Rummy Logic & Enduring Lies
By Robert Parry
May 8, 2006
Rebellion was in the air, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acting like a crafty minister to an embattled king, fending off citizens outraged over government lies and the growing death toll from a war built on deception.
As hecklers at a speech in Atlanta on May 4 accused the Bush administration of lying and then were dragged away one by one, Rumsfeld appealed for civility and for renewed faith in George W. Bush’s honesty.
“You know, that charge [of lying] is frequently leveled against the President for one reason or another, and it’s so wrong and so unfair and so destructive of a free system, where people need to trust each other and government,” Rumsfeld told a crowd of international affairs experts.
Anyone who’s followed the twisted course of Iraq War rationales had to marvel at Rumsfeld’s chutzpah, putting citizen accusers on the defensive and turning government deceivers into defenders of “a free system.” How could he expect such a transparent ploy to work?
But the cagey Pentagon chief may have recognized that he could still score with two target audiences: die-hard Bush loyalists and the Washington press corps. The word “lie” – when applied to Bush – sends Bush's backers into a fury and thus is studiously avoided by the mainstream press.
The two groups especially reject the l-word when the evidence shows that Bush and his top advisers have lied about the Iraq War. Indeed, one of the most enduring and successful lies has been Bush’s insistence that he treated war with Iraq as a “last resort” and that Saddam Hussein was the one who “chose war” by refusing to let United Nations weapons inspectors in.
The reality, however, was that Hussein told the truth when he said his country no longer had weapons of mass destruction, as U.S. weapons inspectors later discovered, and he did let in U.N. inspectors to search wherever they wanted for several months before Bush launched the invasion on March 19, 2003. But Bush is almost never challenged when he misrepresents these facts. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
Insider accounts from former Bush administration officials, such as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, also revealed that Bush and his senior aides were spoiling for a war with Iraq from their earliest days in office – and that they exploited the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as a pretext.
British government documents, including the so-called “Downing Street Memo,” supplied additional corroboration that Bush “fixed” the intelligence and sought other excuses to justify a war, such as trying to trick the Iraqis into firing on a U-2 spy plane painted in U.N. colors. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “George W. Bush IS a Liar.”]
Yet, despite this now well-established history, the Washington press corps still acts aghast or mystified when some citizens accuse Bush and his aides of lying about the Iraq War.
Sometimes, the mainstream journalists explain to the citizenry that Bush didn’t lie; he was just misled by mistaken intelligence. Other times, the journalists assert that the President was, beyond doubt, well-meaning and thus his critics must have some dark political agenda for attacking his integrity.
That pattern repeated itself when Rumsfeld jousted with the angry citizens in Atlanta and got more than he had bargained for. After Rumsfeld bemoaned the harm done by calling Bush a liar, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern rose to ask several pointed questions.
“Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?” asked McGovern.
“Well, first of all, I – I haven’t lied. I did not lie then,” Rumsfeld said as he fell back on the argument that the problem was simply bad intelligence. “I’m not in the intelligence business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.”
Persisting in his questions, however, McGovern cited Rumsfeld’s earlier certainty about where Iraq’s WMD caches were hidden. McGovern also noted the administration’s now-discredited claims that Hussein’s government had ties to al-Qaeda terrorists.
Rumsfeld responded first by (falsely) denying that he had said what McGovern said he said about the WMD caches. The Defense Secretary then pulled out an old canard that supposedly proved a Hussein-al-Qaeda connection by noting that Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had spent time in Baghdad.
“Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the prewar period,” Rumsfeld said. “That is a fact.”
Some news coverage of the Atlanta confrontation, such as the clip on NBC’s Nightly News, ended with that Rumsfeld statement, leaving his Zarqawi point unchallenged.
However, CNN and other news outlets did carry a fuller version, in which McGovern put Rumsfeld’s claim in context: “Zarqawi? He was in the north of Iraq in a place where Saddam Hussein had no rule. That’s also ...”
“He was also in Baghdad,” Rumsfeld interjected.
“Yes,” McGovern said, “when he needed to go to the hospital. Come on, these people aren’t idiots. They know the story.”
But Rumsfeld’s Zarqawi-in-Baghdad line demonstrates why the Bush administration still deserves no trust on Iraq.
While superficially the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad line may sound like damning evidence against Iraq, it actually means almost nothing since there’s no proof that Hussein’s government was aware of Zarqawi’s presence, let alone collaborated with him.
By this Rummy logic, the U.S. military should have invaded Florida and jailed its governor, Jeb Bush, because terrorist Mohammed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers lived in the state for more than a year before the attacks. Some even attended Florida flight schools.
But no administration official has ever accused Jeb Bush of complicity in the 9/11 attacks just because Atta operated under the nose of George W. Bush’s younger brother.
Yet, Rumsfeld justifies invading a nation halfway around the world because its government failed to detect a then-obscure terrorist getting medical treatment in a hospital.
(Following this Rummy logic further, one would have to conclude that the U.S. occupation forces and the new Iraqi government are now colluding with Zarqawi because he has operated in and around Baghdad for the past three years without being caught.)
