Here we go again: What did the president know? And when did he know it?

Those are the serious questions raised by a White House announcement that the president made a bogus case about the need to go to war against Iraq in this year’s State of the Union address.

Don’t give the White House high marks for candor, however. Presidential aides didn’t volunteer word of the president’s mistake. They were forced to admit his untruth only after a blockbuster revelation by former U.S. Acting Ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson.

Writing in the New York Times, the 23-year career diplomat Wilson revealed he was sent to Niger by the CIA in early 2002 to investigate rumors, based on letters intercepted by European intelligence agencies, that Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy uranium from the former French colony.

Eight days later, he reported back to the CIA there was no truth to the rumors. That information was shared by the CIA with the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House.

Imagine Wilson’s surprise, then, when he heard President Bush declare in his Jan. 28 address to the nation: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Based on his own research for the Bush administration, Wilson knew that charge was untrue. He also knew the White House was aware of his findings, because the vice president’s office had specifically requested a copy of his report.

Now, in a stunning admission, the White House confirms that the president’s statement was simply not true. It was a mistake, aides acknowledge, to include it in the State of the Union. But as Ambassador Wilson notes, that confession simply begs the question. Indeed, it begs a whole set of questions.

How did such a blatant falsehood make it into the president’s speech? Every line in the State of the Union address is vetted over and over again, double-checked for accuracy. And the president’s communications director knows where every single statement came from. Someone forced this one in, knowing it was untrue, while cleverly crediting it to British intelligence in order to give the president later plausible deniability.

Why did the White House wait this long to admit the error? Only days after the State of the Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency examined the Niger documents and declared them phony, yet for months the president and members of his administration continued to assert the Iraq-Niger connection. They’d still be doing so if Joseph Wilson hadn’t blown the whistle.

Why hasn’t anybody been fired? It’s one thing for Democrats to demand a full investigation, but why hasn’t President Bush? If I were president and discovered that someone had deliberately inserted a false statement in one of my speeches, I’d be mad as hell. Instead, the White Houses shrugs off the lie as just one little glitch in an otherwise perfect case.

Final and most important question: If they lied about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Africa, what else were they lying about?

What about the president’s assertion, in the same speech, that Saddam Hussein was connected to Osama bin Laden and Sept. 11? Or his possession of weapons of mass destruction: 35,000 liters of anthrax, 25,000 liters of botulinum toxin and 500 tons of nerve gas? Or his purchase of aluminum tubes to manufacture nuclear weapons? To date, there is zero evidence that any of those charges were true, either.

It is more and more clear, as former senior State Department official Greg Thielmann stated this week, that the Bush administration had a “faith-based policy” on Iraq. They “believed” Saddam Hussein was tied to Osama bin Laden and still had weapons of mass destruction, so they stretched, manipulated, exaggerated or simply misstated the available evidence in order to make their case and convince the American people.

You may believe, as Tom Delay and other Republican leaders insist, that this is much ado about nothing. I believe it’s just the opposite. Whether or not to go to war is the most serious decision any president makes. There is no more serious violation of public trust than to make that decision based on a pack of lies.

What a difference. A Democratic president lies about oral sex and Republicans insist on impeaching him. A Republican president lies about going to war and Republicans insist on re-electing him. Where’s the outrage?

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