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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Switching Stories

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page A39

When you spend so much time torturing the truth, it's hard to keep your story straight -- or even remember what you just said.

The most remarkable moment in Tuesday's debate between Vice President Cheney and Sen. John Edwards came when Cheney issued a blanket denial of the obvious.

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Edwards, who proved both his value and his loyalty to Democratic nominee John Kerry, declared that "there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th. Period. The 9/11 Commission has said that's true. Colin Powell has said it's true. But the vice president keeps suggesting that there is."

What Cheney said next was, literally, incredible: "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11."

This is the same Cheney who, just minutes before, in the very same debate, had defended the attack on Iraq by declaring flatly that Saddam Hussein "had an established relationship with al Qaeda." Hello? If that is not a "suggestion" of a connection, what is?

Well, this: On Sept. 14, 2003, Cheney said Iraq was at the heart of "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."

If the Cheney-Edwards debate made nothing else clear, it is that the central issue in this presidential election is becoming the administration's lack of credibility and its tendency to say whatever is convenient to make whatever case it is trying to make.

Day by day, we learn more and more about how the administration led the nation into war by distorting intelligence and twisting facts. A president who once condemned a mentality that declared "if it feels good, do it" has now embraced a related principle: "If it sounds good, say it."

On Sunday the New York Times published an extensive report showing that in its public statements before the war, the administration "repeatedly failed to fully disclose" divisions in the intelligence community over the alleged nuclear threat posed by Iraq.

In September 2002, Cheney declared that high-strength aluminum tubes that Saddam Hussein had imported, allegedly to build uranium centrifuges, constituted "irrefutable evidence" that he was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program. It turned out, the Times reported, that "the government's foremost nuclear experts seriously doubted that the tubes were for nuclear weapons." The evidence, in other words, was not "irrefutable."

But nothing -- even our knowledge that Iraq did not have those weapons of mass destruction -- stops Cheney from making the same scary case now that he was making before the war. "The effort that we've mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction," he said during the debate. "The biggest threat we face today is the possibility of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon or a biological agent into one of our own cities and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans."

Note the double use of the word possibility and that other phrase, most likely. Quite a contrast to the "irrefutable" certainties the administration was peddling before the war. But we're supposed to ignore the fudge words. The words "nuclear weapon" and "biological agent" are supposed to frighten us into voting for Bush-Cheney -- just as we were frightened into war.

But the administration's lack of trustworthiness is making it ever harder for the president and vice president to shroud their failures behind alarming rhetoric.

Cheney's soliloquy about nukes and bioweapons came in response to a question from moderator Gwen Ifill about former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer's statement on Monday that the United States did not have enough troops on the ground to prevent "an atmosphere of lawlessness" from taking hold in Iraq. A Post story quoted an earlier Bremer speech in which he said that "the single most important change -- the one thing that would have improved the situation -- would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation.

Not a single word of Cheney's answer was responsive to Ifill's question. He couldn't defend the administration's strategy. He didn't even mention the word "Bremer."

The political take on the debate will see Cheney as a more skillful, more informed debater than Bush, and Edwards as Cheney's equal. But the substantive point is more important: The administration's story is falling apart. Bush and Cheney mercilessly attack their opponents and promote a climate of fear because they are finding it increasingly difficult to defend the choices they made and the words they have spoken.

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