'I think it's a lie to say that the president lied'

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That is what John McCain said in response to Bob Schieffer's question on Face the Nation yesterday, "Do you believe it is unpatriotic to criticize the administration's Iraq policy?" Here's McCain's reply in full:

"No, I think it's a very legitimate aspect of American life to criticize and to disagree and to debate. But I want to say I think it's a lie to say that the president lied to the American people [boldface added]. I sat on the Robb-Silberman commission. I saw many, many analysts that came before that committee. I asked every one of them–I said, `Did–were you ever pressured politically or any other way to change your analysis of the situation as you saw [it]?' Every one of them said no. Now was there a colossal intelligence failure? Of course, there was. Is there still a lot that needs to be done to improve that? Are we winning the war on terror? I think it depends on your parameters. But to assert that the president intentionally lied to the American people is just wrong."

But that, of course, is what so many leading Democrats want the American people to think. And to judge from the polls, they have been making some headway since they shut the Senate down and imposed a secret session to consider this issue three weeks ago.

President Bush responded forthrightly in his speech on Veterans Day last week. He spoke at great length of the murderous ideology of "Islamic radicalism" instead of just unspecified terrorism—something he started doing only this fall and probably should have been doing long ago. Toward the end, he addressed the Democrats' charges:

"While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began. [Applause.] Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.

"They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction. And many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: 'When I vote to give the president of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security.' That's why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate–who had access to the same intelligence–voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power. [Applause.]

"The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges. [Applause.] These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them. [Applause.] Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. [Applause.] And our troops deserve to know that whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united, and we will settle for nothing less than victory. [Applause.]"

Of course, the Democrats are squawking. McCain and Bush are daring to call their charge—that Bush deliberately lied about intelligence—for the Big Lie that it is. The Democrats still argue that there needs to be an investigation of whether the administration lied about prewar intelligence. But, as the White House points out, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Silberman-Robb commission, and Lord Butler in Britain have conducted such investigations and have found no manipulation of intelligence—and that the raw intelligence that leading members of the administration had at the time but members of Congress did not was even more alarming than what members of Congress had.

Go back, if we must, to 2002 and 2003. What we knew then was that (a) Saddam Hussein's regime had developed weapons of mass destruction—chemical and biological weapons and the beginnings of a nuclear weapons program—in the past, (b) that regime had used such weapons against its own people, and (c) that regime had refused over a long time to cooperate with the U.N. inspection program. Even apart from the intelligence reports indicating that WMD programs were continuing, it would have been grossly irresponsible for any U.S. government to have assumed that they had stopped. What kind of intelligence could we have obtained, in those circumstances, that would have convinced us that they had stopped? The failure of U.N. inspectors to find WMD programs? But they could easily be hidden, and the actions of regime operatives suggested they were hiding something. Statements by top-level defectors or regime members that the programs were not ongoing? Any intelligence analyst would have to assume that these might be disinformation. Statements by Saddam himself? Come on.

The Democrats are trying to relitigate the prewar intelligence issue in the hopes of delegitimizing this administration. But in delegitimizing the administration, they also tend to delegitimize the efforts of the U.S. government, including military personnel, in Iraq and generally in the war against Islamic terrorism. To the extent they delegitimize the United States, they are hurting the cause of freedom for millions of people. I do not say the Democrats are being unpatriotic, a word they seem fixated on. So far as I am aware, no responsible Republican has charged that they are unpatriotic; John McCain refused Bob Schieffer's invitation to do so. But I do say this: The Democrats who are peddling the Big Lie of "Bush lied" are doing so either (a) deliberately to injure the cause of the United States and of freedom in the world or, as I think, (b) with reckless disregard of whether they injure the cause of the United States and of freedom in the world. What they are doing may suit their political needs, but it hurts our country.

I'll leave the last word to Fred Hiatt, editorial-page editor of the Washington Post, who seems to take a similar view in his column today.

"'Those aren't irrelevant questions [about prewar intelligence],' says Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). 'But the more they dominate the public debate, the harder it is to sustain public support for the war.'

"What Lieberman doesn't say is that many Democrats would view such an outcome as an advantage. Their focus on 2002 is a way to further undercut President Bush, and Bush's war, without taking the risk of offering an alternative strategy–to satisfy their withdraw-now constituents without being accountable for a withdraw-now position.

"Many of them understand that dwindling public support could force the United States into a self-defeating position, and that defeat in Iraq would be disastrous for the United States as well as for [Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul] Mahdi and his countrymen. But the taste of political blood as Bush weakens, combined with their embarrassment at having supported the war in the first place, seems to override that understanding."