Despite the irrationality behind the administration’s Zarqawi-in-Baghdad argument, it has rarely been challenged by major U.S. news outlets. After the May 4 confrontation, the most any U.S. news outlet did was play McGovern’s retort without further explanation or comment.
Besides not holding the Bush administration accountable for these sorts of Iraq War deceptions, the U.S. news media often goes on the offensive against Bush’s critics, painting them as either unbalanced or vengeful.
For instance, after the exchange in Atlanta, McGovern faced questions from CNN anchor Paula Zahn about the CIA veteran’s motives.
“How much of an axe do you have to grind with Secretary Rumsfeld?” Zahn asked. (Note she didn’t ask if McGovern had an axe to grind with Rumsfeld, but rather how much.)
“It’s not a matter of axes to grind,” McGovern responded. “It’s a matter of telling the truth. And we pledged, in my day at the CIA, to tell it without fear or favor, to tell it like it is. And, when I see that corrupted, that is the real tragedy of this whole business.”
Zahn then pressed McGovern to give Rumsfeld credit because the Defense Secretary stopped security guards from throwing McGovern out.
“Donald Rumsfeld encouraged whoever I think had their hands on you at the time to let you stay there,” Zahn said. “Does he get any credit for that today?”
Rummy, the Believer
After wrapping up the segment with McGovern, Zahn turned to CNN military correspondent Jamie McIntyre and repeated her concerns about McGovern’s motives.
“Some fireworks there, as this speech unfolded, Mr. McGovern claiming he has no axe to grind,” Zahn said, reiterating her negative suggestion about McGovern that Zahn apparently had pulled out of thin air.
Although Zahn and McIntyre agreed that Rumsfeld was mistaken on a number of points about Iraq, they kept giving him the benefit of the doubt about his own motivation.
“It comes down to the question of, was he wrong because – for the right reasons, or did he intentionally mislead?” McIntyre said. “And one thing I can tell you about Rumsfeld is he intensely believes that what he says is true and that he’s got the right version of events.”
Just as Zahn never explained why she thought McGovern had an axe to grind, McIntyre didn’t explain how he knows that Rumsfeld only says what he “intensely believes.” Typical, for the mainstream news media, a negative inference was drawn against a Bush critic while a positive inference was applied to a Bush ally.
Yet, the actual evidence on Rumsfeld suggests that he routinely made statements about the Iraq War that any mildly informed person would know to be false or at least highly dubious. Coupled with his illogical arguments – like the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad claim – the only rational conclusion is that the Defense Secretary is a conscious deceiver, if not an inveterate liar.
But the major U.S. news outlets simply refuse to make such harsh judgments, instead either choosing to look away when incriminating evidence is presented or bending over backwards to find some euphemism.
Both tendencies were on display in the New York Times in the days after the Rumsfeld-McGovern confrontation.
The day after Rumsfeld’s Atlanta speech, the New York Times could have used the exchange as a peg to write about the long history of Iraq War deceptions. Instead, the Times printed one paragraph of a wire story that simply quoted McGovern saying that Rumsfeld had lied and Rumsfeld responding, “I did not lie.”
The Times returned to the confrontation in a May 7 editorial in the context of urging the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee to finally release a report on whether the administration “deliberately misled the world” in its presentation of Iraq War intelligence.
But even in that editorial, there was the continued determination to evade the word “lie.” The Times phrased its criticism this way: “It is bad enough that Mr. Rumsfeld and others did not tell Americans the full truth – to take the best case situation – before the war.”
Still, why – given the overwhelming case that the administration has lied repeatedly – did the Times feel compelled “to take the best case situation” and then simply say that the administration “did not tell Americans the full truth.” Far from not telling the full truth, the administration manufactured a case for war out of whole cloth.
One answer to the question of why the Times and other news outlets won't hold the Bush administration accountable in clear English is that many journalists are still afraid they will be accused of lacking patriotism and face career damage, as happened to Iraq War skeptics during the jingoistic run-up to the invasion in 2002 and early 2003.
This fear remains strong even as Bush’s popularity crumbles and the Republican attack machine breaks down.
The residual fear is like the terror that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid felt toward a relentless tracker named Jo Lefors who wore a white straw hat. Even when facing far worse dangers, the two outlaws always were spooked at the possibility that they might spot Lefors’s white hat.
Similarly, journalists are so frightened of accusations that they are undermining the President “at a time of war” that they will do almost anything to avoid the charge, even as a growing number of Americans are livid with the media for fawning over Bush and enabling his disastrous war policies.
What the broader American public has begun to understand is that Rumsfeld is wrong when he demands unconditional trust from the people for President Bush. What truly destroys “a free system” is the betrayal of the people's trust by dishonest government officials, especially on matters of life and death.
At such moments, the news media only worsens the destruction of democracy by pretending there is no problem or, worse, blaming citizens who try to alert the country to the problem. The hard truth is that the lying won’t stop – and the damage to democracy will just grow worse – until the liars are called to account, however unpleasant the task.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'