When I was a newspaper reporter covering the criminal courts in Pennsylvania, lawyers always told juries they were entitled to apply this old legal principle to any witness: falsis in unum, falsis in omnibus — false in one thing, false in all things. This means that if jurors determined that a witness was untruthful in one material statement, they were justified in dismissing the witness’s entire testimony.
If juries are entitled to do this, so, I submit, are the American people with respect to presidents, even President Bush.
The one difference is that according to the evidence, Bush has not been false in only one thing. Two cases come to mind. (There are undoubtedly others.)
First is his statement in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had tried to buy significant quantities of uranium from an African nation (Niger). The White House position today is that this was a factually incorrect statement. But we know more than that. We know that long before the State of the Union speech was written Bush’s government was warned not to trust the reports because they were based on fraudulent documents. In 2002 former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson had been asked by the CIA to investigate reports of the alleged attempted uranium buy and concluded they were bogus. The impetus for the request was Vice President Dick Cheney’s interest in an intelligent report about Iraq’s attempt to buy uranium.
As Wilson wrote in the New York Times recently, “Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat…. I spent … eight days [in Niger] drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country’s uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.” Wilson writes that U.S. Ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick was not surprised by his findings and believed her own earlier reports had put the rumor to rest.
In March 2002, 10 months before Bush’s speech, Wilson relayed his findings to the CIA and the State Department’s African Affairs Bureau. “There was nothing secret or earth-shattering in my report, just as there was nothing secret about my trip,” he wrote in the Times. Thus he was surprised when he heard British Prime Minister Tony Blair refer to the alleged attempted buy six months later and President Bush do so ten months later. “If … the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses,” Wilson wrote.
Officials say Wilson’s findings never reached the White House. How believable is that when it was the vice president’s interest in the matter that set the Wilson mission in motion?
This is not the first such incident. On more than one occasion Bush said that the International Atomic Energy Agency had concluded that Saddam Hussein was six months away from having nuclear weapons. But the IAEA denied ever having made such an estimate. That never stopped Bush from repeating the false information. Could he have really been so ignorant? That strains credulity.
Bush’s defenders, knowing that the failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq is at least a major embarrassment, have pleaded that the president should be given more time and granted the benefit of the doubt. Any suggestion of bad faith is condemned as “politics,” although defenses of Bush are as political as the attacks.
But why should the administration get any benefit of the doubt? It has been caught in two material misstatements of fact that cannot be explained away innocently, and no nasty weapons or even components have been found. Yet Hussein’s supposed nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenal was used to spook the American people into supporting a war that killed at least 6,000 innocent Iraqi civilians.
I think the American jury is entitled to dismiss the president’s entire testimony.