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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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CIA officials now say the Africa information shouldn't have been used in any form. But when Robert Joseph, the NSC official, talked to a CIA liaison about this language, there was no objection. And there was no negotiation over the language, either, a White House official said. The liaison, Alan Foley, should have brought the matter to senior officials at the agency, a CIA spokesman said last week. If he had, they would have insisted it be cut out. And the White House would have complied. Absent that, should the White House have known of the CIA's doubts because of the Cincinnati speech? Not really. The CIA hadn't complained when Rice published an op-ed in the New York Times saying Iraq had not explained its "efforts to get uranium from abroad." That piece appeared the week before the State of the Union. Nor did the CIA warn Bush's speechwriters to be wary of the NIE's section on "uranium acquisition."

The furor over the 16-word sentence erupted only after Wilson, the ex-ambassador who'd gone to Niger, accused the White House of hyping evidence about Saddam's WMD. "Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed on July6. After his eight-day investigation, Wilson said it was "highly doubtful" that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq. Later, documents purporting to be connected to such a deal were proved to be bogus.

But the State of the Union never mentioned any supposed actual sale of uranium. No such sale was cited in any draft of the speech. None was referred to, even fleetingly, in Rice's article. So what was twisted? Wilson looked into the Niger case, but he had no grounds for accusing Bush of "selective use of intelligence." He hadn't examined the other evidence of Saddam's attempts to buy uranium in Africa. He didn't know the nature of the British intelligence Bush mentioned, if only because the Brits still haven't revealed it to the CIA, the White House, or anyone else. Wilson, by the way, is a fervent opponent of Bush and the war in Iraq. He's now advising congressional Democrats.

Finally, last week, the truth started to emerge. At his press conference with President Bush, Prime Minister Blair said, "In case people should think that the whole idea of a link between Iraq and Niger was some invention, in the 1980s we know for sure that Iraq purchased round about 270 tons of uranium from Niger." The White House, for its part, had had enough and started what it's calling a "counteroffensive."

The first step was to declassify and release the portion of the NIE entitled "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction." Iraq, the intelligence document says, has been "vigorously trying to procure uranium ore" in Somalia and Congo as well as Niger. And there's more to come in the campaign for Bush's recovery. Congressional Republicans are joining the fight. The White House has brought back Mary Matalin, the Republican operative and ex-Cheney aide, to manage the media campaign. Maybe it will work. But the truth is, it shouldn't have been necessary at all.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.