The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld attacks on critics of the Iraq war have been vicious, but not surprising. Nor is it surprising that some Republican members of Congress have joined in, or that the Republican Party --- as concerned as the administration about eroding public support for the president and the war --- is producing television ads targeting Democratic critics.
The attacks can't expunge the evidence, though. And the evidence is this: either the president deliberately misled us, or some Bush officials were so determined to get rid of Saddam Hussein --- a goal they had long before they seized presidential power --- that they ignored any intelligence report that didn't conform to their plan.
The president gave us two reasons for attacking Iraq: he had evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and would attack us, and he had evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and, thus, between Iraq and the September 11 attacks.
Two separate investigations --- by the president's own 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee --- have found there was no such evidence.
Maybe Bush officials were confident that there was. But they shouldn't have been. There were numerous critics --- in the intelligence community and in the administration --- of the administration's claims. The administration ignored them. The administration said Iraq was importing aluminum tubes that it would use to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Association, the US Department of Energy, and the State Department all disagreed. The administration ignored them.
As for the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq: as we now have learned, Pentagon intelligence experts at the time concluded that the source for the story was lying, deliberately trying to mislead his interrogators. The administration ignored that report as well.
The United Nations inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq found none, and said so. The Bush administration dismissed the inspectors' reports.
And there is plenty of indication that the Bush administration took office planning to attack Iraq. Soon after Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, the government's counter-terrorism expert, Richard Clarke, started trying to get a meeting with the Bush cabinet. The purpose: to review what he and other experienced government analysts believed was an imminent terrorist threat from Al Qaeda.
Finally, in April 2001 --- five months before 9/11 --- he got a meeting with Condoleezza Rice's deputy, Steve Hadley; Donald Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and others. At that meeting, Clarke writes in "Against All Enemies," Wolfowitz dismissed the danger from Al Qaeda. Iraq posed as great a threat as bin Laden, said Wolfowitz, and Al Qaeda couldn't do much without the help of a "state sponsor" such as Iraq.
Most chilling is Bob Woodward's account, in his "Bush at War," of the days following 9/11. The information in Woodward's book is first-hand stuff, from interviews with administration officials, CIA staff, and Bush himself, as well as from notes taken at crucial administration meetings and provided to Woodward.
The Pentagon, says Woodward "had been working for months on developing a military option for Iraq" --- prior to 9/11. At a National Security Council meeting on September 12, 2001 --- the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon --- with the administration convinced that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld urged that the focus be widened beyond Al Qaeda, that Iraq be included as a target. The administration, he said, "could take advantage of the opportunity offered by the terrorist attacks to go after Saddam immediately."
In the days following, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to resist, arguing that the US could get other nations behind us to go after Al Qaeda, but not if we extended the reach beyond that. Writes Woodward: "If we weren't going after Iraq before September 11, why would we be going after them now when the current outrage is not directed at Iraq, Powell asked. Nobody could look at Iraq and say it was responsible for September 11." Powell, as we know, fought a losing battle. And in March 2003, the administration had the "evidence" it wanted, spun it out to Congress and the media, and went to war.
So did the Bush administration deliberately mislead us? Or were Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and others so blinded by their long-standing desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein that they didn't recognize the importance of the critical reports they read? Maybe we'll find out. The same bi-partisan Senate committee that found that the administration's evidence was wrong is now investigating whether the administration manipulated the reports it got to support its push for war.
But according to several media reports, Vice President Cheney has been refusing to turn over evidence to the Senate committee. And it's likely that the committee will dawdle in its investigation, delaying its second report --- as it did with its first --- until after the next national election. Meantime, we will continue to suffer the results of this dreadful, unnecessary war: the dead and wounded. The exhaustion of our military. Money spent in Iraq rather than on critical needs here. The escalating loss of civil liberties, as the reach of the Patriot Act expands.
The trauma to Iraqi citizens, and the very real threat that rather than democracy, they will get civil war. The expansion of terrorism. The loss of our soul, as we continue to embrace torture as official government policy.
The president and the vice president insist that critics are irresponsible when they suggest that Bush misled us in his rush to war. That critics are "playing politics," and "sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy." But it is the administration that is now playing politics. And insisting on the truth is the best way, the only way, to support the troops.