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Wednesday, July 09, 2003
What Did the President Know, and When Did He Know It?

President George Bush, 2003 State of the Union address, 28 January 2003:

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

Why cite "the British government" in particular? If we trusted the intelligence, why not just state "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"? If we didn't trust the intelligence, what business did it have being in the State of the Union address?

Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times, 13 June 2003

"It was well known throughout the intelligence community that [the Niger report] was a forgery," said Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Center for International Policy.

The intelligence on uranium purchase from Niger came to the US in October 2002, three months before the State of the Union address. The White House has put forward the claim that while perhaps the CIA knew about it being bogus, people at the top didn't. The more people in the intelligence community who knew about it, however, the less believable that claim is.

NPR report by Tom Gjelten, 19 June 2003

(link via Talkingpointsmemo.com)
On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”
At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”

Perhaps this answers part of the question from above. But it doesn't answer why the claim was put into the address at all if our own intelligence folks objected.

St. Petersburg Times story, 19 June 2003

The White House on Friday stood by President Bush's assertion that Iraq has sought uranium in Africa in recent years, saying that his allegation in January was supported by more evidence than a series of letters now known to have been forged.
"Those documents were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "The issue of Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa is supported by multiple sources of intelligence. The other sources of evidence did and do support the president's statement."

This leads to the obvious questions, "what were those other sources? And why haven't we heard anything from the CIA or other intelligence folks about them? What sort of intelligence is so top secret that it can only be shared with the President's speechwriters?"

Washington Post story by Walter Pincus, 6 July 2003:

Joseph C. Wilson, the retired United States ambassador whose CIA-directed mission to Niger in early 2002 helped debunk claims that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium there for nuclear weapons, has said for the first time publicly that U.S. and British officials ignored his findings and exaggerated the public case for invading Iraq.
"It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war," Wilson said yesterday. "It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"
Wilson's account of his eight-day mission to Niger, including a statement he was told Vice President Cheney's staff was interested in the truth of the allegations, has not been contradicted by administration officials, but they have played down his importance and denied his accusations.
In June, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that top administration officials were unaware of the faked documents at the time of the State of the Union. "Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery."

But Wilson said he considers that "inconceivable." Based on his experience at the NSC, Wilson does not believe his report would have been buried. Having been told the vice president's office was interested, he said, "If you are senior enough to ask this question, you are well above the bowels of the bureaucracy. You are in that circle."

New York Times story by David Sanger, 7 July 2003:

The White House acknowledged for the first time today that President Bush was relying on incomplete and perhaps inaccurate information from American intelligence agencies when he declared, in his State of the Union speech, that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium from Africa.
While Mr. Bush cited the British report, seemingly giving the account the credibility of coming from a non-American intelligence service, Britain itself relied in part on information provided by the C.I.A., American and British officials have said.
How Mr. Bush's statement made it into last January's State of the Union address is still unclear. No one involved in drafting the speech will say who put the phrase in, or whether it was drawn from the classified intelligence estimate.

Mmmm, there's another good question: who put that phrase into the address? And the revelation that the British relied in part on CIA information kind of eliminates the "plausible" part of "plausible deniability" as an explanation for what the phrase was doing there.

Article in Capitol Hill Blue, 8 July 2003:

An intelligence consultant who was present at two White House briefings where the uranium report was discussed confirmed that the President was told the intelligence was questionable and that his national security advisors urged him not to include the claim in his State of the Union address.
"The report had already been discredited," said Terrance J. Wilkinson, a CIA advisor present at two White House briefings. "This point was clearly made when the President was in the room during at least two of the briefings."
Bush's response was anger, Wilkinson said.
"He said that if the current operatives working for the CIA couldn't prove the story was true, then the agency had better find some who could," Wilkinson said. "He said he knew the story was true and so would the world after American troops secured the country."

I will note that Capitol Hill Blue is not tremendously reliable as a single source. However, the fact that they gave a name for the observer makes it more likely (in my opinion) that this report is real. If it is true as reported, I think there's grounds for opening an impeachment investigation right there.

On Edit 7/10, 12:54am: This story has been retracted by Capitol Hill Blue.

