Half-Baked Whoppers Hard to Swallow

Ever since the invasion of Iraq last spring, American and British troops have been sweeping through that devastated land. Armed with the most advanced technology, they search for Saddam Hussein’s nuclear threat, as well as certain other scarce souvenirs of the dictatorship. What they have found so far doesn’t amount to much-certainly not a nuclear weapon or the capability to build one. And, lately, nobody seems optimistic that they will discover any such item.

That must be why Vice President Dick Cheney finally admitted the truth during his Sept. 14 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press .

To hear Mr. Cheney or any high-ranking administration figure utter a factual statement about Iraq was startling. For the many concerned Americans who missed the Vice President’s interview with Tim Russert, their brief exchange about the mythic Iraqi nuke is worth reproducing in full.

As he often does, Mr. Russert first played a clip from the videotape of his guest’s previous appearance. In this case, the host called attention to a notorious remark by the Vice President on Meet the Press last March 16.

Mr. Russert: “And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said [Saddam Hussein] does not have a nuclear program, we disagree.”

The Vice President: “I disagree, yes. And you’ll find the C.I.A., for example, and other key parts of our intelligence community disagree.” (That allusion to the C.I.A. was an additional bonus lie, but I digress.)

The Vice President continued: “And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. [Mohammed] ElBaradei [director of the IAEA], frankly, is wrong. And I think if you look at the track record of the International Atomic Energy Agency and this kind of issue, especially where Iraq is concerned, they have consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don’t have any reason to believe they’re any more valid this time than they’ve been in the past.”

Turning from the videotape, Mr. Russert said to his guest, a tiny bit too charitably: “Reconstituted nuclear weapons. You misspoke.”

The Vice President, as if he had merely spelled someone’s name wrong, coolly replied: “Yeah, I did misspeak. I said repeatedly during the show ‘weapons capability.’ We never had any evidence that he had acquired a nuclear weapon.”

They “never had any evidence.” They just wanted us to believe they did.

Lest I seem unappreciative, the Vice President’s self-correction is certainly welcome, even six months late and at the prodding of a journalist with embarrassing videotape. With Mr. Cheney, it behooves us all to keep our expectations of candor very modest.

He might have said something sooner, if only because his statement-and other, equally ominous and vague remarks by his colleagues -had led many Americans to believe that Saddam not only possessed nuclear weapons, but also the means to launch them at the United States. People were frightened.

But Mr. Cheney seems to prefer a mood of fear. The misdirection of gullible, scared citizens has long been the method of this government, particularly with regard to Iraq. The need to mislead has only become more urgent now that the public has begun to notice the administration’s stunning incompetence and dishonesty. Ask Americans for an additional $87 billion and the lives of more children or parents or friends, and they might at last begin to ask some hard questions.

Providing answers was presumably Mr. Cheney’s purpose in his visit with Mr. Russert. Unfortunately, few of his answers were as frank as his admission about Saddam’s nonexistent, unreconstituted nuclear arsenal. Instead, he proceeded to repeat certain very big lies that the administration has used to justify its Iraqi misadventure all along.

Struggling to put the best face on the failure to find any chemical or biological weapons, the Vice President pointed to what he called the two “mobile biological facilities that can be used to produce anthrax or smallpox or whatever else you wanted to use during the course of developing the capacity for an attack.” He didn’t explain why nobody with the relevant scientific expertise believes that those trucks can produce anything more dangerous than gas for artillery balloons-or why not a molecule of “anthrax or smallpox” has been found in them. He insisted that in the end, something would turn up to show that Saddam was an imminent threat to us and his neighbors.

And Mr. Cheney reasserted the primal myth of the Bush White House, which holds Saddam Hussein responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. “We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the 90’s,” he claimed, “the Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the Al Qaeda organization.” He provided no new proof. In fact, he cited no evidence whatsoever.

Perhaps someday he will be obliged to admit, again, that he “never had any.”

Half-Baked Whoppers Hard to Swallow