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Editor’s note: This article is a response to Jonathan Capehart’s blog, “Obama and presidential ‘lies.’”
My colleague Jonathan Capehart makes a noble effort to defend President Obama for misleading millions of Americans who thought they could keep their health plans by charging that my former boss, President George W. Bush, was responsible for “falsehoods that had greater and deadlier consequences.”
Capehart cites, in particular, Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, when he declared “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This, Capehart claims, was a lie that “led the nation into war with Iraq on March 19, 2003.”
There are a few problems with that:
1. As our mutual boss, Fred Hiatt, has pointed out, Bush did not “lie” about Iraq’s WMD. Citing a report by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), then-chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Hiatt takes on what he calls “the phony ‘Bush lied’ story line”:
[D]ive into Rockefeller’s report, in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and you may be surprised by what you find.
On Iraq’s nuclear weapons program? The president’s statements “were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates.”
On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president’s statements “were substantiated by intelligence information.”
On chemical weapons, then? “Substantiated by intelligence information.”
On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? “Generally substantiated by intelligence information.” Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? “Generally substantiated by available intelligence.” Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? “Generally substantiated by intelligence information.”
As you read through the report, you begin to think maybe you’ve mistakenly picked up the minority dissent. But, no, this is the Rockefeller indictment. So, you think, the smoking gun must appear in the section on Bush’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties to terrorism.
But statements regarding Iraq’s support for terrorist groups other than al-Qaeda “were substantiated by intelligence information.” Statements that Iraq provided safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda “were substantiated by the intelligence assessments,” and statements regarding Iraq’s contacts with al-Qaeda “were substantiated by intelligence information.”
The intelligence Bush was given on WMDs was wrong. But Bush did not “lie.” By contrast, as I point out in my column this week, Obama’s own advisers told the Wall Street Journal that they knew Obama’s promise that Americans would be able to keep their health plans “no matter what” was untrue. But he said it anyway. Dozens of times. As recently as this past September. Obama did not misspeak. He lied.
2. Bush’s line about Niger uranium was not central to his case for military action in Iraq. Does Capehart really think if Bush had omitted that one data point from the 2003 State of the Union address, the war in Iraq would have been averted? Of course not. By contrast, Obama’s promise that Americans could keep their health plans “no matter what” was central to his case for Obamacare. Without that pledge, the law might never have been passed.
3. After Bush delivered those 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union address, the White House set up a strict fact-checking operation that scrubbed every subsequent presidential utterance to ensure it was both accurate and defensible. In my five years at the White House, I never once saw an instance where the fact-checkers or policy experts told us that a proposed line in a speech was untrue and that guidance was ignored. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that when the “you can keep your plan” language was making its way through the staffing process in the Obama White House, “some White House policy advisers objected to the breadth of Mr. Obama’s ‘keep your plan’ promise. They were overruled by political aides.”
Later, as Obama kept repeating the lie, they considered clarifying that his pledge would not apply to everyone but decided not to do so, because “officials worried . . . that delving into details such as the small number of people who might lose insurance could be confusing and would clutter the president’s message.”
Bush was also wrong when he declared on the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln that major combat operations were over in Iraq. But he did not lie.
In other words, on Iraq Bush was mistaken when it came to WMD and the difficulty of the challenge that the insurgency would pose. But when Obama told Americans they could keep their health plans no matter what, he lied.
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