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Monday, July 14, 2003 0:18:0 a.m.

The national house of waffles

The New York Times
Why is George W. now presiding over a completely Clintonian environment, turning the White House into a Waffle House, where truth is camouflaged by word games and responsibility is obscured by shell games?

WASHINGTON - More and more, with Bush administration pronouncements about the Iraq war, it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

W. built his political identity on the idea that he was not Bill Clinton. He didn’t parse words or prevaricate. He was the Texas straight shooter.

So why is he now presiding over a completely Clintonian environment, turning the White House into a Waffle House, where truth is camouflaged by word games and responsibility is obscured by shell games?

The President and Condi Rice can shuffle the shells and blame George Tenet, but it smells of mendacity.

Clinton indulged in casuistry to hide personal weakness. The Bush team indulges in casuistry to perpetuate its image of political steel.

Dissembling over peccadillos is pathetic. Dissembling over pre-emptive strikes is pathological, given more than 200 Americans dead and 1,000 wounded in Iraq, and untold numbers of dead Iraqis. Our troops are in “a shooting gallery,” as Teddy Kennedy put it, and our spy agencies warn that we are on the cusp of a new round of attacks by Saddam snipers.

Why does it always come to this in Washington? The people who ascend to power on the promise of doing things differently end up making the same unforced errors their predecessors did. Out of office, the Bush crowd mocked the Clinton propensity for stonewalling; in office, they have stonewalled the 9/11 families on the events that preceded the attacks, and the American public on how -- and why -- they maneuvered the nation into the Iraqi war.

Their defensive crouch and obsession with secrecy are positively Nixonian. But instead of John Dean and an aggressive media, they have Howard Dean and a cowed media.

In a hole, the President should have done some plain speaking: “The information I gave you in the State of the Union about Iraq seeking nuclear material from Africa has been revealed to be false. I’m deeply angry and I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

But of course he couldn’t say that. He would be like Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles, holding the gun to his own head and saying, “Nobody move or potus gets it.” The Bush administration has known all along that the evidence of the imminent threat of Saddam’s weapons and the al-Qaeda connections were pumped up. They were manning the airhose.

Tenet, in his continuing effort to ingratiate himself to his bosses, agreed to take the fall, trying to minimize a year’s worth of war-causing warping of intelligence as a slip of the keyboard. “These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President,” he said, in 15 words that were clearly written for him on behalf of the President. But it won’t fly.

It was Rice’s responsibility to vet the intelligence facts in the President’s speech and take note of the red alert the tentative Tenet was raising. Colin Powell did when he set up camp at the CIA for a week before his UN speech, double-checking what he considered unsubstantiated charges that the Cheney chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and other hawks wanted to sluice into his talk.

When the President attributed the information about Iraq trying to get Niger yellowcake to British intelligence, it was a Clintonian bit of flim-flam. Americans did not know what top Bush officials knew: that this “evidence” could not be attributed to American intelligence because the CIA had already debunked it.

Rice did not throw out the line, even though the CIA had warned her office that it was sketchy. Clearly, a higher power wanted it in.

And that had to be Dick Cheney’s office. Joseph Wilson, former US ambassador to Gabon, said he was asked to go to Niger to answer some questions from the Vice President’s office about that episode and reported back that it was highly doubtful.

But doubt is not the currency of the Bush hawks. Asked if he regretted using the Niger claim, Bush replied: “There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power. And there’s no doubt in my mind, when it’s all said and done, the facts will show the world the truth.”

I’m happy that Bush’s mental landscape is so cloudless. But it is our doubts he needs to assuage.

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The theories that have emerged in the wake of the “escape” of Indonesian terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi are simply too numbing to contemplate. Trying to anticipate his next moves is an even more chilling exercise.

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