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Lies, spin and truth in the controversy over Iraq's alleged pursuit of uranium

By Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan
July 29, 2003

Over the past several weeks, debate has raged over whether President Bush lied in his State of the Union address when he claimed that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium from Africa, which would have been a threatening step toward nuclear weapons. Accusations of dishonesty have gone back and forth, leaving it difficult to tell spinners apart from truth-tellers. It's important that the public understand what is known and what is still in dispute. In addition, citizens should be aware of dishonesty and nasty tactics from some of the major players.

Did the President tell the truth in the State of the Union?

At this point, the answer is simply unclear. First, let's review what President Bush actually said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Many have criticized the president because it appears that this statement originated with forged documents indicating Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Niger. The International Atomic Energy Agency revealed in March 2003 that these documents were phony. Since then, we have learned that the Bush administration had previously heard from multiple sources who questioned those claims, including an investigation by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and doubts raised by the State Department and CIA.

News reports based on interviews with administration officials and Congressional testimony have indicated that the sourcing of the claim to British intelligence and the broader citation of Africa, rather than Niger, originated with a conversation between Alan Foley, a CIA official, and a National Security Council staffer named Robert G. Joseph reviewing a draft of the speech. Foley reportedly objected to a claim in the draft stating that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium from Niger, apparently based largely on the discredited documents. Joseph is then said to have proposed citing published British intelligence claims about alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa, rather than from Niger specifically, and the speech was revised accordingly. (Joseph has denied doing so through third parties.)

The Bush administration has since said that the statement, based as it was on an unverified claim from another country's intelligence service, "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for Presidential speeches," in the words of CIA director George Tenet (who accepted some responsibility for allowing the error to be included in the speech). However, Vice President Dick Cheney, Tenet and others have also maintained that the statement is factually correct since it is sourced to the British government, which stands behind the claim, asserting that its intelligence is not based on the forged Niger documents. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently stated that "the dossier's statement was based on reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S." He added that "the JIC's (Joint Intelligence Committee) assessment of Iraq's efforts to reconstitute its nuclear program did not rest on the attempted acquisition of yellowcake alone." Only if and when we find out whether the British intelligence was factual will we know whether President Bush's statement was accurate.

It is true, as some critics point out, that the phrase "British intelligence has learned" implies certainty that the claim is true. In this regard, the President's statement was indisputably misleading given the lack of confidence within and outside the US government about the accuracy of the claim. However, since the British intelligence is still secret, we simply can't know whether there is other evidence indicating that Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Niger or other African countries.

Have President Bush's critics and news reports on the controversy been fair and accurate?

Many have not, going beyond what is actually known to make false or misleading claims about the President's statement.

As we previously observed, the Democratic National Committee is running an ad saying that what Bush said was "proven to be false." Moreover, the ad simply omits the portion of the President's statement citing the British, pretending that the revelations about Niger have fully discredited his claim.

A number of commentators and political figures have similarly distorted the truth in describing the controversy. The hit parade of those who have called the claim false without proof, implied that British intelligence was based on the Niger documents, or both includes a large number of prominent commentators from the national media (note - much of this list was assembled by Bob Somerby in recent Daily Howler columns):
-Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer wrote in a July 8 column that "What the President did not say was that the British were relying on their intelligence white paper, which was based on the same false information that Wilson and the US ambassador to Niger had already debunked."
-CNN "Crossfire" co-host Paul Begala claimed the administration "knew" the information about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa "was false when Mr. Bush made that claim in his State of the Union address" on July 9. He then called it a "false claim" on July 11 and 14 and a "false statement" on July 18.
-Slate columnist Tim Noah wrote that Bush "stated the Niger connection as fact in this year's State of the Union address" on July 10.
-MSNBC "Buchanan & Press" co-host Bill Press called it a "false statement in the State of the Union about Iraq trying to buy uranium from Niger" on July 11.
-Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, slammed "the insertion of false information in the speech" on NBC's "Saturday Today" on July 12.
-A July 12 New York Times editorial called it a "false accusation."
-MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews said on his July 14 show that "When President Bush saw on his script-in his speech for the State of the Union-that Iraq had attempted or had, in fact, bought nuclear materials from the governor of Niger in Africa, did he ask anybody how do we know this?"
-On July 15, Noah described Bush's claim as being "based almost entirely on documents that the CIA and the White House knew to be false."
-New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on the same day about the "Niger uranium hoax in the State of the Union address" as if Bush had directly cited Niger.
-Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson bashed "the president's baseless assertion in his State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to acquire "yellowcake" uranium from Niger" on July 17.
-Post columnist William Raspberry attacked a straw man on July 21, condemning a "falsehood about uranium purchases from Niger" in Bush's speech.
-On the same day, Time columnist Joe Klein railed at Bush for a "false claim in his State of the Union message that Iraq had recently sought to buy uranium in Africa."
-In a Hearst Newspapers column first published on July 26, Helen Thomas described Bush's statement as a "bogus uranium report" and stated that it was based on a "crude forgery."

