Schieffer on Bush administration's prewar claims: "I still give them the benefit of the doubt"


In an interview on the December 1 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, CBS Evening News anchor and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer noted that while the reason given by the Bush administration for invading Iraq "proved to be wrong," he still gives the administration "the benefit of the doubt," adding, "I don't think they deliberately misled people."

From the December 1 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning:

SCHIEFFER: But when you come right down to it, and, I mean, I always have to tell you where I'm coming from. I mean, in the very beginning, when they told me that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon or was building one, I thought we had to go in and take it away from him. I thought there was no other choice for the president to make. But it turns out that was not correct. Whether -- I still give them the benefit of the doubt. I don't think they deliberately misled people. But the fact is, the reason they gave for going in proved to be wrong.

Though Schieffer appears to have made up his mind about the issue, there is mounting evidence that the Bush administration did, in fact, mislead the country by withholding and distorting prewar intelligence, as Media Matters for America has noted.

Schieffer himself has introduced recent CBS Evening News reports that addressed some of this evidence. In a November 18 CBS Evening News segment introduced by Schieffer, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reported on a Pentagon investigation into whether former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith "provided distorted intelligence":

SCHIEFFER: And now, as I understand it, Bob, there's another set of troubles emerging out at the Pentagon, some sort of a new investigation.

ORR: This again involves the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. The inspector general from the Department of Defense apparently is looking into the activities of a former undersecretary, Doug Feith. Specifically, he has questions as to whether or not Mr. Feith provided distorted intelligence and, on one point, questions whether or not Mr. Feith provided intelligence to the White House that never was run by the CIA.

Introducing a November 11 report by CBS News national security correspondent David Martin, Schieffer noted, "One specific claim that President Bush and other officials made in the run-up to the war was that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda." Martin reported that Bush's claim that Iraq had "provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training" was based on information that intelligence officials warned was unreliable and that in making the case for a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, "top administration officials seem[ed] to go beyond what the CIA was telling them":

SCHIEFFER: One specific claim that President Bush and other officials made in the run-up to the war was that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda. Tonight, David Martin has gotten some significant information about that claim and how it came about.

BUSH: Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.

MARTIN: That warning repeated many times by the president and his top aides was based on a claim made by a captured Al Qaeda operative who has since admitted he was lying. But even at the time he made it, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency sent out a notice cautioning, "It is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers." The CIA noted he "was not in a position to know if any training had actually taken place." Yet administration officials continued to report it as fact.

COLIN POWELL [then-secretary of state, February 5, 2003, video clip]: I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda.

MARTIN: That speech had been checked for accuracy by the CIA, whose then-director George Tenet sat behind Powell as he delivered it. Powell's former chief of staff blames incompetence for not weeding out that spurious claim. On top of what appears to be sloppy work by intelligence experts, there are other instances in which top administration officials seem to go beyond what the CIA was telling them.

BUSH [September 25, 2002, video clip]: You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.

MARTIN: But the CIA did distinguish between them. Saddam and bin Laden "were leery of close cooperation." The relationship "appears to more closely resemble that of two independent actors trying to exploit each other." The CIA warned its intelligence was "at times contradictory and derived from sources with varying degrees of reliability." The relationship was, to use the CIA's word, "murky," but the president painted it in black and white.

BUSH [October 7, 2002, video clip]: We know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade.

MARTIN: The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded there was little useful intelligence collected that helped determine Iraq's possible links to Al Qaeda, but you would never know that from listening to the president and his aides.

Schieffer has a history of accepting false or misleading Republican claims about prewar intelligence. On the November 6 broadcast of Face the Nation, Schieffer interviewed Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS). As Media Matters has noted, during a discussion on the program of Senate Democrats' demand for an investigation into how policymakers used intelligence in the buildup to war, Roberts claimed that for the "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq," which the committee released in 2004, "we interviewed over 250 analysts, and we specifically asked them, 'Was there any political manipulation or pressure?' Answer, 'No.' " Roberts then claimed that the March report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (i.e. the Robb-Silberman Commission) and the Butler report on British intelligence came to the "same conclusion." Whether Roberts was referring to the Bush administration's "manipulation" in the use of intelligence, as The New York Times interpreted his statement, or as part of the alleged "pressure" on analysts is unclear. If Roberts meant the former, his assertion is simply false -- none of the investigations addressed the issue of the administration's use or misuse of intelligence. If instead Roberts meant "manipulation" as interchangeable with "pressure" on analysts, his assertion was irrelevant to the issue on which Senate Democrats have demanded an investigation and was, therefore, highly misleading. At no point did Schieffer note that Roberts was either misrepresenting or simply avoiding the issue in question.

On the same broadcast, Schieffer failed to correct Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who falsely claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee's report "showed that there was no politics being played with this matter." Hatch added, "[T]here was no indication whatsoever in that 500-page report, unanimously approved, that there was any notice or knowledge that was improper."

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