Thursday, July 10, 2003

Backed into a corner
A few links still need to be filled in, but it is becoming clear that Bush lied about the Niger uranium in his State of the Union Address. This is not me, as a liberal Democrat, interpreting things in their worst possible light. This is not a case of the President having exaggerated, or been mistaken, or misled, or out of the loop, or what have you. This is a case of the President knowingly uttering a statement to the American public that he knew at the time to be untrue.

For those of you who arrived late: Around the time of the State of the Union Address, the administration floated a story about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake (uranium ore) from crooked ministers in Niger. The document supporting this claim had been known by intelligence professionals to be a crude forgery for ten months at that point. Within a few days of the State of the Union, most people who closely followed the issue also knew that the President’s claim was nonsense. At the time, things moved too fast for the full import of that falsehood to be publicly explored. But the administration knew they had goofed up. A mere week later, when Powell went before the UN, the African uranium narrative had been dropped from the standard talking points. For months we all knew it was baloney, but the issue had no traction.

What’s new here? In the last few days it has become broadly known that not only was the information bogus, but that the White House knew it was bogus. And in casting about to find ways to avoid admitting that, they have told further verifiable lies. And in a clear sign of panic, their story has changed on an increasingly frequent basis—sometimes less than a day has passed between official versions. In just the last week the following alibis have been tried:
  • It doesn’t matter. Saddam was a bad man and now he’s gone. Woo-hoo, we’re number one!
  • The investigation of the document was done by a low level intelligence operative and never percolated up to the administration (it was done by an ambassador who was under the impression he was working directly for Cheney).
  • The President had other evidence and wasn’t referring to the Niger document (no one has suggested what that evidence might be and this story has been dropped).
  • The State of the Union Address was the work of Bush and a close circle of aids, so those who knew the truth never had an opportunity to correct it (it was finished ten days before being given and widely circulated).
  • The CIA knew it was wrong and let Bush give the speech anyway; it’s all George Tenent’s fault; George, fall on this sword (George doesn’t seem to be going along with this).
  • Although the CIA knew better, the British were fooled and Bush depended on the British for his intelligence, not on his own multi-billion-dollar intelligence agencies. It’s all Tony Blair’s Fault; Tony, fall on this sword (same as above).
  • History will vindicate us (not if I can help it).

Ironically, all of this activity is based on news that is at least three weeks old. As Josh Marshall reports, NPR disclosed that the CIA had explicitly warned Bush not to make the Niger claim in the State of the Union Address, as they could not back it up. The White House simply rephrased the claim to read: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” As long as the British really did say that, Bush could claim to be telling the “truth.” It all depends what your definition of “is” is.

There are still some important questions to be asked and details to be filled in. Who did Ambassador Wilson report to? Where did the report go from there? Who at the White House talked to whom at the CIA? Who all at the White House was in on this discussion and the decision to use the British cop out? Who wrote the final version of that part of the State of the Union Address? When did Powell decide not to use it in his UN speech? Was there any other evidence, as Ari Fleisher claimed?

I’ve been holding back from predicting that this scandal will have legs, but it’s looking better. If it continues to build, we can expect someone to be thrown to the wolves (so far Tenet and Powell have refused to volunteer). All of the old Watergate vocabulary is coming back into play. Cover-up. Stonewalling. Plausible deniability. I do not recall at this point in time, Senator. Ahh, where’s Rosemary Woods when they need her?

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