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To show loyalty, Rice lies for Bush

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According to contemporary political lore, the Bush clan exalts loyalty above every other virtue. Other politicians envy that inviolable code, whose power is reflected in the absence of leaks from the White House, in the lockstep obedience of politicians in Congress and around the country, and in the enormous cash donations from hundreds of wealthy "friends." This is how dynasties are built to endure.

But at the highest level, in the inner councils, such feudal allegiances often require awful sacrifice and compromise. For those who now work for George W. Bush, loyalty means surrendering professional integrity and accepting public humiliation. Loyalty means uttering words and phrases that nobody can believe. Loyalty means misleading the people and the press about the gravest matters of state.

Loyalty means lying.

Consider the poignant case of Condoleezza Rice, who entered this administration as a respected academic expert on Russian affairs and the former provost of Stanford University. Unlike some of the figures around the president, Rice had no serious blots on her reputation when she was appointed national security adviser. From a family that suffered the indignities and deprivations of segregated Alabama, she has long been admired as an African-American woman who rose by dint of personal effort and scholarly ability as well as affirmative action. The list of honors, degrees, directorships and other achievements on her official rsum is extraordinary.

But during the past two years of international crisis, Rice has been dispatched to prevaricate repeatedly in defense of her boss.

She was caught spreading a false story about Sept. 11, claiming that Air Force One flew the president to Oklahoma after the attacks because "intelligence" indicated that terrorists were aiming for the White House and the presidential jet. Later she testified that the U.S. government had never anticipated an assault by airliner, when in fact there had been many warnings of exactly such tactics -- most notably during the summer of 2001, when Western intelligence services set up anti-aircraft batteries around the Genoa summit to protect the president.

Memories are short in this country, so Rice escaped those embarrassing incidents with her reputation more or less intact. Then last year, as the determination of the White House to wage war on Iraq became plain, she began to promote dubious stories about Saddam Hussein's regime. As national security adviser, she had access to all of the sensitive intelligence about Iraq, so the press and Congress took her pronouncements seriously.

More than anyone other than the president himself, Rice stoked fears about a "mushroom cloud" rising over an American city unless the United States waged war on Iraq. To promote such dread, she warned that a shipment of aluminum tubes purchased by the Iraqis could only be intended for a uranium-enrichment device. Long after that claim was debunked, the national security adviser continued to insist that it must be true.

Still, she had gotten away with those whoppers as well, thanks to the complaisant national press corps. Lately, however, she has engaged in deceptions that are too obvious and too simple to ignore. Not only is she responsible for the false allegation about Niger uranium in the State of the Union address, but she dishonorably forced CIA Director George Tenet to say that was his fault rather than hers.

Rice knew that the CIA had questioned the veracity of the Niger uranium tale. She knew because Tenet had warned her deputy, Stephen Hadley, of its dubious quality three months earlier. Yet she permitted that sentence to be uttered by the president. Now she tells us that those 16 words were "accurate" because the information was attributed to British intelligence. She wants us to believe that until last month she had never heard about the mission to Niger undertaken by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who reported back to the CIA and the State Department that the Niger uranium story was a fake.

But neither she nor the president, nor anyone else in authority, ever cared whether that story was true. It merely served a purpose, like the "aluminum tubes" allegation, and the assertion that Saddam was assisting al Qaeda, and the other prewar "intelligence" myths designed to excite belligerence and undermine the U.N. inspection process.

Rice played her role in that campaign with consummate loyalty indeed. She continues to do so, and in the process she has damaged herself permanently for an unscrupulous family of politicians. I hope they're grateful.

Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer. His most recent book is The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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