IT WAS JULY 7, the Monday after the Fourth of July weekend, and chaos reigned at the White House. President Bush and his senior staff were frantically preparing to leave later in the day for a five-day trip to Africa. Ari Fleischer, beginning his final week as White House press secretary, answered reporters' questions in the morning in the West Wing briefing room. He was pressed about a 16-word sentence in Bush's State of the Union speech on January 28 that had cited efforts by Saddam Hussein to buy uranium in Africa for his nuclear weapons program. Fleischer botched the response. He gave a confusing and contradictory answer to whether the passage should have been included in the address.
First he said an alleged Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger never happened. But that didn't undercut Bush's broader statement in the State of the Union: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Then Fleischer contradicted himself, saying "the president's statement was based on the predicate" of the unproven uranium deal with Niger, so the sentence was incorrect. Fleischer halted the briefing minutes later and promised to return with a "specific answer" on the issue. He never returned.
Late that evening, after Fleischer had departed with Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for Africa, a White House official told reporters the information on buying uranium was "not specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made." A second official said the claim, even attributed as it was to British intelligence, should not have been in the speech.
By conceding a mistake, the White House aimed to bring the matter to closure. Instead, a full-blown controversy erupted. In flinching, the White House aroused critics of Bush and the war with Iraq to a frenzy. Democrats charged the White House had cooked intelligence information and misled the American people about the urgency of going to war with Iraq. The Washington press corps was obsessed with the issue and peppered Bush and his aides with questions about it as they traveled from Senegal to Botswana to Nigeria. The White House was on the defensive. Bush's Africa tour was overshadowed by a credibility issue back home.
Before the Bush entourage left, there had been a debate in the White House over how to handle the issue. Many senior aides believed the State of the Union passage under attack should have been flatly defended. After all, it had the advantage of being true. British intelligence did say Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. And the Central Intelligence Agency had some corroborating evidence--not particularly strong evidence, the CIA now says, but strong enough to have been cited in its classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002. Still, one senior Bush official insisted the White House should yield on the point. The president went along. Since then, both Rice and CIA director George Tenet have stated the evidence of Iraq's activity in Africa was not sufficiently solid to warrant mention in the State of the Union. The president himself has never said so. Rather, he's defended the intelligence he gets as "darn good."
Within days of conceding an error was made, most of Bush's senior staff concluded they had made a mistake. No, it wasn't in mentioning Saddam's quest for uranium in the State of the Union in the first place. It was in making an admission of error about intelligence information. "We have nothing to apologize for," an official said. The concession was like blood in the water, attracting sharks, another official agreed. What the White House might have said on July 7 but didn't was something like this: "We have full confidence that British intelligence is correct in citing Iraq's effort to buy uranium. The British finding is supported by further intelligence of our own." No apology or backpedaling required. This might not have satisfied Democrats and the press, but it wouldn't have raised more questions than it answered, as the we-made-a-mistake tack did. It would probably have brought the issue to a quicker end.
MANY OF THE MYTHS generated by this flap have to do with the role of Vice President Dick Cheney. The initial White House interest in the African uranium issue came from Cheney. Early in 2002, he read in an intelligence document that Saddam might have purchased uranium in Niger or was seeking to. Cheney asked his daily CIA briefer to check into it. Several days later Cheney received a report saying indeed there was intelligence indicating the possibility of an Iraq-Niger transaction. But backup information was scant and not detailed, and the vice president did not pursue the matter.
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.
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.