Hardball panel mischaracterized Democratic efforts to complete intel probe as "disingenuous," "using crocodile tears"

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

On the November 1 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman, and host Chris Matthews baselessly assigned motives to both the Democrats' support of the Iraq war in October 2002 and their recent push to complete "phase two" of the Senate Intelligence Committee's probe into the prewar intelligence on Iraq. The panel characterized Democrats' current efforts to fully examine the Bush administration's handling of the intelligence as "disingenuous," "using crocodile tears," and "trying to climb down off the war." Their rationale for this criticism? That Democrats who originally voted to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq did so out of "political fear" and failed to scrutinize the prewar intelligence at that juncture because "they didn't want to vote against a war at time when we had been hit by 9-11." As Matthews asserted, "[T]hey really didn't want the whole truth they're saying they're wanting now."

Democrats have a response to counter the accusation that they "didn't want to look under that rock" in late 2002 and they are only pursuing the "whole truth" now. But Mitchell, Fineman, and Matthews apparently felt no need to present it. Democratic members of Congress note that the judgments provided to Congress on the Iraqi threat prior to the vote were later found to have been false or exaggerated. There were also discrepancies -- about which Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) claimed that Democrats were prevented from notifying the public at the time -- between the administration's public statements and the underlying intelligence, and they say the American people deserve to know whether the administration deliberately distorted or falsified intelligence to justify its case for war. The Democrats' stated purpose in forcing the Senate into closed session was to obtain a vow that the Senate Intelligence Committee would investigate this, as the committee's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), had previously promised. The Hardball panel -- consisting of people who purport to be journalists -- apparently did not think that the Democrats' actual argument warranted articulation, and instead opted simply to label their current efforts "disingenuous."

The Senate Intelligence Committee, in its "phase one" report examining the intelligence community's assessments on Iraq, determined that the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) provided to Congress in October 2002 misled policymakers. The following are the first two conclusions in the 2004 report:

Conclusion 1. Most of the major key judgments in the Intelligence Community's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. A series of failures, particularly in the analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence.

[...]

Conclusion 2. The Intelligence Community did not accurately or adequately explain to policymakers the uncertainties behind the judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.

For members of Congress deliberating over their impending vote on the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, the NIE represented their window into the facts on Iraq -- a document intended to summarize all available intelligence assessments on the Iraqi threat. The Senate Intelligence Committee requested it in September 2002. The CIA then compiled the document over the course of three weeks (an NIE usually takes months to assemble) and delivered it to Capitol Hill mere days before Congress voted on the resolution, which ultimately passed by a vote of 77-23. Roberts conceded in July 2004 that if the intelligence provided to Congress prior to the vote on the Iraq war resolution had instead been accurate, "I doubt if the votes would have been there."

The disclosures made by intelligence officials during the 2004 investigation are partly what spurred Democratic members of the intelligence committee to push for the "phase two" examination of the Bush administration's handling of the prewar intelligence. The decision to expand the investigation was finalized on February 12, 2004, after considerable Republican opposition. On February 13, 2004, The Washington Post reported:

The decision, said members of both parties, represents half a loaf for each side. Republicans succeeded in limiting the probe of the administration to a review of public statements, reports and testimony given by administration officials.

The committee's decision follows three weeks of dramatic disclosures by U.S. officials indicating lapses by the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded before the war that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, as well as an advanced nuclear program. None of those conclusions has been substantiated since the war.

Democrats and others also accuse top administration officials of exaggerating the Iraqi threat and of dropping the qualifiers and caveats included in intelligence reports.

Last month, former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay told a Senate panel that the intelligence estimates on Iraq were "almost all wrong."

The Hardball panel described Democrats' recent efforts to ensure the completion of this second phase as "disingenuous" and simply an attempt to "climb down off the war" that many of them had supported. But the panel omitted mention of the fact that, prior to the October 2002 vote, Democratic members of Congress had sought to square the Bush administration's claims about the Iraqi threat with the actual intelligence -- just as they are currently attempting to do.

While the NIE was ultimately found to contain fundamental flaws, it also included dissenting views and certain caveats regarding assessments central to the administration's case for war -- caveats that Democratic senators quickly noticed the Bush administration was omitting from public statements at the time. In the August 21 CNN Presents documentary "Dead Wrong," Durbin, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, addressed the subsequent dilemma:

DURBIN: I walked out of those [October 2002 Senate Intelligence Committee] hearings [on the NIE] having heard something that was truthful and accurate and picked up the newspaper and saw someone from the White House or administration has just said the opposite, or they've said it much differently. I am bound by law not to go to the press and say, something's wrong here. I can't do it.

Due to the NIE's classified status, Durbin says that he and his Democratic colleagues on the committee could not publicly highlight the discrepancies between the document's findings and the administration's assertions in the days before the October 11 vote. But Mitchell, Matthews, and Fineman did not note this claim.

