Sooner or later - and the Republicans are pushing it past the election - the United States will have to come to terms formally with whether the president, the vice president and other high officials lied to harness the nation into an enervating war that it did not need to fight and then to cover up illegal acts.
Documented reports this summer by the independent 9/11 commission and from Republican-dominated committees made it clear that the president was just flat wrong in his two major premises for invading Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, a frightening nuclear weapons program and conventional forces powerful enough to threaten the United States and the Middle East and that Iraq was in cahoots with the terrorist leader who destroyed the World Trade Center towers.
The administration and its apologists now push the semantic defense. The president and subordinates were gulled into believing frightening scenarios of Iraqi threats by weak intelligence agencies. It's not lying if you believe falsehoods yourself.
Even now, anyone who peruses these mammoth reports will find illogical and absurd all the White House claims that it was the impartial recipient of terribly flawed intelligence from its agencies and that the nation's leaders had no hand whatever in the hyping and falsification by agencies under their command. The Senate report on intelligence failures shattered that defense, although it avoided drawing the obvious conclusion. The White House, the vice president and the secretary of defense were driving poor Colin Powell nuts trying to get him to present a stark threat of weaponry and Saddam Hussein's collaboration with Osama bin Laden when he made his pivotal speech to the United Nations making the case for war. Powell, who has now apologized for misleading the American people and the world, threw out much of the material, apparently including virtually a whole speech that Cheney's office prepared for him to use. He junked 28 sections of the CIA-constructed case that his own department's analysts said were obviously false or extremely dubious. Most of what remained, it turns out, was wrong, too.
When all the truth comes to light, and it will one fine day, the tricky semantics that Bush and Cheney simply didn't know any better will have to be ditched. The Intelligence Committee next will try to determine how the White House influenced and used the shabby information it got from the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, but that almost certainly will not come until after the election. Perhaps by then Congress, or someone, will get access to the 40-page report that Cheney sent to Powell's speechwriters. The secretary of state purportedly called it garbage. The Republican majority of the committee would not request the document, but we will see it by and by.
Did Bush and Cheney intentionally mislead? Did they influence the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and even the skeptical State Department to ignore the contrary evidence and analysis and eliminate all the equivocations and rebuttals when the classified intelligence reports were redacted for public consumption? When the CIA was called upon to make the assessments of Iraq in the run-up to the invasion, every CIA operative, along with billions of people around the world, knew that Bush wanted and expected to go to war and what his premises were.
The White House and vice president now say that they never claimed or even implied that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. People were just stupidly taking out of context scores of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld remarks linking them. But when polls were showing that more than 80 percent of Americans thought Iraq was behind the attacks, Bush and Cheney were happy to let them be fooled.
But remember what they said. When he stood on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln to declare victory Bush called Saddam "an ally of al-Qaeda," which the 9/11 commission says is contrary to all the evidence. Or Bush's speech to the nation on the eve of war in which he said Saddam had trained al-Qaeda in weapons of mass destruction and had sent bomb-making and forgery specialists to help bin Laden, which were fabrications.
A few will remember Cheney's happy declaration on "Meet the Press" that conquering Iraq "struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11." The vice president's office says he was just explaining that Iraq is in the Middle East and that people shouldn't have jumped at conclusions.
The list of such clever references runs on and on. Bush says all he ever really intended to say was that there were connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda, which he continues to say is the case although independent and congressional reports and the CIA's and State Department's experts say it was never true.
Bush tell a lie? It's never a lie as long as you keep saying it's the truth.