MSNBC Distorts Bush, Cheney Words on Iraq-9/11 Link

November 12th, 2005 3:52 AM

On MSNBC's Hardball on Friday night, host Chris Matthews sought to convince viewers that the Bush administration intentionally tried to make the American public believe Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks before the Iraq War "to win support for the war."

In his opening introduction, Matthews plugged the upcoming segment as "a look at the rhetoric the Bush administration used to perpetuate the idea of a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks," as if this motive were fact. In a setup piece for the segment, MSNBC correspondent David Shuster contended that before the war, President Bush "started claiming that Iraq and the group responsible for 9/11 were one and the same," and backed up this assertion using a soundbite from Bush that was selectively edited to distort an answer Bush made to a reporter’s question.

Shuster showed a clip of Bush saying "you can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam," which omitted Bush's subsequent clarification that "I can't distinguish between the two because they're both equally as bad, and equally as evil, and equally as destructive," thus throwing water on Shuster’s characterization of Bush’s words. A full transcript of this exchange appears farther down before the transcript from Friday night’s Hardball.

Just over a year ago, after the October 2004 vice presidential debate, Matthews made similar charges against Cheney and took Cheney's words out of context to support his accusation. Just as he did on Friday night’s show, Matthews ignored numerous occasions before the Iraq invasion when Cheney either explicitly denied he was accusing Iraq of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, or expressed uncertainty about whether information about lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta was accurate. In fact, at about the same time in October 2004, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, on his Countdown show, showcased several selectively edited soundbites of Cheney appearing on Meet the Press in which Cheney appeared to claim that Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague. However, when Cheney’s unedited quotes are examined, he actually expressed uncertainty over whether this meeting had taken place in all but the earliest clip, and even explicitly stated that he was not making an accusation that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks. (For a complete analysis of these statements from Cheney, please see the October 7, 2004 CyberAlert that disproves the claims by Matthews and Olbermann made at that time, and helps debunk Matthews’ current accusations.)

Returning to Friday night’s Hardball, Matthews found "fascinating" a couple of contradictory soundbites of Cheney that were played in Shuster’s piece, which Matthews discussed with Hotline Editor Chuck Todd and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes. The first clip was from the June 19, 2004, Capitol Report on CNBC, in which Cheney denied that he had ever said that it was "pretty well confirmed" that Atta met with an Iraqi official in Prague. This clip was immediately followed by a clip of Cheney’s appearance on the December 9, 2001, Meet the Press in which Cheney did, in fact, say it was "pretty well confirmed" that the meeting took place. Todd asserted that "it was to me a political fumble. I mean, how do you mess that up?" Matthews dismissed Hayes’ theory that Cheney probably forgot, but, when invited by Hayes, stopped short of accusing Cheney of lying and simply said, "I think he was denying the obvious, according to the video."

When Cheney made his initial statement on the December 9, 2001 Meet the Press about the Atta meeting in Prague, it was relatively soon after the 9/11 attacks. But in subsequent appearances on the show on March 24, 2002, and on September 8, 2002, Cheney more accurately conveyed the uncertainty of whether the meeting in Prague ever happened. On the September 8, 2002, show, Cheney even said, "I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can't say that." (See the October 7, 2004 CyberAlert for full transcripts of Cheney's comments from these shows.) Notably, during each Meet the Press interview, Cheney only discussed the subject of possible Iraqi connections to 9/11 after Russert asked about it. The expression of uncertainty would seem to be the most honest answer Cheney could have given at the time, essentially that they were looking into the report about the Prague meeting but did not know if it was true or not. And since this was the time period during which the administration was also making its case for war to the public, the fact that Cheney expressed this uncertainty and was not even the one who brought up the subject of an Iraq-9/11 link in his interviews with Russert, would undercut Matthews' premise that the administration was trying to make the American public believe Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack to build support for the invasion.

