Jewish World Review April 11, 2006 / 13 Nissan, 5766
Sixteen Words, Again: The myth of a great sin lives on
By Michael Ledeen
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | In Sunday's Washington Post Dafna Linzer and Barton Gellman provide their gullible readers with a reprise of one of the great myths of the runup to the Iraq war: that President Bush used blatantly false information to justify the war.
The story revolves around various claims by several intelligence services that Saddam's agents were trying to buy uranium in Africa. At least three European services the French, the Italian, and the British told Washington about the reported Iraqi efforts. Some of the reports were carefully described as "unconfirmed." Others were based on documents that were given to the American embassy in Rome by Italian journalists, some of which subsequently turned out to be forgeries. Still other reports were highly regarded by the Europeans, especially the British, which led President Bush to say, in his State of the Union speech (January 28, 2003): "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The consensus at CIA was highly critical of these reports (most CIA officials were against the war and didn't want to be blamed for it), but the White House, understandably very suspicious of the quality of CIA's information and analysis, had pushed hard to get more information. Ambassador Joe Wilson had been sent by CIA to Niger in 2002 to snoop around, at least in part because he came highly recommended by his wife, Valerie Plame, herself a CIA officer, and opposed to the war.
After Bush's State of the Union, Wilson claimed publicly that his trip had convinced him that the intelligence reports were groundless. However, he had reported privately oddly enough in a verbal, not written, report to CIA that a former high Nigerien official had said that the Iraqis had wanted high-level discussions about "increasing trade," which either meant uranium or goats.
Nonetheless, after the war began, Wilson's public remarks earned him celebrity status in New York and Washington, and the White House decided to try to discredit him. Accordingly, Scooter Libby was authorized to talk to select journalists (which the Washington Post editorially described as a "good leak") about some of the information that suggested Saddam was trying to get uranium in Africa. Libby's actions just showed up in a filing by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and prompted the Linzer-Gellman story.
Linzer and Gellman say, referring to the phony documents, that "the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before." And they add, in a triumphant tone reserved for the announcement of a knockout punch, that "the Bush administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained they had additional, secret evidence they could not disclose. In June, a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair's role in promoting the story."
But Linzer and Gellman are wrong, indeed so clearly wrong that it takes one's breath away. The British government did indeed have information about Iraqi efforts to purchase uranium in Africa, and it wasn't connected to the forgeries. And the definitive British parliamentary inquiry the Butler Commission Report of July, 2004 not only did not deliver "a scathing critique," but totally endorsed the position of British intelligence.
The key paragraph in the Butler Report is this:
We conclude that...the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government's dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension we conclude also that the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that: "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" was well-founded. (Page 123, Paragraph 499)
The British Intelligence Service, MI6, still stands by that story, as does the French service, the DGSE. And the two agencies did not base their assessments on the phony documents (indeed, the DGSE knew all about those documents, which were peddled and probably drafted by one or two Italian agents of theirs). According to London Sunday Times reporter Mick Smith an outspoken critic of the American/British use of intelligence to justify the war, and an outspoken critic of Bush the Franco/British analysis is based in part on a letter from Iraq's Ambassador to the Vatican, that specifically discussed uranium from Niger. Smith also adds the delicious tidbit that the pile of forgeries actually contained an accurate document about the visit of Saddam's man in the Vatican to Niger in 1999.
So Linzer and Gellman are entirely wrong. Bush's statement was true, and an extensive British parliamentary inquiry concluded that there was good reason for him, and Blair, to say so. Nonetheless, it is now part of the conventional wisdom to say that "the sixteen words" were a lie. How can that be? It's not as if Bush's critics need that detail in order to tear apart the bad intelligence work leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. There are enough errors to fill several volumes, as they have.
Part of the answer the other part being the malevolence and sloppiness of the press is that the White House made a total hash of the whole thing, as is their wont. Indeed, if you go back and read the painful statements regarding "the sixteen words," you will find at least one in which Steven Hadley, then deputy national-security adviser, took full "responsibility" for the sin of including those words in the State of the Union. Incredibly for the fine lawyer he is, Hadley seems to have confessed to a crime he didn't commit.
Moreover, the entire Libby operation was misconceived. The White House was reacting to Wilson's writings (and an earlier leak of his own to a New York Times columnist). Didn't they know that Wilson's actual report actually supported the president's 16 words? If they did, they should have hung him with his own two-faced actions. If they did not, it was either because they didn't press CIA for the whole story, or because CIA didn't provide it, knowing it would have helped the White House to which they were legally obliged to tell the whole truth (maybe Fitzgerald, in his poor imitation of Savanarola, might like to look into that).
Once again, when it comes to telling their own story, this administration has few peers in its ability to make a mess. Maybe they caught a bug from the Washington Post?
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, ""The War Against the Terror Masters," Comment by clicking here.
© 2005, Michael Ledeen
© 2005, Michael Ledeen