The Magazine

The Phony Scandal

From the July 28, 2003 issue: The Bush administration's mistake on uranium in Africa came in handling the July flap, not the January speech.

Jul 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 44 • By FRED BARNES
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Nonetheless, it was reported in the media and repeated by politicians that Cheney had asked the CIA to send someone to Niger to look into the matter. This is untrue. What did happen is that CIA officials, without the knowledge of Cheney or Tenet, dispatched a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, to investigate. Columnist Robert Novak has reported that Wilson's wife, a CIA employee, recommended him for the job. Wilson traveled to Niger, interviewed current and former officials, and decided that no deal for uranium had been made with Iraq.

When Wilson returned, he gave an oral report to the CIA. But he didn't meet with Cheney or send him a written report on his trip. Cheney didn't learn of Wilson's trip until he read in the New York Times in May 2003 that an ex-ambassador had been sent. Cheney later received a document from an American diplomat who had debriefed Wilson. It was marked with a warning that the information might be unreliable. Leaders in Niger were not likely to admit to an American envoy that they'd violated United Nations sanctions by selling uranium to Saddam, it suggested.

A second myth about Cheney is that he insisted the sentence about Saddam's effort to buy uranium in Africa be included in the State of the Union. This was the buzz in the Washington press corps last week. It turns out Cheney played no part. Nor did another figure who's been fingered as the author, Robert Joseph of the National Security Council staff. The sentence was written by the president's speechwriters, who accumulated evidence about Saddam and weapons of mass destruction to strengthen the case against him. They used the NIE as their reference document.

Another Cheney myth is that his staff, along with NSC officials, wrote Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. last February on Iraq's violations of sanctions. "The first draft" came from them, U.S. News & World Report said in June. Not quite. Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, assembled three separate "NSC/OVP [Office of the Vice President] working papers" on human rights, WMD, and terrorism for Powell, far more material than Powell needed. Powell used some of it, such as information about illegal missile tests and the presence of an Osama bin Laden lieutenant in Baghdad, but much of what Libby collected was left out. Powell's compelling presentation was put together by State Department speechwriters.

A final myth about Cheney was repeated last week by National Public Radio: that he told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" last March 16 that Saddam had "reconstituted nuclear weapons." Yes, Cheney said that, but his aides immediately pointed out he was referring to Iraq's nuclear weapons program. And it was clear from other references in the same TV appearance that he meant Saddam's program for building nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has never claimed Saddam had actually produced a nuclear weapon, only that he was eagerly buying equipment and ingredients to do so.

The State of the Union, delivered a few days before Powell's speech, contained a half-dozen claims about WMD and Saddam. The last was the scarlet sentence about his quest for African uranium. The prior sentence noted that in the 1990s Saddam "had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on 5 different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb." Thus the foray into Africa could supply the required uranium.

THERE ARE TWO QUESTIONS regarding the Africa sentence. One is how it got in the speech. The second is why the CIA, which had qualms about the veracity of the intelligence information, didn't demand it be stripped out. A somewhat similar sentence had been scratched at Tenet's insistence from a speech by Bush in Cincinnati last October in which he outlined the case against Saddam. But a senior administration official said last week the Cincinnati reference cited specific amounts of uranium and the State of the Union didn't. That, the official asserted, was a "critical difference." The more general reference in the State of the Union wasn't problematic, he said.

In the initial draft, the sentence read this way: "He has not explained his efforts to procure uranium in Africa or high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for uranium enrichment." That was changed when the speechwriters decided to mention Saddam and Africa as part of a string of things Bush would say "we know." Then the day before the speech was to be delivered, senior officials decided mere assertions wouldn't do. "Let's show how we know it," one aide said. So each of the examples of Saddam's husbanding of WMD was cited as the finding of some authority. In several cases, it was the U.N. In others, it was "our intelligence officials." In the case of uranium, it was "the British government," since the British had revealed Iraq's efforts in a dossier on Saddam published last September.