When Hayes made the point that Bush had repeatedly stated there was not evidence Iraq was involved in 9/11, Todd mocked his argument by retorting that "that's what a trial lawyer says when they're trying to use circumstantial evidence." Notably, in a clip shown in Shuster’s earlier setup piece, from the September 16, 2001, Meet the Press, host Tim Russert had similarly phrased his question about the possibility of Iraq's involvement in 9/11 by asking, "Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation?" Would Todd therefore suggest Russert was asking a lawyerly question?

Below is the transcript of the exchange from which Shuster obtained a clip, in which Bush answered a reporter’s question about Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. This transcript is followed by a transcript of relevant portions of the Friday November 11 Hardball:

Unidentified reporter: "Mr. President, do you believe that Saddam Hussein is a bigger threat to the United States than al-Qaeda?"

George W. Bush: "That's a, that is an interesting question. I'm trying to think of something humorous to say. But I can't when I think about al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. They're both risks, they're both dangerous. The difference, of course, is that al-Qaeda likes to hijack governments. Saddam Hussein is a dictator of a government. Al-Qaeda hides, Saddam doesn't, but the danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that al-Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world. Both of them need to be dealt with. The war on terror, you can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror. And so it's a comparison that is, I can't make because I can't distinguish between the two, because they're both equally as bad, and equally as evil, and equally as destructive."

Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Friday November 11 Hardball:

7:00 p.m.

Chris Matthews, during introduction: "Tonight, a look at the rhetoric the Bush administration used to perpetuate the idea of a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks."

7:12 p.m.

Matthews, before a commercial break: "Still coming up, inside the CIA leak investigation: How the Bush administration successfully publicly linked al-Qaeda to Iraq and to the attack on 9/11 to win support for the war. We'll be right back with that. You're watching Hardball only on MSNBC."

7:19 p.m.

Matthews, before a commercial break: "Up next: More on the CIA leak investigation. David Shuster will have, he's been doing great work, an in-depth look at the way the Bush administration made a link between al-Qaeda and what happened to us on 9/11, and also what Saddam Hussein was involved in. This is Hardball, only on MSNBC."

7:22 p.m.

Matthews: "All this week, we've been examining the Bush administration's claims about Iraq that sold America on the war. We've looked at claims that Saddam was a nuclear threat, that our troops would be greeted as liberators, and an administration ally, Ahmed Chalabi, could be trusted on either matter. All of those claims, of course, were false. Tonight, we offer you a closer look at another key White House argument, the alleged link between Iraq and 9/11. Hardball correspondent David Shuster reports."

David Shuster: "Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press said the response should be aimed at Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror organization, not Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

Dick Cheney, on Meet the Press dated September 16, 2001: " Saddam Hussein's bottled up at this point, but clearly we continue to have a fairly tough policy where the Iraqis are concerned."

Tim Russert, Host of Meet the Press: "Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation?"

Cheney: "No."

Shuster: "But during that same time period, according to Bob Woodward's book, Bush at War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was pushing for military strikes on Iraq, and during Cabinet meetings, Cheney, quote, 'expressed deep concern about Saddam and would not rule out going after Iraq at some point.' That point started to come 11 months later, just before 9/11's first anniversary. The President and Vice President had decided to redirect their war on terror to Baghdad, so with the help of the newly-formed White House Iraq group, which consisted of top officials and strategists, the selling of a war on Iraq began, and the administration's rhetoric about Saddam changed. Not only did White House hawks tell The New York Times, for a front-page Sunday exclusive, that Saddam was building a nuclear weapon, and not only did five administration officials that day go on the Sunday television shows to repeat the charge-"

Cheney, on Meet the Press dated September 8, 2002: "-that he is, in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."

Shuster: "-but the White House started claiming that Iraq and the group responsible for 9/11 were one and the same."

George W. Bush, in the White House, dated September 25, 2002: "The war on terror is, you can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."

Bush, giving a speech, dated October 7, 2002: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making, and poisons, and deadly gases."

Bush, in a press conference, dated November 7, 2002: "He's a threat because he is dealing with al-Qaeda."

