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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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.