washingtonpost.com
A Pattern of Deception

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 5, 2007 2:27 PM

President Bush changed the way he talked about Iran in August: He stopped making explicit assertions about the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

On Monday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a new national intelligence estimate in which the nation's 16 intelligence agencies concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program four years ago -- a dramatic rejection of an earlier set of findings.

Bush yesterday said he was only briefed about the new estimate last week.

But a close examination of his word choice over the past year suggests that he learned something around August that got him to stop making claims that were apparently no longer supported by American intelligence.

Instead of directly condemning Iranian leaders for pursuing nuclear weapons, he started more vaguely accusing them of seeking the knowledge necessary to make such a weapon.

Even as he did that, however, he and the vice president accelerated their rhetorical efforts to persuade the public that the nuclear threat posed by Iran was grave and urgent. Bush went so far in late August and October as to warn of the potential for a nuclear holocaust.

Indeed, a careful parsing of Bush's words indicates that, while not saying anything that could later prove to be demonstrably false, Bush left his listeners with what he likely knew was a fundamentally false impression. And he did so in the pursuit of a more muscular and possibly even military approach to a Middle Eastern country.

It's an oddly familiar pattern of deception.

Bush's Changing Words

A survey of Bush's remarks about Iran's nuclear ambitions in 2007 suggests that a shift took place somewhere between August 6 and August 9. There wasn't a change in his overall message, just his carefully chosen words.

Here's Bush on Jan. 26: "As you know, the Iranians, for example, think they want to have a nuclear weapon. And we've convinced other nations to join us to send a clear message, through the United Nations, that that's unacceptable behavior."

On March 31: "Our position is that we would hope that nations would be very careful in dealing with Iran, particularly since Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and a major threat to world peace is if the Iranians had a nuclear weapon. . . .

"We respect the history of Iran, we respect the rich traditions of Iran. We, however, are deeply concerned about an Iranian government that is in violation of international accords in their attempt to develop a nuclear weapon."

On June 5: "The Iranians are a great people who deserve to chart their own future, but they are denied their liberty by a handful of extremists whose pursuit of nuclear weapons prevents their country from taking its rightful place amongst the thriving."

On June 19, Bush spoke of "consequences to the Iranian government if they continue to pursue a nuclear weapon, such as financial sanctions, or economic sanctions. . . .

"Now, whether or not they abandon their nuclear weapons program, we'll see."

On July 12: "[T]he same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map is also providing sophisticated IEDs to extremists in Iraq who are using them to kill American soldiers."

On Aug. 6 he said "it's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to a destabilizing force. After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."

From that point on, he started choosing his words more carefully.

Here he is on Aug. 9: "They have expressed their desire to be able to enrich uranium, which we believe is a step toward having a nuclear weapons program. That, in itself, coupled with their stated foreign policy, is very dangerous for world stability. . . . It's a very troubling nation right now."

But it certainly didn't tame the overall message.

Here he is on Aug. 28: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.

"We seek an Iran whose government is accountable to its people -- instead of to leaders who promote terror and pursue the technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons."

Oct. 4: "I have made the commitment that I would continue to work with the world to speak with one voice to the Iranians, to the Iranian government, that we will work in ways that we can to make it clear to you that you should not have the know-how on how to make a weapon, because one of the great threats to peace and the world would be if Iranians showed up with a nuclear weapon."

And, of course, here Bush is at his Oct. 17 press conference:

Q: "But you definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon?"

Bush: "I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace.

"But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

Sharp-Eyed Bloggers

Blogger Josh Marshall examines Bush's wording at that press conference and notes: "It's no longer the need to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb. Now it's the necessity of 'preventing them from hav[ing] the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.'

"That's the tell.

"That change is no accident. He wants claims that will survive the eventual revelation of this new intelligence -- while also continuing to hype the imminence of the Iranian nuclear threat that his spy chiefs are telling him likely does not exist."

And here is Cheney a few days later, on Oct. 21, in what is widely considered the height of his saber-rattling, speaking of "the inescapable reality of Iran's nuclear program; a program they claim is strictly for energy purposes, but which they have worked hard to conceal; a program carried out in complete defiance of the international community and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. The world knows this. . . .

"The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences. The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

As Matthew Yglesias blogs for The Atlantic, "the striking thing about this is the extent to which looking back at Cheney's statement he's tried very carefully to avoid directly contradicting the NIE while crafting phrases that are clearly designed to cause the listener to draw the precise wrong conclusion.

"It's not as if Cheney read the NIE and decided he had some reason to believe it was incorrect. Rather, he read it, decided he'd better not contradict it, but also decided that bottom line conclusions about how Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program were inconvenient, and thus decided to talk around that minor point and try to get the American people confused about what's happening. Stunningly cynical and yes I'm resolving once again to never be stunned."