Shuster: "And, pushing the Saddam-Iraq-9/11 connection, both the President and the Vice President made two crucial claims. First, they alleged there had been a 1994 meeting in the Sudan between Osama bin Laden and an Iraqi intelligence official."

Bush, in a speech: "We know that Iraq and al-Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade."

Shuster: "After the Iraq War began, however, the 9/11 Commission was formed and reported that while Osama bin Laden may have requested Iraqi help, quote, 'Iraq apparently never responded.' The other crucial prewar White House claim was that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in the Czech Republic in April of 2001."

Gloria Borger, former Capitol Report anchor, from the June 19, 2004, Capitol Report: "You have said in the past that it was, quote, 'pretty well confirmed.'"

Cheney: "No, I never said that."

Borger: "Okay."

Cheney: "I never said that."

Borger: "I think that is-"

Cheney: "That's absolutely not-"

Cheney, from Meet the Press, dated December 9, 2001: "It's been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service."

Shuster: "Confirmed or unconfirmed by Vice President Cheney, the 9/11 Commission stated, quote, 'We do not believe such a meeting occurred.' Why? Because cell phone records from the time show Atta in the United States. Nonetheless, the White House strategy worked. In March of 2003, one poll found 45 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. And on the eve of the Iraq War, the White House sent a letter to Congress telling lawmakers that force was authorized against those who, quote, 'aided the 9/11 attacks.' Yet the Bush administration continues to say it never claimed Iraq was linked to 9/11. The irony, of course, the brutal irony is that while implications about a 9/11 connection innuendo or false claims, if you will, helped take us into Iraq, the Iraqi war itself has created real al-Qaeda-Iraqi links that might keep us from getting out. I'm David Shuster for Hardball in Washington."

Matthews: "That was fascinating seeing the Vice President denying something and then seeing the tape a year before of what he was denying. Anyway, thank you, David Shuster. Up next, more analysis on the al-Qaeda-Iraq link. And later on this show, former 60 minutes producer Mary Mapes will be here. She produced that trouble-strewn story last year on President Bush's National Guard service. You're watching Hardball on MSNBC."

7:32 p.m.

Matthews, after a commercial break: "Welcome back to Hardball. More now on our special report on how the Bush administration sold the war in Iraq, with Stephen Hayes, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, who has reported extensively on the Iraq War, and Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of The Hotline. What did you two guys make of the Vice President of the United States denying to Gloria Borger that he had made that claim that there was a connection, a meeting in Prague between intelligence officials of the Iraqi government, at the time, and Mohammed Atta, and then saying he never made such a claim?"

Chuck Todd, The Hotline: "It was to me a political fumble. I mean, how do you mess that up?"

Matthews: "But isn't that part of the, isn't that part of the creed, the belief? You hear it from people like Lori Melroy, that a lot of people who support this war with great fervor, who really do believe that there was some kind of Iraqi role in 9/11."

Stephen Hayes, The Weekly Standard: "Look, the Vice President has never claimed an Iraqi role in 9/11. What he said in that clip that you showed-"

Matthews: "The Mohammed Atta meeting in Prague?"

Hayes: "He said that it was pretty well confirmed at a time, December 9, 2001. If you read The New York Times three days later, I believe, December 12, 2001, you have senior intelligence officials throughout the story confirming the meeting-"

Matthews: "Right."

Hayes: "-the alleged meeting. So he wasn't saying anything at that time that the intelligence community didn't also believe-"

Matthews: "But a year later, he denied making that claim."

Hayes: "Well, a year later, it was three-"

Matthews: "Why did he deny making that claim?"

Hayes: "It was three years later. It was a mistake."

Matthews: "Why did he deny making that claim?"

Hayes: "It was a mistake."

Matthews: "You mean he forgot he made the claim?"

Hayes: "Yeah, he probably did. It was a mistake, I mean-"

Matthews: "He forgot making the claim that-"

Hayes: "What do you think he was doing? I mean, do you think he was lying at that point?"