As CNN national security correspondent David Ensor reported in "Dead Wrong," this situation led the Democratic committee members to request that a declassified version of the NIE be made public. On October 4, three days after the publication of the NIE, the CIA released a declassified report (i.e. "white paper") that laid out the same key judgments as the classified document but without important caveats such as "we judge" or "we assess":

ENSOR: To force the information that contradicts administration claims into the open, the intelligence committee insists that Tenet produce a declassified NIE. Instead the CIA director releases a document that mirrors in tone a white paper written earlier by the White House Iraq Group. Contradictory evidence is played down. Claims that strengthen the case for war are emphasized.

The white paper provoked an "outraged" reaction from former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who demanded that the NIE be further declassified, according to a September 15, 2003, New Republic article (subscription required):

Notwithstanding these distortions, the Walpole paper [the NIE] was still less overheated than administration rhetoric. For example, when presenting intelligence on the aluminum tubes, the NIE presented analytic opinion as "kind of a fifty-fifty split, take it as you will," according to an intelligence official who read it -- a sharp contrast with what senior administration officials were telling the public. As a result, Graham requested that Tenet issue a declassified version of the NIE so members could use the document to inform their upcoming votes on the war. In early October 2002, Tenet delivered -- only in this new version, he wiped clean the qualifiers, alternative explanations, and dissents. Whereas the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] had told Congress its analysts had "no reliable information" about whether Iraq was producing chemical weapons, the declassified version of the NIE declared that Iraq had "begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents." An outraged Graham insisted that more be declassified, but Tenet sent only a single-page letter.

Democratic senators continued to press for more of the NIE to be made public. They voiced further concern about the administration's statements, particularly those put forth by President Bush in a televised speech in Cincinnati, as The Washington Post reported on June 22, 2003:

Bush, in his speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, made his case that Iraq had ties with al Qaeda, by mentioning several items such as high-level contacts that "go back a decade." He said "we've learned" that Iraq trained al Qaeda members "in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases." Although the president offered essentially circumstantial evidence, his remarks contained none of the caveats about the reliability of this information as contained in the national intelligence document, sources said.

[...]

Questions about the reliability of the intelligence that Bush cited in his Cincinnati address were raised shortly after the speech by ranking Democrats on the Senate intelligence and armed services panel. They pressed the CIA to declassify more of the 90-page National Intelligence Estimate than a 28-page "white paper" on Iraq distributed on Capitol Hill on Oct. 4.

Five of the nine Democrats on the committee -- including Durbin and Graham -- ultimately voted against the Iraq war resolution. Eighteen months later, the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report concluded that the white paper had "misrepresented" to the public the intelligence community's judgments. The report further concluded that the document had downplayed dissenting views and "provided readers with an incomplete picture of the nature and extent of the debate within the Intelligence Community regarding these issues."

Contrary to the Hardball panel's suggestion that Senate Democrats are now looking "under that rock" that they avoided examining in late 2002, their recent push for completion of the "phase two" investigation is part of their continued attempts to square the well-documented discrepancies between the administration's claims and the intelligence community's underlying judgments. While they have certainly employed more aggressive tactics as of late, during the more than 19 months since the expanded investigation was agreed to and the year since Roberts stated "phase two" would become a priority, the Democrats report a sustained effort to see the investigation move forward. Moreover, new evidence -- including the Downing Street Memo and the recent report that the vice-president's office withheld documents from the Senate Intelligence Committee -- has heightened the relevance of such an investigation into the administration's handling of the prewar intelligence.

From the November 1 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Is there a legitimate case to be made by the minority Democrats that, hey, back when we voted to give the president the authority to go to war, we thought certain things were true? In other words, that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear potential, he was working on a nuclear weapons program. Subsequently, we found out he did not, and more recently, we've discovered that the person who put out that story was a man who's now charged with lying under oath.

MITCHELL: I think that's disingenuous, because they are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Aside from Joe Biden and Dick Lugar, how many of them really looked intensively at it? I think that they didn't want to look under that rock because they didn't want to vote against a war at a time when we had been hit by 9-11.

MATTHEWS: A tougher assessment than my own. Thank you, Andrea, I think you're right. Let me go to Howard on that. That was a tough assessment, that they really didn't want the whole truth they're saying they're wanting now.

FINEMAN: I think Andrea is absolutely right. And what the Democrats are trying to do now, understandably --

MATTHEWS: Is pretend?

FINEMAN: Well, they`re trying to climb down off the war that many of them, perhaps out of political fear --

MATTHEWS: The 9-11 atmosphere.

FINEMAN: As Andrea is saying, there was political fear that made them not want to have the hearings, to dig their heels in. By the way, a lot of the media is at fault here, too. Let's face it. We were still in the aftermath of 9-11, politically difficult vote in the spring of 2003.

MATTHEWS: It was like post-Pearl Harbor.

FINEMAN: This is not to excuse the White House in any way. It's not. But, the Democrats now have the guts that they didn`t have back then.

[...]

MATTHEWS: We'll be right back with Andrea Mitchell. She said the right thing. Howard Fineman and Charlie Cook. They're all brilliant. They were tougher than I was. Harder hardball from Andrea than from me. She understood that Democrats are using crocodile tears here. You're watching Hardball.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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