Bush Must Divulge Facts to Fight Back on Iraq-Al Qaeda Tie

Posted June 18, 2004 at 5:00pm

The Bush administration is getting clobbered by Democrats and the media across a broad front. It has begun fighting back on some issues — but if the truth is on President Bush’s side, he’s got to do a lot more to prove it. [IMGCAP(1)]

Specifically, the administration should declassify all the intelligence it can about contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and it must cooperate with Congressional investigations on prison abuse in Iraq.

It should disclose all contacts between Vice President Cheney’s office and the Pentagon on Iraqi reconstruction contracts granted to Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton. And Bush has to figure out how to get word to the public about one matter on which the facts are clearly on his side — an improving economy.

Is the media biased against Bush? The Pew Research Center’s poll earlier this month certainly showed that 55 percent of national reporters and editors think they are “not critical enough” of Bush. Another survey published last week, by Media Tenor, showed that the major TV networks have stopped covering the economy as a news story now that the news is good. And polls show the public isn’t buying the idea of a recovery yet, despite robust job growth and continued low inflation.

My hunch is that editors and TV news directors believe they too-uncritically accepted administration claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the 2003 war and are belatedly trying to make up for it by pounding on the negative about Iraq.

There’s little question that the media systematically — even gleefully — exaggerated the Sept. 11, 2001, commission’s report that there was no “collaborative relationship” between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

The New York Times ran the story with a four-column front-page headline, “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie,” with the article below saying that the report “sharply contradicted one of President Bush’s central justifications for the Iraq war.”

USA Today went further, headlining “No al-Qaeda 9/11 Link Found” and “Commission Disputes One Rationale for War” — even though the administration has never claimed a role by Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) seized on the report to declare that “the administration misled America” and that “they did not tell the truth” — and his campaign sent out an e-mail that cited CBS, NBC and ABC accounts of the report under the headline, “Network News Hammers Bush on Iraq Assertions.”

The next day, the Democratic co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (Ind.), told reporters that “there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. So it seems to me the sharp difference that the press has drawn … are not apparent to me.”

Hamilton’s statement was carried, to my knowledge, only on Fox News (where I’m a commentator). Bush and Cheney vigorously reasserted a long history of “ties,” but they’ve got to go further.

Cheney has repeatedly cited The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes as the best source of data on “the connection,” the title of his book on the subject. But the administration has let Hayes be practically the only source, and it has refused to back up his reporting in detail.

One compelling example Hayes cites is evidence — it was even reported on CBS News and in Newsweek — that Abdul Rahman Yasin, who admitted mixing chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, went immediately to Baghdad and was given sanctuary.

Still, instead of issuing blanket reassertions that there were ties, and then having the Pentagon and other agencies dismiss them as “raw intelligence,” the administration should declassify what it can and prove its case.

Similarly, the notion is beginning to harden in the press that mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison was the direct outgrowth of policies ordered by Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The Washington Post, whose editorials on Iraq have been consistently moderate and fair, wrote about the Bush administration’s “Torture Policy.”

The media is treating the prisoner-mistreatment story as though it were Watergate — as if violations of the Geneva Convention in dealing with terrorists in wartime were a highest-order scandal — so the administration had best not “stonewall,” to use a Watergate term, if it has nothing to hide.

Rumsfeld did acknowledge keeping one high-ranking terrorist as a “ghost prisoner,” but the Pentagon should issue a full account of that practice. And Ashcroft should cooperate with Congress in justifying a Justice Department finding that prisoners could be treated “harshly.”

It’s also commonly believed in the media and among Democrats that Cheney, a former CEO of Halliburton, directed lucrative, no-bid contracts in Iraq to the firm and that Halliburton has been systematically — if not criminally — profiteering there. Instead of just denying the story, the administration should answer every question posed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

On the economy, Bush is making speeches and his campaign is taking out ads to tout improvements. Eventually, if trends continue, the word should get out. On one other topic, though — Medicare discount cards for seniors — the talking-back strategy probably won’t work. The administration first has to fix the program for real, and then get the word out to seniors.