Malleable Facts

From cooked corporate books to cooked-up "intelligence," the Bush administration is on its way to making dishonesty the dominant characteristic of its term in office. The usual onslaught of campaign rhetoric has compounded the falsehoods. On October 22, Washington Post White House reporter Dana Milbank, in what one can only hope will be a harbinger of more critical reporting from the mainstream press, cited a series of false statements Bush has made recently while campaigning for Republican candidates. Bearing the headline "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable" Milbank's article highlighted eight Bush statements this fall alone that are factually inaccurate, omit crucial qualifying information that mitigate the thrust of the statement, or use logical fallacy to misrepresent the truth. The validity of Milbank's critique can be gauged by the White House response, quietly initiating a smear campaign, while Press Secretary Ari Fleischer took the rare step of responding publicly with a letter to the Post. True to Bush's "corporate" model of government, however, Republican spokepeople and campaigns throughout the country have followed his lead in bombarding the electorate with untruths as mid-term Election Day approaches.

A schematic of Milbanks political polygraphy follows:

Dateline Bush statements Reality
Camp David, MD, September 7 "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA -- that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need." A report issued by the IAEA in 1998, around the time weapons inspectors were finally denied access to Iraq stated: "Based on all credible information to date, the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material." The IAEA Annual Report for 2001 says only that the agency had " confirmed the validity of the Agency’s technically coherent picture of Iraq’s past clandestine nuclear programme and nuclear related capabilities as of December 1998." In response to British government assertions concerning weapons development in Iraq, the IAEA stated. "We will be seeking further detailed information from the UK government on the nuclear activities described in the report in order that we are able to conduct the necessary systematic follow-up."
Waterford, MI, October 14 Concerning the wearing of radiation detectors by customs officials: "The leadership of that particular group of people said, 'No way; we need to have a collective bargaining session over whether or not our people should be made to wear these devices,' And that could take a long period of time." In January the National Treasury Employees Union argued that radiation detectors should be voluntary, and called for negotiations. Five days later the Customs Service said it saw no need to negotiate and began to implement the policy. In April the union wrote that it "does not object" to mandatory wearing of the devices. According to the Customs Service the delay was caused by a shortage of the devices. 4,000 are reportedly on order.
"There's over $15 billion of construction projects which are on hold, which aren't going forward -- which means there's over 300,000 jobs that would be in place, or soon to be in place, that aren't in place." The $15 billion figure is not a government estimate, but comes from a trade group, the Real Estate Roundtable, which is lobbying for terrorism insurance legislation. The group obtained the information -- at the White House's request -- by taking an unscientific survey of members, who were asked to provide figures with no documentation. The White House claims the 300,000 jobs number was provided by the carpenters' union, but a union official said the White House had "extrapolated" the number from Transportation Department study of federal highway aid (not private real estate) previously cited by the union.
Cincinnati, OH, October 7

"[O]ne very senior al Qaeda leader ... received medical treatment in Baghdad this year." U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that the terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was no longer in Iraq and that there was no hard evidence Hussein's government knew he was there or had contact with him.
"[W]e have discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet" of unmanned aircraft capable of "targeting the United States." An October CIA report referred to the aircraft as an "experiment" and "attempt" and declared it a "serious threat to Iraq's neighbors and to international military forces in the region" -- but did not indicate any threat to the US.
In 1998, "information from a high-ranking Iraqi nuclear engineer who had defected revealed that despite his public promises, Saddam Hussein had ordered his nuclear program to continue.... Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists, [which] could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." The Iraqi defector referred to is Khidhir Hamza, who did work on the Iraqi nuclear program, but retired in 1991 and left the country in 1995. Although he spoke in 1998 about his experiences, his information referred to activities nearly a decade earlier. The statement that Iraq could use terrorist groups to attack "on any given day" conflicts with CIA testimony to congress. Declassified after Bush's speech, the testimony declared the likelihood that Hussein would initiate a chemical or biological attack against the US was "low," but suggested that he might take the "extreme step" of acting through a terrorist group if conftronted with a U.S. attack.
Springfield, MO, October 18 "[B]ecause of a quirk in the rules in the United States Senate, after a 10-year period, the tax-relief plan we passed goes away." Actually, although a 60-vote majority was needed to pass the tax cut, supporters of the tax cut in the House and Senate, which were both under GOP control at the time the legislation passed, agree that it should expire after nine years to keep the cost below the $1.35 trillion over 10 years that had been agreed to by congress and the administration.
Manchester, NH, October 5 Claimed his education bill brought about "the biggest increase in education spending in a long, long time." When asked by reporters about Bush's statement, the White House cited a 15.8 percent increase in Department of Education discretionary spending for fiscal year 2002. The increase under Clinton in fiscal 2001 was 18.5 percent. Moreover, the administration had lobbied for a much smaller increase than eventually passed. Earlier in October, Republican moderates complained that the adminstration was not spending the full amount approved for education. Budget director, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., responded that it was "nothing uncommon" and referred to the education bill as "explosively larger" than the administration request.

