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Presidential Lies

July 13, 2003

(2nd half of stream available .mp3)
It All Depends on What the Definition of “Learned” Is
Who tells a bigger lie, Clinton or Bush? President Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman — Miss Lewinksy.” These eleven words were roundly condemned as being a lie to the American people (even though “sexual relations,” defined by Webster’s as “coitus” technically involves an act that Clinton almost certainly avoided with Monica).
Clinton later justified his denial under oath that he “is” having an affair with Monica with “it all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is” (i.e., Clinton was having such an affair, but is not now). This ultra-technical explanation was roundly mocked by late-night comics and Americans nationwide. And, of course, Clinton was impeached, but not prosecuted for perjury, because his statements, though clearly intending to mislead us, were “technically accurate.”

Now comes another President under attack for sixteen words given in his January 2003 State of the Union address to the American people that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also defends as “technically accurate”: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Bush’s defenders claim these “sixteen words” are far more accurate than Clinton’s similarly short phrase, which, in Clinton’s case, merited impeachment.
No one doubts Bush’s words were intentionally misleading. Everyone from the CIA to the Secretary of State to the Vice President (that is, everyone except the American people) knew that the United States had no evidence that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The CIA tried to persuade the British that their evidence was faulty. The CIA then excised the claim from the President’s October 2002 speech. Secretary of State Powell called the allegation bulls–t. And more than a year ago, Vice President Cheney personally sent Joseph C. Wilson, Acting Ambassador to Iraq under Bush Senior, to check out the allegation, and Ambassador Wilson reported back that the claim was completely “bogus.”
But someone — the White House is still covering up who — insisted that these now infamous “sixteen words” be included in the President’s national address. Finally, the CIA, feeling enormous heat from what must have been a very high-level person, negotiated the following compromise: even though the U.S. had no evidence the words were true, the President could still say that the British said they were true.
Does this sound like Clinton? It gets worse. Bush didn’t say the British believed Hussein recently sought uranium. Bush said the British Government has learned Hussein recently sought uranium. This raises metaphysical questions: you can truthfully say the British believe something you don’t believe, but can you say they’ve learned it? I may need Bill Safire’s help here, but I think when you say someone — particularly a respectable source — has learned something, it sounds like you yourself believe it to be true. Try it out.
If you say, “The auto mechanic has learned that the weeblefitzer is broken,” doesn’t that sound like you believe him?
Compare: “the auto mechanic believes that the weeblefitzer is broken.” On that one, you’re expressing some doubt.
President Bush could have easily told us the truth in his State of the Union speech about what his Administration knew. He could have said: “The British Government believes that Saddam Hussein recently sought uranium from Africa, although our intelligence sources do not believe it and have tried to persuade the British to drop this allegation from their reports.” That would be not just technically true but actually true. Of course, it would also not be a very persuasive justification to go to war.
So was President Bush lying when he said the British Government has learned something that even Vice-President Cheney (and almost certainly Bush) believed inaccurate? Were his weasel words more truthful than Clinton’s? I guess it all depends on what the definition of “learned” is.

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