Matthews: "I think he was denying the obvious, according to the video. That's all I can go by."

Hayes: "Well, if you know, if you're the Vice President of the United States and you know that there's video of you making the claim, why would you deny it?"

Matthews: "Okay, let's talk about the politics of this. It's not, it's not just the assertions that have been made and remade. It's the language that's been used, that the war on Iraq was a war on terrorism, that somehow it was payback. That was part of our culture for three years. A lot of people supported this war. In fact, poll data shows, just like poll data now shows they think the President deliberately misled on the intel, poll data before we went to war was that there was, Iraqis were on the planes that attacked us on 9/11. The people thought so, that somehow Iraq had attacked us. That's why we had to attack them."

Todd: "Because the lines were fuzzed during the runup to the war there. I mean, nobody can deny it is technically accurate that this administration never said Iraq was part of 9/11. But it was fuzzy, and it fuzzed everything up."

Matthews: "Was that conflation on purpose?"

Todd: "It certainly appears to be on purpose. It was a political sales job. So, of course, in some form, it was purposeful because they were trying to get, build political support."

Matthews: "Was this a 'Remember the Alamo' kind of war where we went to war in Iraq to get even for something done to us at 9/11?"

Hayes: "No, I don't think it was. I mean, it, look, if it was a conspiracy to conflate 9/11 and the Iraq War-"

Matthews: "It might be a public relations strategy."

Hayes: "Look, if it was a conspiracy, you had Hillary Clinton involved in the conspiracy."

Matthews: "What was she saying about the connection between 9/11 and Iraq?"

Hayes: "She said, October, she said, she mentioned Iraq in the same paragraph as 9/11, which these days apparently is [forbidden]. We're not supposed to do that. Nobody's supposed to do that."

Matthews: "No, only saying that it's payback, that it's somehow connected. What is the connection?"

Hayes: "They didn't say that. They didn't say that."

Matthews: "What did Hillary say?"

Hayes: "Hillary said on the Senate floor, Iraq has harbored and sponsored terrorists, including al-Qaeda. She didn't say that Iraq was behind 9/11, just as the Bush administration didn't say Iraq was behind 9/11. And let me say one other thing. When President Bush was asked that question twice directly, 'Was Iraq behind 9/11?' he twice said we have no evidence to suggest that Iraq somehow directed or was behind 9/11. Condi Rice said it repeatedly. The administration said it repeatedly in the runup to war. What they said was that Iraq changed, or 9/11 changed everything, we have to look at threats in a different, through a different prism after 9/11. The threat that we see from Iraq is unacceptably high based on what we've seen happen in our own country."

Matthews: "And so you deny that the administration made it seem to the American people like the people who attacked us 9/11 are the same people we're going after in Iraq? You deny that?"

Hayes: "No, I think, look-"

Matthews: "Same people?"

Hayes: "I don't think, the President, at one point, said you can't distinguish between Iraq and al-Qaeda in the war on terror. Now, you can take that literally and say you literally cannot distinguish because they were the same. Fine. I think he was making a much more general statement that Iraq is part of the war on terror, which is something he said ever since."

Todd: "I think the better question is would the, did the administration ever want to correct people who said, correct supporters who said, 'Oh, so you're saying Iraq's part of 9/11?' No, they never, they wanted that, they didn't, it was an added benefit-"

Matthews: "Is that a fair assessment?"

Todd: "It was an added benefit that people thought that."

Matthews: "That they never disabused people of the notion, those who did hold it? The polls show people believed that Iraqis were on the planes."

Hayes: "No, I actually disagree with it because of what I-"

Matthews: "You think the President corrected the record?"

Hayes: "-because of what I just, because of what I just said this. He told Newsweek, there's a Newsweek article in which he's quoted as saying we have no evidence that Iraq was behind 9/11."

Todd: "But by saying we have no evidence, that's a trial, that's what a trial lawyer says when they're trying to use circumstantial evidence, when they're trying to get circumstantial evidence."