In addition to Ari Fleischer's written response to the Post, which managed a weak refutation of two of Milbank's items, ABC News reported receiving a phone call from an unidentified "senior administration official." "This was a story that was cooked and ready to go before any due diligence of the facts," [by a reporter who] is more interested in style than substance," the source said. ABC News described this attempt to impune a reporter's professionalism as "unusual" for a government official. The official also made some personal remarks about Milbank that ABC chose not to make public, and then he attempted to refute Milbank's points one-by-one. Before detailing the attempted refutations, which were similar to points made in the Fleischer letter, the writers of ABC News The Note, in which this information appeared, observed:

...[I]t is clear that the president HAS made some misstatements for which he has not seemed to pay a price in terms of credibility — first and foremost his "trifecta" assertion, in which he claims that during the campaign he told voters that he wouldn't dip into Social Security or run a deficit except in case of a war, a recession, or a national emergency.

Milbank's review was particularly thorough, albeit limited to statements made this fall, but the Post was not the only publication to challenge recent administration statements. On October 23, a story in the usually-Bush-friendly Wall Street Journal titled "Bush's Efforts to Link Hussein to al Qaeda Lack Clear Evidence," carried a subtitle that read in part, "U.S. Intelligence Can't Affirm President's Claims...." In one of many such statements, Bush said of Saddam Hussein last week, "This is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda. This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army." White House spokesman Sean McCormick admitted that the connection was more tenuous that Bush's assertion implied. "There are reports that we have seen that point to some ties," he said. "It's a developing story, and we're looking into it." In what for the Journal is a damning indictment, staff reporter David Cloud wrote, "In public statements, senior officials have referred repeatedly to intelligence about al Qaeda-Iraq links that remains largely unverified...," going on to point out that, far from having a co-operative relationship, "Mr. Hussein, in fact, appears to be the type of secular Arab leader -- like the Saudi royal family and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- whom Mr. bin Laden and his Islamic followers would most like to see overthrown, with strict Islamic law imposed on Iraq's relatively nonobserving population."

Invoking Monty-Python's "dead parrot" skit, Paul Krugman puts it more straighforwardly. "...[T]he Bush administration lies a lot." Krugman quotes the former head of counter-terrorism for the CIA as saying, "Basically, cooked information is working its way into high-level pronouncements." The dishonesty, Krugman points out, "goes all the way back to the 2000 campaign, and is manifest on a wide range of issues."

  • The plan for partial privatization of Social Security, in which the administration tried to conceal the requirement for severe cuts in benefits, as well as the need for trillions of dollars in income, the source of which was not identified.
  • Bush's claim that his tax cut aids the middle class while 40% of the benefits go to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers.
  • Referring to 60 existing lines of stem cells available for research -- a claim denied by the research and medical community.
  • The promise to make "mandatory" carbon dioxide limits a part of his environmental plan, which he reneged on barely three months into his term.
  • Bush representing himself as "a uniter not a divider," -- a claim that garnered him support from around the world. For example, the Economist which endorsed Bush primarily because they saw him as the candidate better able to transcend partisanship, now refers to him as "partisan in chief."

Bush's henchmen and surrogates were at least as busy as he was, spreading disinformation throughout the campaign season. In mid-October "wingnut&quot (to use Joe Conason's term) Rush Limbaugh helped publicize a dubious report concerning Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle. Joel C. Rosenberg, a former Limbaugh writer, called Daschle's office to ask about Daschle's name appearing on the "Not in our Name" petition that has appeared on the web and in major newspapers in recent weeks. When the staffer Rosenberg spoke to did not immediately deny that Daschle had signed the petition, Rosenberg quickly posted a story on the conservative Jewish World Review website, highlighting the apparent contradiction between Daschle's support for the resolution authorizing Bush to act in Iraq, and his signature on the antiwar petition. Rosenberg emailed Limbaugh who then read the article on the air, and added his inimitable commentary suggesting that Daschle was pretending to support Bush while pandering to Hollywood leftists.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, any name can be entered on the NION web site, and in fact the petition has been signed by Ben Dover, Youcommies Are Nuts, and Al Koholic, among others. Daschle's press office issued a statement that he had never signed the petition, Fox NEWS reported the incident as a hoax, and Rosenberg issued a retraction. Subsequently Rosenberg admitted that four hours after his first call, Daschle's office had denied that he had signed the NION petition.

In September in Iowa, a different sort of subterfuge took place. A TV ad paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) showed an elderly woman, apparently a constituent of incumbent Tom Harkin, compaining "I've trusted Tom Harkin for almost 30 years until today. Today I found out that Senator Harkin voted to create that awful tax on Social Security benefits. The tax makes my life so hard." When the Des Moines Register contacted the NRSC, they admitted that the woman was an actress, playing an invented character, but initially asserted that the concern expressed reflected opinion polls in Iowa. Asked if those concerns had been expressed specifically with regard to Harkin, spokesman Dan Allen balked. These were "internal" polls, he said. "We don't air that in public."

The Register called the ad "fraud." The Iowa Republican party and the campaign of Harkin's challenger, Greg Ganske wouldn't comment. The Register noted that the vote referred to in the ad took place in 1983 when Harkin was in the House, that the measure was recommended by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a majority of Democrats and Republicans voted for it, including Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, and it was signed into law by Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

NRSC spokesman Allen suggested that using actors in political advertising is no different than using them to sell commercial products. "Do they have those cars sitting in their driveway?" Bill Allison of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC thinks there should be a difference. "It shows a certain amount of cynicism, that political discourse is lowered to the level of selling toothpaste," he told the Register. "If this [the Social Security tax] were really a problem, it shouldn't be difficult to find someone who would say that legitimately."

And last week, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now masquerading as a "management consultant", was caught making false allegations. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on October 27 Gingrich stated:

Walter Mondale chaired a commission that was for the privatization of Social Security worldwide.... He chaired a commission that was for raising the retirement age dramatically. He has a strong record of voting to raise taxes.... Think that what you'll see on the Republican side is an issue-oriented campaign that says, you know, if you want to raise your retirement age dramatically and privatize Social Security, Walter Mondale is a terrifically courageous guy to say that.

Gingrich was apparently referring to a Commission on Global Aging, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank. The commission released a report last year that called for raising retirement ages, and moving away from "pay-as-you-go" social protection programs toward market-based plans. Mondale, however, co-wrote the dissenting opinion, along with six other Americans.

Although we support the Commission's role in providing leadership in the global aging debate, we are strongly opposed to some of the Commission's findings and recommendations... Some of the Commission's findings and recommendations could be interpreted as mandates to fundamentally change Social Security and Medicare... Population trends should not be an excuse to renege on this commitment. Rather, we should rededicate ourselves to finding creative ways to meet the commitment, particularly because the United States does not face the same demographic challenges as other nations....

We do not support the Commission's findings and recommendations that might result in the dismantling of social insurance programs and their replacement with funded schemes. Funded systems are not immune to financial and demographic fluctuations, as the recent stock market performance clearly demonstrates. Funded systems should remain an important supplement to existing guarantees, but they should not replace those guarantees.

Gingrich's misinformation was echoed by Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review, appearing on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer: "[Mondale] is a major advocate of President Bush's position on Social Security, which is something that I think, once it becomes more public, is going to alienate Wellstone Democrats."

"Republicans are lying when then say Mondale supports privatization" Hans Reimer, senior policy analyst for the liberal Campaign for America's Future, told the Post, "just like they are lying when they claim to oppose it," he said.

Paul Krugman sums things up neatly in his "Dead Parrot Society" commentary.

...[T]he Bush administration is an extremely elitist clique trying to maintain a populist facade. Its domestic policies are designed to benefit a very small number of people — basically those who earn at least $300,000 a year, and really don't care about either the environment or their less fortunate compatriots. True, this base is augmented by some powerful special-interest groups, notably the Christian right and the gun lobby. But while this coalition can raise vast sums, and can mobilize operatives to stage bourgeois riots when needed, the policies themselves are inherently unpopular. Hence the need to reshape those malleable facts.

Krugman wonders, rhetorically, what Bush's long term strategy might be, since despite having the "bully pulpit" at his disposal, Bush has not brought public opinion around to his views on issues. If the Bushies succeed in their grab for control of all three branches of government -- then what? Krugman speculates that Bush and his right-wing handlers believe that they can "lock in a permanent political advantage, even though the more the public learns about their policies, the less it likes them."

Yet the administration may be in danger of acting on the same kind of hubris that led Jim Jeffords to defect from the Republican party. As Molly Ivins says of a recent Bush policy decision in her October 28 column, "Election 2002; Rally time," "Frankly, it's nutty. But they made a big mistake. They forgot to run it by the people first."

Despite job approval ratings that are still above 60 percent, the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found only 45 percent of those surveyed saying they would "probably" vote for Bush in 2004. "Nearly half either say they'll likely back a Democrat, or that their choice 'depends' on Bush's rival." Both Democractic pollster Peter Hart and Republican colleague Bob Teeter agree that if the election were held today, Bush "could face as competitive a race as the one he faced in 2000." The same poll showed that, after months of negative sentiment, more people surveyed held a favorable opinion of Congress than an unfavorable one. It also found the lowest percentage of respondents with a favorable view of the economy in the history of NBC/Wall Street Journal polls, at 31 percent.

Ivins continues:

In this putrid election season, every television ad seems to announce that the other guy sucks eggs, runs on all fours, molests small children and has the brain of an adolescent pissant. It's tempting to join the "pox on both their houses" crowd. They're close to right, but they're still wrong.

Here's the good news: All of this can actually be fixed. By me, you, us -- no kidding, no bull. Nothing you can do about it? Just one person? As an American at this time, you have more political power than 99 percent of all the people who have ever lived on earth. And should you round up four friends who don't usually vote, you'll have four times that much political power.

Pundits around the country agreed that this year's election would depend to an unusual degree on voter turnout. There was heavy voter turnout, motivated by the many high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races, but Democrats failed to get out the vote. One likely factor was fundraising: while many reports on the current election have not yet been filed, over the past year the Republican party raised nearly $200 million more than the Democrats. Jeb Bush's campaign, to cite a prominent example, was "the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in Florida history." Even so, as the Washington Post's post-mortem put it, "Democratic issues did not galvanize voters [and] the party faces a serious internal debate over how to challenge Bush during the next two years." The Economist was more blunt: "...[T]the Democrats performance has been dismal."

The real lesson of the 2002 election may be that, Bush's claims of unity notwithstanding, the country is still at least as divided as it was after the 2000 election. The small Republican majority in the Senate will mean that the legislative process will still move slowly, and small gains may require disproportionate expenditure of political capital by Bush.


Von Drehle, David "Bush Bets His Popularity And Scores a Big Victory" Washington Post 6 Nov. 2002

Balz, Dan and David S. Broder "Close Election Turns On Voter Turnout" Washington Post 1 Nov. 2002

"Curb your enhusiasm" The Economist 31 Oct 2002

Neal, Terry M. "Gingrich Accusations Come Under Scrutiny" Washington Post 28 Oct. 2002

Conason, Joe "Joe Conason's Journal" 28 Oct. 2002

Calmes, Jackie "Public Fears Combat in Iraq; Bush Is No Sure Thing in 2004" Wall Street Journal 25 Oct. 2002

Krugman, Paul "Dead Parrot Society" NY Times 25 Oct. 2002

Harwood, John "Even Split Between Parties Persists as Election Nears" Wall Street Journal 24 Oct. 2002

Milbank, Dana "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable" Washington Post 22 Oct. 2002

Halperin, Mark et al. "Teflon Maintenance" The Note. ABC News. 22 Oct. 2002

Nyhan, Brendan "Fools rush in" 15 Oct. 2002

"IAEA Comments on Britain's 'Iraq Dossier' and Possible Iraq Inspections" Media Advisory 2002/8. International Atomic Energy Agency. 26 Sep. 2002.

Basu, Rekha "Poor lady lamenting Harkins 1983 vote is from central casting". DesMoines Register 15 Sep. 20002

Annual Report 2001 International Atomic Energy Agency. July 2002.