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Facts vs. fiction

WASHINGTON
NOW THAT President Bush and co-president Cheney have backed themselves into a corner with statements about Iraq and terrorism that aren't credible, it's interesting to watch them squirm.

Bush has an entertaining habit of confusing assertion with argument. For example: "The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda is because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda."

The logic here is breath-taking.

Cheney is, as ever, more elliptical. Cornered for a change, he is striking out at the press, preferring not to take on the 9/11 Commission whose evidence (more to the point, its absence of any) exposes his pre-invasion and post-invasion hype and, shall we say, misstatements.

His initial line is that the press is hateful because it is confusing an important issue -- namely, that the absence of any information linking the former Iraqi regime to the 9/11 attacks is not the same as any assertion that there was no "tie" between Osama bin Laden's murderous organization and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Confronted with the point that the 9/11 Commission's staff report last week asserts no credible evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between the two, Cheney is trapped. To escape, he says that the 9/11 Commission is wrong, he knows more secret stuff than it does but can't get into specifics.

What Bush and Cheney are doing is what they have been doing since the summer of 2002 -- confusing the concepts of war in Iraq and war on terrorism. In fact, Bush and Cheney have always made it a point to emphasize that their concept of a nation at war is defined as a war against terror -- almost never Iraq.

The result has been -- up to now at least -- an administration-created confusion between the two, resolved by many Americans in favor of a linkage. Just prior to the invasion of Iraq in March of last year, more than two-thirds of the public believed that Iraq was directly involved in the attacks on this country. I don't remember Bush or Cheney doing anything to disabuse the public of this idea, though there are several incidents where they did all they could to encourage it.

All these months later, the percentage of Americans who still believe this fiction has cracked the 50 percent barrier on the way down. In the view of Bush reelection strategists, it cannot fall much further without further undermining the views of nearly half the public that the invasion was worth its subsequent cost. The administration has already spent six months trying to accommodate the truth that, again contrary to its assertions, Iraq had no stockpiled, ready-to-use weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion; the political team's view is that it can't take another hit of this nature.

That is why Bush and Cheney are pushing back so hard -- and lamely -- with their assertion that there was indeed a "relationship" or a "tie" of several years' duration between Saddam and Osama.

Specifics refute the contention. Bush, programmed as he is, can only manage the silly assertion that "high-level" people from the two sides met in the Sudan. According to the 9/11 Commission, this was in 1994, at the time that terrorist-supporting state was trying to persuade Osama to stop trying to topple the secular Iraqi regime, which he despised. An Iraqi intelligence official had to make three trips to the place before he could see the terrorist, who wanted help in getting equipment, weapons, and training bases. To the day Saddam's regime crumbled there was no evidence that Iraq ever responded, and there is also no evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda ever collaborated on anything, anywhere, anytime.

Cheney's contribution has been repeated ever since a few weeks after the terrorist attacks: peddling an uncorroborated assertion by one Czech intelligence official that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta had been seen five months before meeting with an Iraqi agent in Prague. The 9/11 Commission, citing physical and documentary evidence, said the facts indicate Atta was already here by then and had never left.

Cheney feeds the opinion polls with this garbage, and then wiggles on the hook by claiming that he can spread the tale because it hasn't been refuted. I trust real decisions on security matters are not made in such a slipshod, duplicitous fashion.

Cheney and Bush are squealing so much because the unmasking of their fiction about Iraq is one more shot into the solar plexus of their diminishing credibility -- and in the president's reelection campaign, credibility is a major route to the independent-minded voters who will probably decide the election.

Cheney and Bush, in short, have been caught in a lie, and that is why they are squealing.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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