What Happened in August?

At Bush's press conference yesterday, he said: "I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was [national intelligence director] Mike McConnell came in and said, we have some new information. He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze."

Not only is it hard to believe that Bush received no indication of what the information said, but his shift in language suggests that he recognized around August that his prior statements about Iran were no longer defensible.

Not Believable?

Bush's assertion that he didn't know about the intelligence reversal until last week struck some observers as flatly absurd.

Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush opened himself to new criticism over his credibility when he said that the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, alerted him about new intelligence about Iran's weapons program in August but did not explain what it was in detail.

"As recently as October, Mr. Bush continued to warn darkly of Iran's nuclear weapons threat, invoking World War III, despite the new information. He responded to a question about that on Tuesday by saying he had received the final assessment, with its drastically altered findings, only last week."

CNN reports: "Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden on Tuesday said he can't believe President Bush hasn't known for months about a recent intelligence estimate that downplays the nuclear threat from Iran. . . .

"'Are you telling me a president that's briefed every single morning, who's fixated on Iran, is not told back in August that the tentative conclusion of 16 intelligence agencies in the U.S. government said they had abandoned their effort for a nuclear weapon in '03?' Biden asked in a conference call with reporters.

""I refuse to believe that,' he added. 'If that's true, he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history, and he's one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history.'"

Roxana Tiron write in The Hill that several Democrats "said that Congress should investigate the discrepancy between the Bush administration's recent doomsday rhetoric on Iran and the NIE's judgments."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "charged that the president knew Iran halted its nuclear weapons program months ago even while he warned that the international community must prevent Iran from having the know-how to make a nuclear weapon and avoid 'World War III.'"

And David Morgan writes for Reuters: "On Tuesday, some former intelligence officers said Bush and other top White House officials were probably briefed about the intelligence findings long before the NIE was published.

"'I can't imagine that McConnell . . . would tell the president about this and not tell him what the information actually said,' remarked Flynt Leverett, a former member of Bush's National Security Council."

Alternate Timeline

There are also questions about the administration's narrative that the intelligence reversal came recently.

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Last spring, as U.S. intelligence agencies worked to complete an assessment of Iran's nuclear weapons program, they were firmly on track to reach the same conclusion as previous reports: Tehran was bent on building the bomb.

"But within weeks, there was an abrupt change of course. The earlier drafts were scrapped. Analysts began to assemble a new report built around the single, startling conclusion that Iran's nuclear weapons program had actually been shut down for four years.

"What happened?

"As U.S. intelligence officials sought Tuesday to explain the remarkable reversal, they pointed to two factors: the emergence of crucial information over the summer, and a determination to avoid repeating the mistakes that preceded the Iraq war."

But there's an alternate timeline that seems at least as plausible -- and that would make Bush's deniability even more difficult to support.

Consider what Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker over a year ago: "The Administration's planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House's assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Here's Hersh with Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday:

Hersh: "At the time, I wrote that there was a tremendous fight about it, because Cheney in the White House -- the vice president did not want to hear this. So that there was a fight about that intelligence. And, actually, for the last year, I think the vice president's office pretty much has kept -- you know, the vice president has kept his foot on the neck of that report. That report was bottled up for a year.

"The intelligence we learned about yesterday has been circulating inside this government at the highest levels for the last year -- and probably longer."

And Hersh scoffed at Bush's suggestion that he didn't know about the changing intelligence until last week: "Either he didn't know what was going on at the highest levels -- the fight I'm talking about began last year. . . . Now, maybe he didn't know what was going on at the vice presidential level about something that serious. If so, I mean we pay him to know these things and not to make statements based on information that turned out not to be accurate. Or else he's misrepresenting what he knows.

"I don't think there's any question, this is going to pose a serious credibility problem. I assume people are going to be asking more and more questions about what did he know when. And his statement that McConnell comes to him -- the head of the intelligence services of the United States -- and says I have something serious to say to you and he says great, let me know when I want to hear it, is, you know -- it's his words and we can only say that if that's true, you know, that's -- that's not what we pay the guy to do."

Similarly, Scott Horton blogs for Harpers that a "highly reliable intelligence community source" told him: "The NIE has been in substantially the form in which it was finally submitted for more than six months. The White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney, used every trick in the book to stop it from being finalized and issued. There was no last minute breakthrough that caused the issuance of the assessment."

Iraq Redux

In the run-up to war in Iraq, administration policy was to create the perception that Saddam Hussein was an imminent and potentially nuclear-armed threat and was even involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- without exactly saying so. None of that was true, of course. But the message delivery was hugely successful, and the war was launched.

