July 15, 2004

Truth in Reporting

First, Lord Butler, formerly Britain's top civil servant, said Britain had received information from "several different sources" to substantiate reports that Iraq sought to purchase uranium from Niger. The Senate report found that similar claims by American intelligence, which found their way into President Bush's State of the Union address last year, were based on a single set of forged documents.

-- Alan Cowell in the NYT

But the report defended as "well founded" the dossier's claim that Iraq had sought to obtain enriched uranium from African countries. The CIA has questioned the claim, saying it was based on forged papers, but the Butler panel said there were other sources for the assertion.

--Glenn Frankel in the WaPo

Guess whose reporting is more accurate?

Frankel's over at the WaPo.

The NYT has, writ large, "American intelligence" concluding the uranium story was based on "a single set of forged documents."

But this represents an erroneous reading of the SSCI report.

Here are the key passages:

On November 25, 2002, The Naval [redacted] issued a very brief report (Alleged Storage of Uranium Destined for Iraq [redacted] that a large quantity of uranium from Niger was being stored in a warehouse in Cotonou, Benin. The uranium was reportedly sold to Iraq by Niger's President.
(p. 59)

Now, just shy of a month later after publication of the Navy report, on December 17th 2002, the warehouses were finally visited:

On February 10, 2003, the U.S. Defense Attache in Abidjan...reported that its reports officer examined two warehouses in Benin suspected of storing uranium on route to Iraq on December 17, 2002. The visit was conducted almost a month after a Navy report indicated uranium destined for Iraq was transiting through the warehouses. The report indicated that the warehouses appeared to contain only bales of cotton. A CIA operations cable on the inspection noted, however, it was not possible to determine if the cotton bales concealed the uranium shipment and that no radiation detection equipment had been used during the inspection.
(p. 68)

Note too that the SSCI report states, at p. 71:

On June 12, 2003, the DIA sent an information memorandum to Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz...The memo said, "while the Intelligence Committee agrees that documents the IAEA reviewed were likely 'fake,' other unconfirmed reporting suggested that Iraq attempted to obtain uranium and yellowcake from African nations after 1998"(the SSCI report says that said other reporting in question was the Benin warehouse story).

The SSCI report goes on to say:

On June 17, 2003, nearly five months after the President delivered the State of the Union Address, the CIA produced a memorandum for the DCI which said "since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."

But keep in mind--this is merely the C.I.A.'s opinion.

The New York Times piece says that "American intelligence" writ large had concluded the Niger/uranium story was false because the information was based solely on the forgeries.

But, last I checked, the DIA is part of "American intelligence."

And, keep in mind too, the DIA is separate and apart from Doug Feith's controversial, stand-alone intel shop.

True, the Benin cotton warehouse angle didn't turn up uranium.

But the Navy report explicitly states that no radiation detection was used (how dumb, no!) during the inspection and that it remains possible the uranium was concealed within the cotton shipments.

Note too, the inspection of the warehouse occurred after the President's SOTU (look for investigative reporters on the left, fairly all told, to query why it took so long to get this inspection concluded--though there is no evidence revealed to date that the inspection was purposefully delayed post-SOTU for political reasons--as contrasted with, say, bureaucratic delays and such...)

So, now we not only know Bush didn't purposefully lie.

We also know, it would appear, that his statement was not solely based on "fruit of the poisonous" tree material tainted by the forgeries--and this solely per a reading of the American intelligence gathering effort (see more on the British angle below--which further bolsters Bush's SOTU statement).

So the New York Times is wrong to report, as it does today, simply: "The Senate report found that similar claims by American intelligence, which found their way into President Bush's State of the Union address last year, were based on a single set of forged documents."

That's just not true, is it?

Two final points.

Note the DIA report's language (quoted above) about unconfirmed reports that Iraq might have sought uranium and/or yellowcake after 1998 from African nations (plural).

In this vein, don't miss, via the Butler report, section 499:

There was further and separate intelligence that in 1999 the Iraqi regime had also made inquiries about the purchase of uranium ore in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this case, there was some evidence that by 2002 an agreement for a sale had been reached.

That's more intel that isn't FOPT tainted, isn't it? (Note too this Congo intel perhaps calls into question the SSCI report's finding that the only non-forgery related intel meant to be referenced in the DIA report was the Benin story).

So Bush's SOTU statement is further bolstered.

And even the IAEA leaves the door open a bit!

Responding to queries from the Butler inquiry, they wrote:

Notwithstanding the information summarized above, and in view of the fact that the IAEA so far has not obtained any other related information than the forged documents, the IAEA is not in the position to demonstrate that Iraq never sought to import uranium in the past. This is the reason why the IAEA only concluded that it had "no indication that Iraq attempted to import uranium since 1990" but it would "follow up any additional evidence, if it emerges, relevant to efforts by Iraq to illicitly import nuclear materials." So far no such additional information has been obtained by the Agency.

Folks, the intelligence was often weak, to be sure.

But Bush and Blair didn't purposefully lie to their publics, in my view.

Here's the best comment I've seen on all this yet:

No one lied. No one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services. Everyone genuinely tried to do their best in good faith for the country in circumstances of acute difficulty. That issue of good faith should now be at an end ... But I have to accept, as the months have passed, it seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion, Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy ... I have searched my conscience, not in the spirit of obstinacy, but in genuine reconsideration in the light of what we now know, in answer to that question. And my answer would be that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was indeed less certain, less well-founded than was stated at the time. But I cannot go from there to the opposite extreme. On any basis he retained complete strategic intent on WMD and significant capability. The only reason he ever let the inspectors back into Iraq was that he had 180,000 US and British troops on his doorstep ... Had we backed down in respect of Saddam, we would never have taken the stand we needed to take on WMD, never have got progress on Libya ... and we would have left Saddam in charge of Iraq, with every malign intent and capability still in place and every dictator with the same intent everywhere immeasurably emboldened. For any mistakes made, as the report finds, in good faith, I of course take full responsibility. But I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all.

-- Tony Blair (Hat Tip: Sully)

Yes, it would be nice for Bush to step up to bat and say something like this too.

But it would also, wouldn't it, be nice for the New York Times and assorted obstinate commentators on the left (they know who they are) to grapple with the complexities of this story more honestly (rather than play cheap gotcha month after month after month)?

We're all adults here--we know it's an election year.

People are going to be partisan, tough, aggressive.

But if you are going to call people liars--or say the entire Niger story was based solely on the forgeries--well, at least where things stand today, you're simply not playing it straight.

You're, in a word, lying--or, at best, simply not fully analyzing information that is available, on both side of the Atlantic, to the public.

At least as and where the weight of the evidence sits today.

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at July 15, 2004 10:00 AM
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