In recent weeks, pundits and bloggers have done a heck of a job, as the president might put it, of demolishing the Bush administration's mendacious claims that Democrats had access to the same intelligence on Iraq in the run-up to the war. Democrats have powerfully demonstrated that in fact, George W. Bush and company did deprive them of huge amounts of intel in their rush to stampede the nation into undertaking their invasion.
But the picture remains incomplete. Anyone who honestly reckons with what happened in the prelude to the war has to acknowledge an uncomfortable fact: While there's no longer any real question that the Bush administration lied and twisted and withheld intelligence, Democrats can't seriously claim to have supported the war simply because they were duped into it.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed that will likely serve as a template for many future Democratic mea culpas, John Edwards wrote: "I was wrong," adding, "The argument for going to war with Iraq was based on intelligence that we now know was inaccurate." But Edwards and every other Dem should have known that some of the intelligence was questionable — even before the war. In the six months leading up to the invasion, there was already a great deal of evidence in plain view, for anyone who cared to see it, that Bush and company were manipulating intelligence to sell Congress and the nation a bill of goods. But even as this evidence mushroomed, many Democrats all but ignored it, or at least didn't let it dent their support for Bush's invasion.
As Mel Goodman, a longtime CIA analyst who has attacked Bush's we-all-had-the-same-intelligence claims, put it recently, "If Congress was hoodwinked, then it helped to apply its own blinders." He's right.
To be sure, no Democrat could possibly have known just how much intel the Bush administration had kept hidden or could have imagined depth and breadth of Bush administration mendacity, as Kevin Drum has effectively demonstrated. Nonetheless, to read over the public record in the months-long pre-war frenzy is to relive a truly awful period, in which one sign after another of Bush-Cheney's deceptions came to light but had little impact on the pro-war sentiment that had gripped some leading figures in D.C.'s liberal-Democratic establishment.
Way back in early October 2002, in the days leading up to the vote on the war resolution, Florida Senator Bob Graham, then the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, already was publicly warning fellow Democrats that Bush and Cheney were withholding intelligence critical to evaluating the administration's claims about Iraq. After exerting much pressure, Graham compelled then-CIA director George Tenet to release previously-classified portions of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. This intelligence made it absolutely clear that the CIA disagreed with one of Bush's most incendiary claims: that Saddam might without provocation place WMDs in the hands of terrorists who could use them to attack America.
Given that this intelligence, which was reported by major news organizations, was only squeezed out of Tenet after considerable effort, and given that even more intelligence remained classified, this episode alone was a clear sign that extensive manipulation might be taking place. (Several days later, leading congressional Democrats, anxiously eyeing the upcoming midterm elections, voted for the war resolution anyway.)
Taken together, all this means that even before the war, it was clear that Bush had tried to keep intelligence that undercut his allegations out of sight of Congress; and that the CIA intelligence that did come to light showed that the agency didn't support even one of Bush's major charges; and that perhaps the most credible voice on Iraq — Blix — took issue with virtually every Bush allegation; and that the one chunk of intelligence purportedly showing Iraq's nuclear ambitions had been faked; and that another was a third-rate clip-job. After all that — and there was more — could anyone possibly not have concluded that at least some intelligence was being cherry-picked and twisted? Yet leading Democrats approached this obvious wide-ranging deception campaign all too cautiously as they voiced broad support for an invasion.
Even as late as June 2003 — after the Saddam statue had fallen on CNN with Wolf Blitzer chattering excitedly in the background — as it was first becoming clear that WMDs were nowhere to be found, too many Dems were still reluctant to point out the obvious: we'd all been misled, repeatedly. While some Dems cautiously raised questions, aides to John Kerry, John Edwards and other Dems eyeing 2004 even confided to The Times that they were wary of assailing the administration for the missing weapons, apparently because they were wary of tarnishing what then looked like a successful invasion. Indeed, Kerry and Edwards didn't really begin extensively criticizing the administration for misleading the nation until Democratic Primary politics made it necessary the following fall, when Howard Dean's antiwar candidacy was taking off.
Does acknowledging this Democratic failure in any way invalidate the Democrats' current critique of Bush for cooking the intelligence and lying to spur the nation into war? Not at all.
The larger and more important story — and by far the larger moral failing, of course — remains that, as Steve Clemons recently put it, "Bush and Cheney wanted to go to war and punished and beat up all those who stood in their way." And thanks to Murray Waas, =http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/06/politics/06intel.html?ex=1288933200&en=5a216116a0310ce1&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss>Douglas Jehl, the Los Angeles Times and others, we're learning that the scope of deception was far more extensive than anyone could possibly have imagined. What's more, Bush and Cheney, who of course bear primary responsibility for the Iraq fiasco, have provoked the current Democratic assault with their own double-barreled blast of lies about what the Democrats knew, and when.
Still, it's crucial that at this moment of national introspection, Democrats reckon honestly with their own conduct during the lead-up to what has become a foreign-policy disaster of monumental proportions. It would give their current critique of the administration's pre-war conduct maximum credibility, which is exactly what it needs and deserves.
Greg Sargent, a contributing editor at New York magazine, writes biweekly for The American Prospect Online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Greg Sargent
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved