Bush’s Clintonian parsing

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As I see people compiling lists of things President Bush and Vice President Cheney said about Iran — after they had been alerted by their intelligence chief of new evidence that an Iranian nuclear weapons program had halted in 2003 — I’m noticing recurrent choices of words and phrases that may signal that they were deliberately trying to mislead, while leaving themselves a technical defense of accuracy.

The administration has often seemed willing to bend, fold and mutilate the truth. But this is a tad different. Maybe two tads. I’m talking about the kind of “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” parsing that was supposedly the essence of Bill Clinton’s honesty problem. This was the opposite of what “restore honesty and integrity to the White House” Bush was supposed to stand for.

Opinion: Bush’s Clintonian Parsing


Specifically, what I’m noticing is that Bush and Cheney — while arguing that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could cause World War III — have recently (since August) sort of stopped saying that they believed Iran was developing a nuclear weapon. They have said instead that Iran had “hopes” or “ambitions” or acquiring nuclear weapons or was pursuing “knowledge” or “technology” that “could be used to develop nuclear weapons.”

I noticed these interesting word choices during Bush’s press conference Tuesday morning. But previous Bush and Cheney statements suggest that they knew what they were doing months ago. Here are three examples, with key words in bold face and my asides in italics and parentheses. These come right off the latest Joe Biden press release to reach my inbox (Biden was citing them for a different purpose).

October 21: Cheney speech to Washington Institute for Near Easy Policy: “And now, of course, we have the inescapable reality of Iran’s nuclear program (well sure they have a nuclear program, they’re enriching uranium aren’t they?); a program they claim is strictly for energy purposes, but which they have worked hard to conceal; a program carried out in complete defiance of the international community and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.” (Well sure, the technology that enables a country to enrich uranium could be used to develop nuclear weapons, right?)

October 17: Bush Press conference: Bush was asked, do you “definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon? (notice how clear the question is: buildnuclear weapons?)” Bush said, “I think so long — until they suspend and/or make it clear that they — that their statements aren’t real, yes, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. (I didn’t say they wanted to make one, I said they wanted to have the knowledge.) And I know it’s in the world’s interest to prevent them from doing so… So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

August 28: Bush at American Legion convention: (just after he had been told by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell of new indications that Iran had shut down its nuclear weapons program): President Bush Warns of “Nuclear Holocaust.” “Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.”

So I’m wondering whether this inclusion, after August, of language about developing the “knowledge” and the “capacity” to make a weapon was the Bush-Cheney way of continuing to give the impression that they thought Iran had a nuclear weapons program while saying nothing that specifically directly contradicted what they had just been told about the latest intelligence finding. It’s kind of like one of those technically correct but fundamentally false scripts for a political ad, designed to lead the viewer to a false understanding without committing a technical inaccuracy.

Maybe I’m imagining things. You’d have to review a lot of statements and see whether the “knowledge” and “capacity” stuff started earlier. I’ve just spent a couple of hours testing my theory on the White House site that archives Bush’s speeches and news conferences and — while definitely not perfect — my theory is looking pretty good. Before August, Bush often states much more flatly that Iran is “pursuing nuclear weapons,” has a “nuclear weapons program,” is “trying to develop (or ‘get’) a nuclear weapon.”

There are a couple of exceptions (and maybe more that I haven’t found) before August, where Bush uses versions of the more recent language about acquiring know-how or capabilities. But before August, they are the exceptions.

After August, all of the instances in which Bush discussed Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, he used language that is consistent with my theory. Post-August, Iran has bad intentions and is acquiring dangerous knowledge, but not running an ongoing program to build a bomb. The change is subtle enough that you might miss it if you aren’t looking for it, and as far as I can tell, we all did miss it.

Specific cases: Post-August language

In addition to the ones above, in Bush’s press conference of Sept. 20

“I believe it’s imperative that we continue to work in a multilateral fashion to send that message. And one place to do so is at the United Nations. We’re also talking to different finance ministers about how we can send a message to the Iranian government that the free world is not going to tolerate the development of know-how in how to build a weapon, or at least gain the ability to make a weapon.”

Specific cases: Pre-August language

Bush’s July 12 press conference:

“The fight in Iraq is part of a broader struggle that’s unfolding across the region. The same region in Iran — the same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons” (not the knowledge that might enable Iran to someday build weapons; pre-August Iran was pursuing the weapons).

May 24 press conference:

“Iran is constantly on the agenda at a press avail like this — or a press conference like this, and the reason why is because they continue to be defiant as to the demands of the free world. The world has spoken, and said no nuclear weapons programs. And yet they’re constantly ignoring the demands.” (They have a nuclear weapons program, exactly what we now understand they probably don’t have!)

Same press conference:

“It would have been a really dangerous world if we had the Iranians trying to develop a nuclear weapon, (not the know-how, the weapon) and Saddam Hussein competing for a nuclear weapon. You can imagine what the mentality of the Middle East would have been like.”

May 10 press availability at the Pentagon:

“Do we understand the consequences of Iran having a nuclear weapon, which it looks like they want to try achieve — to get. And the answer is, absolutely.”

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