In addition, many reporters and news organizations have claimed that the President's statement was inaccurate, demonstrating a characteristic rush to judgment on information that has not been proven to be true or false:
-"CBS Evening News" host John Roberts summarized the controversy on July 10 as "President Bush's false claim about Iraqi weapons; he made it despite a CIA warning the intelligence was bad." The "false claim" description was repeated by CBS reporter David Martin on the July 10 broadcast, CBS "Saturday Early Show" correspondent Mark Knoller on July 12 and "CBS Morning News" anchor Melissa McDermott on July 15.
-ABC "World News Tonight" anchor Peter Jennings called Bush's statement "false claims" and reporter Martha Raddatz called it "false information" on July 11.
-CNN "Newsnight" host Daryn Kagan called it a "false claim" on July 11, as did CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and PBS "Newshour" host Ray Suarez.
-The Chicago Tribune also called it a "false claim" and an "erroneous claim" on July 12, stating that "Bush cited the supposed attempt to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger as part of his depiction of Iraq as a major threat to the United States."
-The New York Daily News called it a "false claim" on July 12 , as did NBC "Saturday Today" co-host Kelly O'Donnell on July 12 and the Christian Science Monitor on July 14 and 17.
-National Public Radio "All Things Considered" host Steve Inskeep said Bush "made what turned out to be false statements" on July 13.
-A July 13 cover story in Time Magazine describes Bush's claim as a "false assertion," as did a July 12 Knight Ridder story and a July 20 report in the Washington Times.
-The Associated Press called it a "false assertion" and "false information" in separate stories on July 16.
-NBC "Today" anchor Ann Curry and NBC "Saturday Today" anchor Carl Quintanilla called it a "false statement" on July 17 and 19, respectively.
-On July 22, an error-plagued MSNBC report described "intelligence claims that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in Africa" as "an allegation since proven false that President Bush trumpeted in his State of the Union address three months later." The story includes a graphic that describes Bush's statement as a "false claim in his State of the Union speech that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa" and states that "his claim about Saddam Hussein's efforts to purchase nuclear materials from Niger [was] based on false information."
-A July 23 report in the New York Daily News called it a "false claim."
-Somerby also notes a July 24 Washington Post Style piece that claims the president used "incorrect information about Iraq in his State of the Union address."

Have Bush and his aides been honest in their defense?

The White House's response to these charges has been inconsistent and frequently disingenuous. Former press secretary Ari Fleischer originally stated that the statement was "based and predicated on the yellow cake from Niger," but then contradicted that claim by asserting that the President's statement was based on "additional reporting from the CIA, separate and apart from Niger, naming other countries where they believed it was possible that Saddam was seeking uranium." In addition, Fleischer and Rice denied White House knowledge of questions about the evidence against the Niger claim, but evidence has since emerged documenting that such evidence had been provided -- principally, Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's admission that he received two CIA memos and a phone call from Tenet about the issue prior to Bush's October 2002 speech about Iraq in Cincinnati, which were ultimately successful in persuading him to remove a statement from the text alleging Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium from Niger.

Furthermore, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice has dissembled about the intelligence debate that took place over the claims Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Africa. As the Washington Post observed on July 26, Rice said on July 11 that, ""[W]hat INR [the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research] did not take a footnote to is the consensus view that the Iraqis were actively trying to pursue a nuclear weapons program, reconstituting and so forth." She was referring to the National Intelligence Estimate [NIE], an October document that combined all of the government's intelligence on Iraq into a single prewar assessment of its weapons programs. However, as the Post points out, in its key judgments as described in the NIE, the INR said the government was "lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program."

And finally, in a briefing with the press following a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on July 14, Bush said the following in an attempt to divert the issue from Iraq and Niger: "The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." As many have pointed out, this is blatantly untrue. Saddam did let UN weapons inspectors into Iraq in late 2002 and they remained there until soon before the war began. The administration disputed the Iraqi regime's cooperation with the inspectors and its compliance with its commitments to disarm, not its willingness to admit inspectors.

Have some defenders of the President crossed the line in their efforts to fend off critics?

Several have done exactly that. Syndicated columnist Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was first, asserting that those criticizing the President on this issue are supporting Saddam Hussein, perhaps intentionally. "Somewhere, probably in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is gloating. He can only be gratified by the feeding frenzy of recriminations, second-guessing and political power-plays that are currently assailing his nemeses: President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair." At the end of his piece, he reiterates this point, stating, "Scurrilous attacks on George W. Bush's case for war may gratify his partisan foes even as they make Saddam Hussein's day." This is a gruesome attempt to connect legitimate democratic debate with the agenda of an enemy of the United States.

New York Times columnist William Safire also accused critics of the President of supporting Saddam. In a list of details of what he supposes to be the deposed leader's current strategy, Safire includes the nasty claim that:

He [Saddam] presumes that British and American journalists, after the obligatory mention that the world is better off with Saddam gone, would - by their investigative and oppositionist nature - sustain the credibility firestorm. By insisting that Bush deliberately lied about his reasons for pre-emption, and gave no thought to the cost of occupation, critics would erode his poll support and encourage political opponents - eager to portray victory as defeat -to put forward a leave-Iraq-to-the-Iraqis candidate.

Most recently, in a column in Washington's The Hill newspaper, columnist Dick Morris claims the media is harping on the story in an attempt to distract the nation from the war on terrorism. "Having sought to distract the nation from its unity of purpose in opposing terror ever since Sept. 11, our pernicious national media have, at last, found traction in the accusation that we were misled by accusations that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction."

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Related links:
-What's at stake in the WMD debate (Ben Fritz, 6/24/03)
-More myths, misconceptions and unanswered questions about the war in Iraq (Brendan Nyhan and Bryan Keefer, 5/28/03)
-Myths and misconceptions about the war in Iraq (Brendan Nyhan and Bryan Keefer, 4/4/03)
-Myths and misconceptions about Iraq (Bryan Keefer, Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 3/20/03)

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