Parsing official lies

That tortured chapter of American history marked "Iraq" will not rest. The Bush administration insists that the threat to the United States was so serious and so urgent that invasion was unavoidable. But the public remains unconvinced.

President Bush says that the American people "aren't getting the truth" about Iraq, but the truth he refers to is not about the war, it's about the efforts at reconstruction.

Vice President Dick Cheney addressed the conservative Heritage Foundation on Oct. 10, asserting that the invasion of Iraq "was an essential step in the war on terror." He said, "Iraq has become a central front in the war on terror." What he did not say is that this may have been an effect of the invasion, not the cause.

It was Mr. Cheney who made the first major speech on the road to war on Aug. 7, last year. He said then that it was known from various sources that Saddam Hussein "continues to pursue a nuclear weapon." On Aug. 26 he said that Hussein had the nuclear capacity to directly threaten "anyone he chooses, in his own region or beyond."

It is almost forgotten now that, for months before the invasion, Cheney and other administration figures asserted with absolute certainty that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program. No evidence of that has been found, except for concocted evidence like forged documents indicating Iraq's efforts to buy uranium in Niger. In The New Yorker this week, reporter Seymour Hirsch suggests the possibility that the forgery took place inside the CIA.

An awful suspicion is growing that the US invaded Iraq on the wings of a lie.

The word "lie" should not be used loosely because it tends to undermine faith in government. The White House lied in 1957 when it called a stroke that President Eisenhower had suffered "a chill." Secretary of State Henry Kissinger lied almost routinely on matters like the claim of being neutral in the war between India and Pakistan when the Nixon administration was actually "tilting towards Pakistan." Carter White House spokesman Jody Powell lied in 1980 when he flatly denied any plan to rescue the hostages in the Tehran embassy.

These are what you call "tactical lies," meant to protect a pending military operation.

The late former director of the CIA, Richard Helms, lied before a Senate committee about the agency's activities in Chile. He plea-bargained his way out of a perjury indictment, saying he would wear the conviction as "a badge of honor."

And of course, President Clinton lied when he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

But that was not like lying about a war fought on a premise that may have been a lie. Cheney said, "This country will not permit gathering threats to become certain tragedies."

In Iraq we are sure about the tragedy. There remains a miasma of doubt about the threat.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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