Friday, June 01, 2007

Democrats who didn't do their homework

It should not be a surprise that the Democrats can’t agree on how best to extricate America from the war in Iraq; after all, a party whose leaders still can’t talk coherently about the past can hardly be expected to talk coherently about the future. And the fact is, some of the top Democratic presidential contenders are still having problems explaining how and why they enabled this war in the first place.

Case in point: John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

But first, some background: As senators in the autumn of 2002, they both voted for the now-infamous resolution that authorized President Bush to exercise the war option. They have subsequently insisted that they were acting on the best intelligence available at the time. Clinton, while not renouncing her vote, has said that Bush essentially misled her. Edwards has renounced his vote, saying that he would have voted differently had he known then what he knows now.

But there’s a big flaw in their explanations. At the time of the historic vote, they could have easily consulted the latest National Intelligence Estimate – a classified document reflecting the views of the entire intelligence community, and readily available to any senator who wanted to see it. The full 90-page report repeatedly questioned Bush’s claims that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat.

But Edwards didn’t bother to read the report. Nor, apparently, did Clinton.

Such a reading would have been valuable. As Senator Bob Graham, the Senate intelligence committee chairman who had requested the report, explained in a 2005 newspaper column, the document “contained vigorous dissents on key parts of (Bush’s WMD claims), especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein’s will to use whatever weapons he might have, the (NIE) indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.” Moreover, the full document made it clear that “most of the alleged intelligence (about the presence of WMDs) came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States’ removing Hussein, by force if necessary.” And the full document strongly questioned the Bush claim that linked Hussein to al Qaeda.

I bring this up now, because the NIE issue is back in the news – thanks to Edwards’ inability to give a straight answer about whether he had read it.

At a forum on Wednesday, Edwards was asked this question about the prewar debate: “There was this National Intelligence Estimate that was confidential – that you had to have security clearance, or members of the Senate could read. Did you have a chance to read that, and was that part of the…”

Whereupon Edwards replied, “I read it. I read it.” He then gave a rambling explanation about how having more information was not necessarily helpful, and about how secrecy was a bad thing, but the gist of his response was in those first six words.

The problem was that an Edwards spokesman had told a reporter, one week ago, that Edwards in fact had not read the full, classified NIE document. When originally asked whether Edwards had read it, Mark Kornblau had replied that “the answer is no.” In lieu of reading the full document, he said, Edwards “was regularly briefed on the information that appeared in the (NIE).”

But even if Kornblau’s version of events is correct, it merely raises more questions. Did Edwards’ unnamed briefers give sufficient weight to the NIE’s “vigorous dissents,” or even mention them at all? And if they did brief Edwards about the flaws in the WMD intelligence, why did he decide to ignore them and vote Yes to authorize Bush?

But the Edwards story doesn’t end there. Yesterday, in the wake of Edwards’ fresh claim that he had read the full report, Kornblau had to come up with a reason why his boss would say such a thing. So he did. He insisted that Edwards had “simply misunderstood the question.”

This must be the season of incomprehension; a few weeks ago, GOP candidate Tommy Thompson said he flubbed an answer because his hearing aid wasn’t working and because he had to go to the bathroom. But Edwards doesn’t have a hearing aid, and, as a pretty sharp lawyer, it’s hard to imagine that he misunderstood such a detailed question, one that spelled out the procedure for reading the classified version of the NIE. More likely, the question hit Edwards in a vulnerable spot, and his response was a verbal wince.

Hillary Clinton has a similar problem. A new biography indicates that she didn’t read the full NIE, either. Indeed, she has never claimed to have read it. When asked recently whether she had done so, she merely replied that she had been briefed on it. But who did the briefing? As her biographers point out, none of her own Senate aides could have done the job, because they lacked the requisite security clearances to even see the report. So we’re basically left with two scenarios: Either she voted Yes for Bush without performing “due diligence” (a favorite Hillary phrase); or, somebody did manage to give her a comprehensive briefing, which means that she apparently voted Yes for Bush in defiance of the best intelligence available at the time.

Maybe this issue will be pursued at the next Democratic presidential debate, slated for Sunday night on CNN. It would be a natural for Barack Obama, who had the luxury of dwelling in the Illinois legislature at a time when his top ’08 rivals were clearly fearful that voicing skepticism, and voting No, would tag them as national security weaklings.