It's another day of damage control for the Bush administration, as it seeks yet again to shore up its shaky credibility. And the issue, as usual, is Iraq.
Let's start with something the president said back on May 29, 2003: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories." He made this statement two months into the war, when skeptical Americans were already asking questions about those elusive WMDs. On this particular day, Bush was discussing the discovery of some suspicious mobile trailers.
We've known ever since that Bush's claim didn't pan out. But, in the wake of a new report today, we have now learned something new: That on the day when Bush made his WMD claim, the administration already had strong reason to believe that such a claim was factually incorrect.
I'll let the Post story speak for itself: "A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq -- not made public until now -- had already concluded (at the time Bush spoke) that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement. The three-page field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were stamped 'secret' and shelved."
So while the fact-finders, dispatched to Iraq by the Defense Intelligence Agency, were privately referring to those trailers as "the biggest sand toilets in the world," a parade of administration officials, led by Bush, continued to describe those trailers in dire terms. I found a few such statements. A sampling:
Secretary of State Colin Powell, on June 2, 2003, said, "We have already discovered mobile biological factories of the kind that I described to the Security Council on the 5th of February. We have now found them. There is no question in our mind that that’s what their purpose was."
National security advisor Condolleezza Rice, a day later, said, "This is a weapons laboratory trailer capable of making a lot of...dry agent, dry biological agent, that can kill a lot of people."
Bush again, on June 5: "We recently found two mobile biological weapons facilities which were capable of producing biological agents."
Vice President Cheney, on Sept. 14: "They’re in our possession today, mobile biological facilities that can be used to produce anthrax or smallpox or whatever else you wanted to use during the course of developing the capacity for an attack."
Questions abound, as usual:
Did nobody in power read that field report? Or did they read it and opt to ignore it, because (as the Post also reported) there were other field teams that suspected that those trailers might have been nefarious? If the latter is the case, however, why did the administration pretend in public that the WMD finding was beyond dispute (Powell: "There's no question in our mind") ?
And none of those administration officials offered to subsequently retract the WMD claim, even though weapons inspector David Kay told Congress, in the autumn of 2003, that he had found nothing that tied those trailers to WMDs.
Which brings us to White House press secretary Scott McClellan. His defense today was to take the offensive.
In a press briefing, he said that the media should apologize for reporting the trailer story: "You know, I saw some reporting talking about how this latest revelation — which is not something that is new; this is all old information that’s being rehashed — was an embarrassment for the White House. No, it’s an embarrassment for the media that is out there reporting this...I hope they will go and publicly apologize..."
What's most interesting here is not the demand for an apology (that's just a predictable attempt to blame the messenger), but, rather, his contention that the trailer story is old news, "old information that's being rehashed."
Word for word, that's exactly what Bill Clinton's spin doctors used to say whenever he was hit with scandal allegations. Republicans used to laugh when the Clinton flaks tried that dodge.
And that behavior was one reason why Bush ran for president on a pledge to "restore honor and integrity to the White House."