For Bush, Facts Are Malleable
Presidential Tradition Of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
[Washington Post - Tuesday, October 22, 2002; Page A01]
President Bush, speaking to the nation this month about the need to challenge Saddam Hussein, warned that Iraq has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used "for missions targeting the United States."
Last month, asked if there were new and conclusive evidence of Hussein's nuclear weapons capabilities, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying the Iraqis were "six months away from developing a weapon." And last week, the president said objections by a labor union to having customs officials wear radiation detectors has the potential to delay the policy "for a long period of time."
All three assertions were powerful arguments for the actions Bush sought. And all three statements were dubious, if not wrong. Further information revealed that the aircraft lack the range to reach the United States; there was no such report by the IAEA; and the customs dispute over the detectors was resolved long ago.
As Bush leads the nation toward a confrontation with Iraq and his party into battle in midterm elections, his rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy in recent weeks. Statements on subjects ranging from the economy to Iraq suggest that a president who won election underscoring Al Gore's knack for distortions and exaggerations has been guilty of a few himself.
Presidential embroidery is, of course, a hoary tradition. Ronald Reagan was known for his apocryphal story about liberating a concentration camp. Bill Clinton fibbed famously and under oath about his personal indiscretions to keep a step ahead of Whitewater prosecutors. Richard M. Nixon had his Watergate denials, and Lyndon B. Johnson was often accused of stretching the truth to put the best face on the Vietnam War. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, too, played with the truth during the Gary Powers and Bay of Pigs episodes.
"Everybody makes mistakes when they open their mouths and we forgive them," Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess said. Some of Bush's overstatements appear to be off-the-cuff mistakes. But, Hess said, "what worries me about some of these is they appear to be with foresight. This is about public policy in its grandest sense, about potential wars and who is our enemy, and a president has a special obligation to getting it right."
The White House, while acknowledging that on one occasion the president was "imprecise," said it stands by his words. "The president's statements are well documented and supported by the facts," Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "We reject any allegation to the contrary."
In stop after stop across the country, Bush has cited an impressive statistic in his bid to get Congress to approve terrorism insurance legislation. "There's over $15 billion of construction projects which are on hold, which aren't going forward -- which means there's over 300,000 jobs that would be in place, or soon to be in place, that aren't in place," is how he put it last week in Michigan.
But these are not government estimates. The $15 billion figure comes from the Real Estate Roundtable, a trade group that is leading the fight for the legislation and whose members have much to gain. After pleas earlier this year from the White House for "hard evidence" to make its case for terrorism insurance, the roundtable got the information from an unscientific survey of members, who were asked to provide figures with no documentation.
The 300,000 jobs number, the White House said, was supplied by the carpenters' union. But a union official said the White House apparently "extrapolated" the number from a Transportation Department study of federal highway aid -- not private real estate -- that the union had previously cited.
The president has also taken some liberties as he argues for his version of homeland security legislation. He often suggests in stump speeches that the union covering customs workers is blocking the wearing of radiation detectors. "The leadership of that particular group of people said, 'No way; we need to have a collective bargaining session over whether or not our people should be made to wear these devices,' " he said in Michigan last week. "And that could take a long period of time."
The National Treasury Employees Union did indeed argue in January that the radiation devices should be voluntary, and it called for negotiations. But five days later, the Customs Service said it saw no need to negotiate and would begin to implement the policy, which it did. After a subsequent exchange between the union president and Customs Service commissioner, the union wrote in April that it "does not object" to mandatory wearing of the devices.
The Customs Service said the delay had less to do with the dispute than the fact that customs lacks enough devices (about 4,000 are on order). The White House and Customs Service said the dispute was settled in part because Bush had the authority to waive collective bargaining, although he did not exercise it.
On Sept. 7, meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David, Bush told reporters: "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. I don't know what more evidence we need."
The IAEA did issue a report in 1998, around the time weapons inspectors were denied access to Iraq for the final time, but the report made no such assertion. It declared: "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." The report said Iraq had been six to 24 months away from nuclear capability before the 1991 Gulf War.
The White House said that Bush "was imprecise on this" and that the source was U.S. intelligence, not the IAEA.
In the president's Oct. 7 speech to the nation from Cincinnati, he introduced several rationales for taking action against Iraq. Describing contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq, Bush cited "one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year." He asserted that "we have discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet" of unmanned aircraft and expressed worry about them "targeting the United States."
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." He added, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," an alliance that "could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."
In each of these charges, Bush omitted qualifiers that make the accusations seem less convincing. In the case of the al Qaeda leader receiving medical treatment, U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that the terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was no longer in Iraq and that there was no hard evidence Hussein's government knew he was there or had contact with him. On the matter of the aircraft, a CIA report this month suggested that the fleet was more of an "experiment" and "attempt" and labeled it a "serious threat to Iraq's neighbors and to international military forces in the region" -- but said nothing about it having sufficient range to threaten the United States.
Bush's statement about the Iraqi nuclear defector, implying such information was current in 1998, was a reference to Khidhir Hamza. But Hamza, though he spoke publicly about his information in 1998, retired from Iraq's nuclear program in 1991, fled to the Iraqi north in 1994 and left the country in 1995. Finally, Bush's statement that Iraq could attack "on any given day" with terrorist groups was at odds with congressional testimony by the CIA. The testimony, declassified after Bush's speech, rated the possibility as "low" that Hussein would initiate a chemical or biological weapons attack against the United States but might take the "extreme step" of assisting terrorists if provoked by a U.S. attack.
White House spokesmen said in response that it was "unrealistic" to assume Iraqi authorities did not know of Zarqawi's presence and that Iraq's unmanned aircraft could be launched from ships or trucks outside Iraq.
Some of the disputed Bush assertions are matters of perspective.
Bush often says, as he did Friday in Missouri, that "because of a quirk in the rules in the United States Senate, after a 10-year period, the tax-relief plan we passed goes away." There is a Senate rule that required a 60-vote majority for the tax cut, but the decision to let the cuts expire was based on pragmatic considerations. Proponents of the cut from the House and Senate -- both under GOP control at the time -- decided to have the tax cut expire after nine years to keep its price tag within the $1.35 trillion over 10 years that had been agreed between lawmakers and Bush.
Other times, the president's assertions simply outpace the facts. In New Hampshire earlier this month, he said his education legislation made "the biggest increase in education spending in a long, long time."
In fact, the 15.8 percent increase in Department of Education discretionary spending for fiscal year 2002 (the figures the White House supplied when asked about Bush's statement) was below the 18.5 percent increase under Clinton the previous year -- and Bush had wanted a much smaller increase than Congress approved. Earlier this month, Republican moderates complained to Bush's budget director, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., that the administration was not spending the full amount for education that Congress approved. Daniels said it was "nothing uncommon" and decried the "explosively larger education bill."