BBC online article, 9 July 2003:

Doubts about a claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the African state of Niger were aired 10 months before Mr Bush included the allegation in his key State of the Union address this year, a CIA official has told the BBC.
But the CIA official has said that a former US diplomat had already established the claim was false in March 2002 - and that the information had been passed on to government departments, including the White House, well before Mr Bush mentioned it in the speech.

Excerpts from Bush news conference in Pretoria, SA, 9 July 2003:

QUESTION: Yes, Mr. President. Do you regret that your State of the Union accusation that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa is now fueling charges that you and Prime Minister Blair misled the public?
BUSH: There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace. And there's no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power. And there's no doubt in my mind, when it's all said and done, the facts will show the world the truth. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind. And so there's going to be a lot of attempts to try to rewrite history, and I can understand that. But I am absolutely confident in the decision I made.
QUESTION: Do you still believe they were trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa?
BUSH: Right now?
QUESTION: No, were they? The statement you made...
BUSH: One thing is for certain, he's not trying to buy anything right now. If he's alive, he's on the run. And that's to the benefit of the Iraqi people. But, look, I am confident that Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program. In 1991, I will remind you, we underestimated how close he was to having a nuclear weapon. Imagine a world in which this tyrant had a nuclear weapon. In 1998, my predecessor raided Iraq, based upon the very same intelligence. And in 2003, after the world had demanded he disarm, we decided to disarm him. And I'm convinced the world is a much more peaceful and secure place as a result of the actions.

I find it fairly remarkable that the President would go so far out of his way to avoid answering a simple, straightforward question twice. Why doesn't the US press see if they can get a straight answer to this one?

New York Times story by David Sanger, 9 July 2003

Michael N. Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said today, "The documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger were not the sole basis for the line in the president's State of the Union speech that referred to recent Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa."
He said that at the time a "national intelligence estimate" cited "attempts by Iraq to acquire uranium from several countries in Africa," adding, "We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged."
Mr. Bush never mentioned Niger by name in his speech. But without the Niger evidence, the argument that Iraq was intent on getting uranium from Africa did not hold up.
Mr. Anton noted today that "other reporting that suggested that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that such attempts were in fact made.
"Because of this lack of specificity," he continued, "this reporting alone did not rise to the level of inclusion in a presidential speech. That said, the issue of Iraq's attempts to acquire uranium from abroad was not an element underpinning the judgment reached by most intelligence agencies that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."

In other words, the "other reporting" was even less reliable than the Niger reports. And the Niger reports were "well known throughout the intelligence community" to have been forged. So what possible use could these other reports have been?

Added on edit, 7/10 at 12:54am: 10 July article in The Guardian

A former US intelligence official who served under the Bush administration in the build-up to the Iraq war accused the White House yesterday of lying about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The claims came as the Bush administration was fighting to shore up its credibility among a series of anonymous government leaks over its distortion of US intelligence to manufacture a case against Saddam.
This was the first time an administration official has put his name to specific claims. The whistleblower, Gregory Thielmann, served as a director in the state department's bureau of intelligence until his retirement in September, and had access to the classified reports which formed the basis for the US case against Saddam, spelled out by President Bush and his aides.
Mr Thielmannn said yesterday: "I believe the Bush administration did not provide an accurate picture to the American people of the military threat posed by Iraq."
He conceded that part of the problem lay with US intelligence, but added: "Most of it lies with the way senior officials misused the information they were provided."
At a press conference yesterday, Mr Thielmann said that, as of March 2003, when the US began military operations, "Iraq posed no imminent threat to either its neighbours or to the United States".

This is a damning item both in terms of the WMD claims and because the presentation to the Congress asking for an authorization to use force in Iraq was based heavily on Iraq being an imminent threat to US national security.

Duplicity or Incompetence?

Take your pick. Did the President know about the false information and lie about it, or did the "smart people" we were told during the campaign that he was going to surround himself with completely fall down on the job of letting him know about it? And if the second, who didn't tell him and why do they still have their job?

Thanks particularly to Atrios and Josh Marshall for some of the material and ideas that went into this.

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