Bush: Misleading at Best

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 1:47 PM

The White House acknowledged last night that President Bush learned in August that Iran might have shelved its nuclear weapons program, contradicting what the president said at his press conference earlier this week.

Bush said Tuesday that was first briefed on a dramatic new intelligence report about Iran just last week. He said that national intelligence director Michael McConnell told him in August there was some new information about Iran, but "didn't tell me what the information was."

Critics and journalists alike responded with incredulity that Bush didn't insist on some details. And so late yesterday, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino disclosed in an unusual e-mailed statement to reporters that McConnell had in fact told Bush that the new information "might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program."

Perino insisted that Bush was told at the time that the findings were provisional enough that there was no need to change the tenor of his statements about Iran. But that doesn't hold water either. As I documented in yesterday's column, Bush's word choice on Iran did indeed change significantly in early August. He stopped speaking definitively about an Iranian nuclear weapons program -- shifting to vaguer accusations about their pursuit of the knowledge necessary to make such a weapon -- while ratcheting the rhetorical stakes up higher than ever, even going so far as to repeatedly warn of a possible nuclear holocaust.

Yet another challenge to the newly revised White House story is an alternate narrative, woven by some investigative reporters, in which White House officials and particularly Vice President Cheney were involved in a pitched battle over the last 18 months to squelch a report they knew would undermine a key pillar of their foreign policy. In this scenario, Bush presumably knew even before August that what he was telling the American people was unsupported.

Last night's reversal only increases the pressure on the White House to come clean. Why did Bush mislead reporters at the press conference about what he'd been told in August? Did he not remember what happened? Was he just being sloppy in his answer? Was he trying to throw reporters off the trail with some imaginative hair-splitting? Was he outright lying?

Exactly how long has Bush known that the intelligence didn't back up his assertion (either direct or implied) that Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program? It's not just a question of what McConnell said that day in August. Is the White House really willing to say that was the first indication Bush ever had of such doubts?

And let's not forget the central mystery: Why did Bush and Cheney ratchet up the anti-Iran rhetoric if they knew their primary concern had abated? Why hype a threat they knew was overstated -- especially after the damage they inflicted on American credibility after invading Iraq on false pretenses?

The Contradiction

Martha Raddatz blogs for ABC News: "The White House made a stunning admission Wednesday that appeared to suggest President Bush has directly contradicted himself about when he learned U.S. intelligence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. . . .

"After taking a reporters' question earlier today about exactly what the President was told, White House press secretary Dana Perino provided a response to reporters Wednesday night.

"Perino stated Bush had been told in August that Iran suspended it's covert nuclear weapons program.

"'In August, DNI Director McConnell advised President Bush that the intelligence community would not be able to meet a congressionally imposed deadline requiring a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran because new information had been obtained just as they were about to finalize the report,' Perino wrote in an emailed response.

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