Activities of Iraq 'PR group' beyond scope of committee's investigation
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday June 9, 2008

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Veteran intelligence reporter Walter Pincus asked Monday why a Senate Committee that just released a report assessing the Bush administrations pre-war claims didn't examine the set of White House insiders tasked with selling the Iraq invasion to the public.

The Senate Intelligence Committee released a nearly 200-page report last week examining the pre-war speeches and public statements of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials. It found that the first two speeches presenting the case for war were not vetted by intelligence analysts, and generally concluded that administration officials overstated the case for war. Unexamined by the committee were the behind-the-scenes machinations of the White House Iraq Group, a collection of Bush loyalists and political experts tasked with presenting the case for war.

A spokeswoman for the committee's chairman tells RAW STORY that examination of the group's activities fell outside its jurisdiction.

"That's essentially a public relations group," Wendy Morigi, a spokesman for Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), said, referring to WHIG.

Pincus, was among the first to reveal WHIG's operations, and he provided some concise background on the group Monday:

The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the regular participants (many have since left or changed jobs) were Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio; and policy aides led by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, as well as I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.

As former White House press secretary Scott McClellan wrote in his recently released book, "What Happened," the Iraq Group "had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the war to the public."

"The script had been finalized with great care over the summer," McClellan wrote, for a "campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary."

The committee also did not attempt to personally interview administration officials, such as Bush and Cheney, Pincus noted. Again, Morigi said this was outside their purview.

"It's up to the public to determine what the intent of" administration officials' statements were, Morigi said.

For his part, Rockefeller personally believed the intelligence was misused to present a slanted case for war. The committee's full reports are available as two large .pdf files here and here.

"It has often been said that truth is the first casualty of war. ...This was the case in the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq," Rockefeller said at a news conference last week.

The reports released last Thursday were the culmination of a five year effort to examine the collection, analysis, production, dissemination and use of intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Pincus laid out some ways in which the WHIG members influenced the public case for war.

[On Sept. 8, 2002,] WHIG's product placement was on display. It began with a front-page story in the Times describing Iraq's clandestine purchase of aluminum tubes that, the story said, could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium. The story said that information came from "senior administration officials."

The story also spoke of "hardliners" in the Bush administration being "alarmed that American intelligence underestimated the pace and scale of Iraq's nuclear program before Baghdad's defeat in the gulf war." They "argue that Washington dare not wait until analysts have found hard evidence that Mr. Hussein has acquired a nuclear weapon. The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud," the Times story said.

That same morning, the message was carried on three network news shows. Cheney appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and, referring to the Times story, said that intelligence showed that Hussein "has reconstituted his nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapon." The Iraqi leader was "trying, through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs," Cheney said. ...

WHIG's records would shed much light on whether, as Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the intelligence panel, put it: "In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent."

The committee seems unlikely to begin delving into WHIG's files any time soon, though. Intelligence committee members do not believe they have the jurisdiction to "speak to a public relations group about how they did their job," Morigi said.

"The committee feels like it has completed its job," she added.