In the debates about whether the Bush administration “reckless[ly] exaggerat[ed]” the Iraqi threat, one charge is particularly striking: The contention that Dick Cheney tried to “mislead the American public” by his statement on March 16 that Saddam had nuclear weapons. We see this most recently in Nicholas Kristof’s generally quite interesting New York Times piece:
Hawks need to wrestle with the reckless exaggerations of intelligence that were used to mislead the American public. Instead, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared Tuesday, “I don’t know anybody in any government or any intelligence agency who suggested that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons.”
Let me help. Mr. Rumsfeld, . . . [m]eet Vice President Dick Cheney, who said about Saddam on March 16: “We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”
Slate.com likewise counterposed an earlier version of this Rumsfeld statement (“I don’t believe anyone that I know in the administration ever said that Iraq had nuclear weapons”) with Cheney’s statement — and called the Rumsfeld statement its “Whopper of the Week.” Joe Conason in Salon similarly quoted the line, and faulted Cheney for his supposed “terrifying claptrap.” The quote also appears at lots of other sites. And if indeed Cheney did try to mislead Americans into thinking that Hussein had nuclear weapons, that would be pretty grave misconduct.
But what exactly did Cheney say in that interview on March 16? At first, if you look at the excerpt from NBC News Transcripts, Mar. 16, 2003, you do see the quoted line:
MR. RUSSERT: And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said he does not have a nuclear program, we disagree?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I disagree, yes. . . . We know that based on intelligence that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts. He’s had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. . . .
But then if you do a bit more research, you see a rather different picture. First, a clue that there might be more to see: People don’t generally talk about “reconstituted nuclear weapons,” but they often talk about a “reconstituted nuclear weapons program.” That was my sense when I first heard the Cheney line, and a LEXIS-NEXIS search confirms this — all 15 pre-March 16 uses of the consecutive words “reconstituted nuclear weapons” were within the phrase “reconstituted nuclear weapons program.”
I likewise did a hotbot.com Internet search for pre-March 16 uses of “reconstituted nuclear weapons,” and found over 30. I then did a hotbot search for pre-March 16 uses of “reconstituted nuclear weapons” that didn’t also include “reconstituted nuclear weapons program” (not a perfect way of checking how often “reconstituted nuclear weapons” has been used alone, but pretty close), and found two — both simply referring to “reconstituted nuclear weapons programme,” using the English spelling. I also manually checked those pages yielded by the first hotbot query; some were no longer accessible or had been changed, but the remaining ones all referred to a “reconstituted nuclear weapons program.”
It’s the program that’s being reconstituted, not the nuclear weapons. I suppose you might be able to rebuild a nuclear weapon that had earlier been dismantled, but I’ve never heard of that being referred to using the word “reconstitute.” Maybe Cheney just misspoke, and was simply saying that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program, in order to eventually produce nuclear weapons — not claiming that Saddam already had a nuclear weapon.
Oh, but you might say — how could we know that? Well, maybe we could just have a close look at the whole transcript (which I found on NEXIS). And when we did, we would find that four times during the interview Cheney says that Saddam is just trying to get or produce weapons (or will try to get or produce them), not that he already has them:
And I think that would be the fear here, that even if he were tomorrow to give everything up, if he stays in power, we have to assume that as soon as the world is looking the other way and preoccupied with other issues, he will be back again rebuilding his BW and CW capabilities, and once again reconstituting his nuclear program. He has pursued nuclear weapons for over 20 years. Done absolutely everything he could to try to acquire that capability and if he were to cough up whatever he has in that regard now, even if it was complete and total, we have to assume tomorrow he would be right back in business again. . . .
We know he’s reconstituted these [biological and chemical weapons] programs since the Gulf War. We know he’s out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons . . . .
Well, I think I’ve just given it, Tim, in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons. . . .
And over time, given Saddam’s posture there, given the fact that he has a significant flow of cash as a result of the oil production of Iraq, it’s only a matter of time until he acquires nuclear weapons. [All emphases added.]
If people actually looked at the entire transcript — or even searched for the word “nuclear” — they’d see that throughout the interview, Cheney was acknowledging that Saddam didn’t yet have nuclear weapons (“Done absolutely everything he could to try to acquire that capability,” “trying once again to produce nuclear weapons,” “his pursuit of nuclear weapons,” and especially “only a matter of time until he acquires nuclear weapons.”)
What’s more, the quote about “pursuit of nuclear weapons” comes immediately before the question in reply to which Cheney mentioned “reconstituted nuclear weapons.” The one quote that people seize on must surely be Cheney misspeaking, not trying “to mislead the American public” or “reckless[ly] exaggerat[ing].”
Cheney is no fool; he wouldn’t acknowledge several times in one interview that Saddam didn’t yet have nuclear weapons, and then try to contradict himself right there. Rather, he must have made a slip of the sort that people often make when they’re in an extemporaneous conversation. And this explains, I suspect, why Rumsfeld didn’t think that Cheney said Saddam had nuclear weapons: Rumsfeld must know that Cheney doesn’t believe such a thing, and that Cheney wouldn’t intentionally say it.
Now Rumsfeld did make a small error: He is indeed technically mistaken that no-one “suggested that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons,” because Cheney did in fact make this claim, though almost certainly inadvertently. Rumsfeld’s people should have checked into this before he made his categorical assertion. And maybe Cheney was mistaken as to other parts of what he was saying; maybe he was unjustified even in suggesting that Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program — I just don’t know.
But in any event, Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s critics are making a far greater error: Though they are literally correct when they quote Cheney as saying Saddam had nuclear weapons, they don’t even hint to their readers that instead of “recklessly exaggerat[ing],” Cheney quite likely simply misspoke — and that rather than trying to mislead people into thinking that Saddam had nuclear weapons, Cheney repeatedly suggested the contrary several times in the very interview that they’re quoting. One source that I’ve seen — a Dana Milbank Washington Post piece — at least acknowledged this possibility, by saying that “aides later said Cheney was referring to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear programs, not weapons.” Even there, it would have been helpful to readers if the writer had also indicated that the full transcript supports the aides’ claims. But the other sources that I mentioned above (the Kristof New York Times article, the Slate “Whopper” piece, and the Conason Salon piece) don’t even do as much as the Post did.
Doubtless most of these critics are honestly mistaken: They just didn’t look at the whole transcript. Maybe, though, journalists should make a practice of looking at transcripts a bit more before they quote small snippets, or before they repeat others’ quotes.
Maybe if they did, they — and their readers — would know when they’ve really caught a government official in a lie, a factual error, or a “reckless exaggeration,” and when they’re making a mountain out of someone’s slip of the tongue. In the meantime, we need to remain careful about claims we read, and realize that many allegations of serious error are themselves erroneous.
— Eugene Volokh teaches First Amendment law at UCLA School of Law.