How intentionally misleading Bush and his advisers were before the invasion of Iraq has never been definitively established. Asked last year in a Newsweek poll, 45 percent of Americans said they believed the president was truthful and honest in laying out the case for war, while 48 percent said they believed he was deliberately misleading. Congress and the press seem to have lost interest in the issue.

But here's a fresh case study. And the evidence seems to indicate that even after Bush likely became aware that the intelligence did not support his claim that Iran was an imminent threat -- or even that it was evn pursuing nuclear weapons at all -- he embarked on a strategy of carefully calibrated misinformation.

The public deserves to know precisely what Bush was told when. And that's really only the tip of the iceberg. What was happening behind the scenes? What changed, such that the intelligence agencies finally went public with their findings? And why would Bush and Cheney warn so direly about something that they knew wasn't happening? What was their motivation?

Yesterday's Spin

I wrote in yesterday's column about what I called Bush's neck-snapping spin.

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush scrambled yesterday to hold together a fragile international coalition against Iran, declaring that the Islamic republic remains 'dangerous' and that 'nothing has changed' despite a new intelligence report that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

"While his top diplomats reached out to key counterparts, Bush began calling world leaders and held a White House news conference to argue that the new National Intelligence Estimate only reinforces the need for diplomatic pressure against Iran. Although the report determined that Iran stopped seeking a nuclear bomb in 2003, Bush said Tehran's secrecy shows it cannot be trusted."

Ken Fireman and Jeff Bliss write for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush, his credibility under fire because of intelligence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons drive in 2003, adopted a new argument yesterday to justify tougher sanctions: Just knowing how to produce a bomb is dangerous. . . .

"By shifting from seeking to block an actual weapons program to the 'more amorphous' knowledge standard, Bush is changing a decade-old U.S. policy and making a diplomatic resolution less likely, said [Hillary Mann] Leverett, former director of Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs at the White House National Security Council."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The president's stance on Iran -- including his continuing assertion that 'all options are on the table,' meaning potential U.S. military action to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb -- raised new questions about his credibility on such security issues, questions that both Democratic leaders and independent analysts were highlighting Tuesday. . . .

"It is a pattern of targeting the 'devil du jour,' suggested John Mueller, a professor of national security at Ohio State University. The last devil was Hussein, he said, and the new one Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"'Just the historical exaggeration of this threat fits into a long syndrome,' said Mueller."

Opinion Watch

Trita Parsi writes on behalf of the National Iranian American Council: "Rather than adjusting policy on Iran in accordance to the reality-check provided by the NIE, the President moved the goal post on Iran. As the NIE declared that Iran likely doesn't have a weapons program, the President shifted the red line from weaponization to the mere knowledge of enriching uranium -- an activity that in and of itself is not of a military nature and is permitted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"By setting a new and arbitrary standard with no root or support in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Bush is insisting on adjusting reality to policy rather than policy to reality. There are numerous problems with this stance.

"First, it further undermines US credibility and leaves allies and foes alike with the impression that Washington seeks a military conflict with Iran regardless of the realities of Iran's nuclear program.

"Second, Iran already possesses the knowledge to enrich uranium. Given the President's logic, this reality would permit the US to continue to pursue a military option against Iran -- in spite of the absence of an Iranian weapons program."

Neocon icon Robert Kagan writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Regardless of what one thinks about the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- and there is much to question in the report -- its practical effects are indisputable. The Bush administration cannot take military action against Iran during its remaining time in office, or credibly threaten to do so, unless it is in response to an extremely provocative Iranian action. . . .

"Neither, however, will the administration make further progress in winning international support for tighter sanctions on Iran. Fear of American military action was always the primary reason Europeans pressured Tehran. . . .

"With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Bush is correct to say that the revised intelligence estimate does not warrant a fundamental change in policy. A nuclear-armed Iran should be deterred. The tragedy for U.S. security and global peace is that Bush has twice squandered his chances to lead that vital effort."

The Washington Post editorial board encourages Bush to stick to his plan, and not agree to talks with Iran unless the regime first suspends uranium enrichment.

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "If W. can shape the intelligence to match his faith-based beliefs, as with Iraq, then he will believe the intelligence -- no matter how incredible it is.

"If he can't shape it to match his beliefs, as with Iran, then he will disregard the intelligence -- no matter how credible it is."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Tony Auth, Mike Luckovich, Pat Oliphant, John Sherffius, Dan Waserman, and Dwane Powell on the new intelligence.

And Jeff Danziger on Karl Rove.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive