You're right. The administration makes it very clear that the Democrats and critics of the government smell blood in the water and they're going to use this opportunity to really gain ground, so to speak. And one of the ways to do it is to criticize the war, criticize the administration, `Why did we go in there? You misled us,' that type of thing. And the administration has said, `Lookit, you voted for it. OK? Stand by your beliefs.' And certainly, Vice President Cheney said yesterday that you have to show some backbone, that type of thing.

So, Michele, you know, in Washington here, you got both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue arguing back and forth on that. Is anybody all right? Is anybody all wrong? Probably not. This is politics in a large way, as well.

NORRIS: NPR's Jackie Northam. Jackie, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

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