A million deaths later, Bush spokesman defends boss on Iraq

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Ari Fleischer, a press secretary for President George W. Bush, marked the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq with a full-bore effort on Twitter to exonerate his former boss of the charge that his administration invented the rationale for a war that has cost countless lives.

“The Iraq war began sixteen years ago tomorrow,” wrote Fleischer. “There is a myth about the war that I have been meaning to set straight for years. After no WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] were found, the left claimed ‘Bush lied. People died.’ This accusation itself is a lie. It's time to put it to rest.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer at a press briefing in January 2003. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The invasion, war and ensuing conflict have resulted in over 4,000 U.S. military dead. The number of Iraqi dead ranges from hundreds of thousands to over a million depending on estimates.

Fleischer didn’t say Iraq’s supposed nuclear and biological weapons actually did exist, but blamed faulty U.S. intelligence, and Saddam Hussein’s own propaganda, for misleading the administration.

Journalist David Corn, who wrote a book on the invasion along with Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, immediately disputed Fleischer’s claims by pointing out lies in the run-up to the war from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Damn, Ari,” wrote Corn. “I’ve been through this BS before. Cheney started out your push for war in a major speech claiming Saddam was amassing WMDs to use against the US. There was no intelligence concluding that. It was a lie.”

“Cheney then repeatedly claimed there was intelligence showing the 9/11 ringleader had met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague,” continued Corn. “But the CIA had concluded this report was false. Another lie. Bush at one point said US intel didn’t know if Saddam already had a nuclear bomb. But US intel had concluded that at best there was a nuclear program but not one that had reached the point of producing a bomb. Another lie. Yes, there were some intel reports noting the existence of WMD programs. But the Bush-Cheney crowd exaggerated these findings and ignored or denied the contrary evidence. Such as with the case of the aluminum tubes, your White House cited the tubes as concrete evidence of a nuclear weapon program, even though the top experts in the govt on nuclear weapons said these tubes were not suitable for such a program. Another lie.”

Vox’s Dylan Matthews collected more of Corn’s findings in a July 2016 story entitled “No, really, George W. Bush lied about WMDs.” Among them was Bush’s statement in October 2002 that Hussein had a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons, despite the CIA’s admission that “it had no specific information on the types or quantities of weapons agent or stockpiles at Baghdad's disposal.” In December 2002, Bush said, “We do not know whether or not [Iraq] has a nuclear weapon.” But former CIA Director George Tenet later testified, “We said that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon and probably would have been unable to make one until 2007 to 2009.” The administration also ignored warnings about faulty intelligence regarding Iraq allegedly trying to acquire uranium from Niger.

President George W. Bush meets with, from left, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

In an August 2002 speech, Cheney declared, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, was on stage for the speech where Cheney made that claim and was shocked.

“It was a total shock,” said Zinni in a 2013 documentary based on Corn and Isikoff’s book. “I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this, you know? In doing work with the CIA on Iraq WMD, through all the briefings I heard at Langley, I never saw one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing program. And that’s when I began to believe they’re getting serious about this. They wanna go into Iraq.”

There is also substantial evidence that the Bush administration was actively looking for reasons to invade Iraq and sought to shape intelligence to support its agenda. In a meeting between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, notes taken by a Rumsefeld aide said the secretary asked for the “best info fast..judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time—not only UBL [Osama bin Laden].” A released memo from November 2001 found Rumsfeld ordering the Pentagon to make plans to “decapitate” the Iraqi government and begins with the bullet point “Focus on WMD.” A British inquiry into the war found that the Bush administration was interested in toppling Hussein’s government before the 9/11 attacks even occurred.

One of Fleischer’s final tweets on the topic read, “Which leads me to conclude that there was a liar and his name was Saddam Hussein. He created an elaborate system of lies to fool western intelligence services and he succeeded. He wanted us to believe he had WMDs.”

If Hussein’s plan indeed was to fool foreign intelligence services, his strategy resulted in the toppling of his government, the death of his sons in a firefight with U.S. troops and Hussein’s own death by hanging — along with the death of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.

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