WASHINGTON – In the past week, three top Bush administration officials have backed off charges they made against Iraq, explaining they misspoke or overstated the facts.
Vice President Dick Cheney over the weekend withdrew an alarming assertion he made on national television,
on the eve of war, about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
“We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons,” Cheney said March 16 on NBC’s “Meet the
Since making the allegation, the administration has turned up no nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, nor has it been able to produce
any hard evidence that Saddam even reconstituted a nuclear weapons program.
“Meet the Press” host Tim Russert gave Cheney a chance to clarify his prewar statement in a return appearance
on his show Sunday.
“‘Reconstituted nuclear weapons.’ You misspoke?” Russert asked.
“Yeah, I did misspeak …. We never had any evidence that he had acquired a nuclear weapon,” said Cheney, known for his careful choice of words.
The Pentagon’s No. 2 official also backtracked from a recent nationally televised claim that “a great many
of [Osama] bin Laden’s key lieutenants are now trying to organize in cooperation with old loyalists from the Saddam regime to attack in Iraq.” Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made the remark Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Challenged the next day by a news wire to provide evidence to back the shocking revelation, Wolfowitz
said he had misspoken.
He said he was actually referring only to bin Laden supporter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is alleged to have
set up a training camp in far northern Iraq, an area outside Saddam’s control, after being flushed out of Afghanistan last year. He is also said to have sought
medical attention in Baghdad last year, after President Bush targeted Iraq as part of the “axis of evil.”
The administration has linked the terrorist to al-Qaida, and repeatedly cited him in asserting prewar links between al-Qaida and Iraq. U.S. intelligence
officials, however, have not confirmed a link, and have noted he may have acted independently of bin Laden’s network.
In fact, Wolfowitz in his clarification described al-Zarqawi as one of bin Laden’s “associates.”
“Zarqawi is actually the guy I was referring to – should have been more precise,” Wolfowitz said Friday.
“It’s not a great many – it’s one of bin Laden’s key associates – probably better referred to that way than a key lieutenant.”
The administration has produced no credible evidence of direct Iraqi sponsorship of al-Qaida attacks on
America or its interests abroad – an alleged conspiracy the U.S. intelligence community dismissed before the war in a 90-page classified report to the president, though he still suggested otherwise in public speeches and remarks.
In arguing for war, Bush insisted the U.S. had to disarm Saddam’s regime of alleged weapons of mass destruction before it could share them with al-Qaida
terrorists and top the 9-11 attacks with possibly a “mushroom cloud.” He said his regime posed an imminent threat to America, making preemptive invasion
Wolfowitz’s boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also had to correct an inaccurate statement he made on
national TV about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Eleven days after the U.S. invasion, Rumsfeld claimed to know exactly where Saddam was hiding alleged banned
“We know where they are,” he flatly asserted in a March 30 interview with ABC’s “This Week” host George
But with still no discovery of weapons more than five months since then, National Press Club president Tammy
Lytle quizzed Rumsfeld about his unequivocal claim at a luncheon here last Wednesday.
Lytle: “On March 30th you said, referring to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, quote, ‘We know where
they are.’ Do you know where they are now? Will they be found?”
Rumsfeld: “In that instance, we had been in the country for about 15 seconds; sometimes I overstate
for emphasis …. I should have said, ‘I believe they’re in that area'” around Tikrit and Baghdad.
Even some Republicans on Capitol Hill are not amused by the postwar revisionism.
“‘Overstated for emphasis’? That sounds like something out of [former President] Clinton’s mouth – ‘I didn’t
actually lie, I overstated for effect,'” said a senior GOP staffer, who added that Republican leaders fear the administration may be losing some of the reservoir of public credibility and trust it gained after the 9-11 attacks.
The White House did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
It’s not the first time the defense secretary has had to revise previous statements about prewar evidence
In congressional testimony in July, Rumsfeld swore repeatedly that he’d just “days” earlier learned that
the uranium charge Bush made against Iraq six months earlier was based at least in part on fabricated reports.
A few days later, however, he had to
correct the record twice, finally admitting he knew the allegation was false as early as March – less than two months after Bush trumpeted it in his
State of the Union speech and just before the Iraq war started.
“When did you know that the reports about uranium coming out of Africa were bogus?” asked Sen. Mark Pryor, D.-Ark., at a July 9 Senate Armed Services
Committee hearing on “lessons learned” in Iraq.
“Oh, within recent days, since the information started becoming available,” Rumsfeld replied.
“So right after the [State of the Union] speech, you didn’t know that?” Pryor pressed.
“I’ve just answered the question,” Rumsfeld snapped.
Asked about it again, the defense secretary insisted: “Do I recall hearing anything or reading anything like
that? The answer is as I’ve given it – no.”
But in a July 13 interview with NBC’s Russert, Rumsfeld backpedaled from his testimony.
Russert: “When Sen. Pryor asked you when did you know that reports about uranium coming out of Africa were
bogus, you said, ‘Oh, within recent days.'”
Rumsfeld: “I should have said within recent weeks, meaning when ElBaradei came out” with the revelation that the allegation was baseless.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told the U.N. Security Council on March 7 that documents allegedly showing Iraqi officials shopping two years ago for uranium in Africa were forgeries – something the nuclear watchdog group was able to figure out just 10 days after receiving the documents from the Bush administration, which had them for
months. Bush used them in his January speech to suggest Iraq had an active nuclear-weapons program and
posed an imminent threat to U.S. security.
The faked evidence has been described as a series of letters between Iraqi agents and officials in the central African nation of Niger. IAEA officials easily detected the counterfeiting through crude errors, such as the inclusion of names and
titles that didn’t match up with the officials who held office at the time the letters claimed to have been written.
In another Sunday show, ABC’s “This Week,” which aired later that morning, Rumsfeld further revised his story
to say he learned “months,” not weeks, ago of the false charge.
Rumsfeld insists he hasn’t repeated the allegation since learning it was false in March.
At the same time, however, he never tried to publicly correct the record.
In fact, the White House, for its part, waited until July 8 to correct the president’s own nationally televised statement – the day after a British
parliamentary commission challenged the allegation.
The White House quietly acknowledged the error in a prepared statement.
“We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged. The other
reporting that suggested Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that such attempts in fact were
made,” said National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton in a prepared White House statement delivered July 8. “Because of this lack of specificity, this reporting alone did not rise to the
level of inclusion in a presidential speech.”
Related special offer: