July 14, 2004

A Revisionistic First Draft of History

You can be pretty sure that TPM is going to approvingly link to this James Risen piece in the NYT today.

You know, people often say that journalism is the first draft of history.

But, unfortunately, people sometimes fail to note that it's often a pretty revisionistic dose of history that's being proffered up.

As Risen points out, and as we are all painfully aware, there were of course major shortcomings on the Niger intel (hell, all the Iraq intel).

Yep, we overstated Iraq's WMD capabilities by a long shot. And as the Butler report shows today, so did U.K. intelligence services.

And, it should be noted, if France and Germany had taken part in this war, and they were now also going through similar inquiries re: the efficacy of their intelligence gathering on Iraq--you can be sure they would determine their Iraq intel was flawed too.

Put simply, there was a wide-spread belief--through a variety of different nation-state's intelligence communities--that Saddam possessed material stockpiles of WMD.

And, of course, such major stockpiles simply haven't shown up.

They might still (though don't count me in with those who think tons of anthrax are now hidden under Bashar's residence in Damascus or in massive underground vaults in the environs of Tikrit...)

So what's my point?

These were largely intelligence failures--not purposeful lies emanating down from POTUS.

But James Risen, in his NYT piece, uses these real shortcomings in the intel to gloss over the entire Bush lied meme.

So if you aren't following the Niger story closely--you are left thinking that the Adminstration lied (from the top-down) on the Niger story--because of all the attendant problems with the intel.

Problem is, that's simply not true.

And that's obviously a critical point. Honesty counts in presidential politics.

And Bush has, pretty much, been tarred a liar.

But Bush didn't lie in his SOTU on this whole Niger business--knowingly or otherwise.

Of course, that won't stop Kerry supporters from saying he did.

Last night, on John Gibson's Big Show over at Fox--former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi rolled out the uranium/Niger/Bush lied canard--even with Gibson admonishing him that the story had faced some FT-induced roll-back.

But no, the distortions easily rolled off Trippi's tongue.

It's now all part of the '04 electoral folklore.

16 words. Niger. Uranium. Forgery. Bush lied. Plame outed. Wilson's nakedly partisan musings (so helpfully widely aired) in the opinion pages of the New York Times...)

And so on.

To be sure, Risen mentions the free-fall in Wilson credibility, as Glenn has pointed out.

But note Risen's mention of Bush's SOTU:

"His address suddenly gave the uranium issue high visiblity, but it could not withstand global scrutiny."

For Risen, "global scrutiny" means the IAEA.

But there's a problem with that.

Check out the just released Butler report.

It explicitly puts aside the IAEA's analysis (see bottom of p. 123 to top of 124) and then opines thus.

Money quotes:

"We conclude that, on the basis of intelligence estimates at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government's dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush's State of the Union address of January 28, 2003 that [insert 16 words here] was well founded."


45. From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:

a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.
b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of NigerŐs exports, the intelligence was credible.
c. The evidence was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium and the British Government [ed. note: and neither did Bush in the SOTU] did not claim this.
d. The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it. (Paragraph 503)

Pity Risen can't simply, er, "update" his piece--because Bush's SOTU speech has withstood global scrutiny--contra a central contention in his article.

Daniel Okrent, have you a comment?


Okrent doesn't have a comment; but Tom Maguire is taking me to task in my own comments section!

Here's, btw, how the NYT is handling Butler/Niger to date....pretty de minimis fare, no?

Posted by Gregory at July 14, 2004 10:50 AM

I think the repeated public use of "no doubt" and its variants pretty much puts paid to your argument.

Posted by: praktike at July 14, 2004 03:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sheesh, Prak, acquire your target before discharging your weapon. The only "no doubt" I see above is in your post.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson at July 14, 2004 04:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Bravo Greg!

Because the Left has a post-modernist sense of objectivity and truth, we shall probably see retractions commensurate with the attacks when Hell freezes over.

Posted by: dan at July 14, 2004 04:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, is Greg trying to argue that the Bush administration didn't go beyond even its own flawed intelligence reporting?

Because I can make that case fairly easily. I don't need this stupid instance of the 16 words to do it.

Posted by: praktike at July 14, 2004 05:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yep, we overstated Iraq's WMD capabilities by a long shot. And as the Butler report shows today, so did U.K. intelligence services.
They did no such thing. Not until they wer leant on by Blair, campbell et al.
On 15th March 2002 the JIC said:
"Intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles programme is sporadic and patchy".
On August 20th 2002 the JIC said:
"We have little intelligence on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons doctrine and know little about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons works since late 1998".
On 9th September 2002 the JIC said:
"Intelligence remains limited".
The JIC assessments included serious caveats, qualifications and cautions. When presenting his case to the country the Prime Minister chose to leave out those caveats, qualifications and cautions. Their qualified judgements became his unqualified certainties'.
(from Michael Howard's reply to Blair's statement today)
According to Butler these caveats and cautions were "lost" en route to the 'dodgy dossier'. Did they fall out of a minister's briefcase? Were they left in the back of a cab?
We'll never know. Blair left them out to bolster a WEAK intel case not a strong one. Why did he do it? The search goes on.

Posted by: wally at July 14, 2004 06:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It's really all beside the point. A bad dude got his ass kicked. Who gives a rat's ass if he had WMD or not?

Posted by: Jim Chandler at July 14, 2004 06:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I consider praktike's pratfall an illustration of the post's central theme; ethical reporting and commentary musn't come before a partisan agenda.

Thanks, praktike!

Posted by: Mark at July 14, 2004 06:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Wally nails it. Blair and Bush never aknowledged the many "caveats, qualifications and cautions" that were available to them when they made their public case for war. Instead they misrepresented the strength of the intel, claiming "There is no doubt..." this and that. Does such misleading rhetoric constitute a lie? I think so, but cunning linguists can argue that for themselves. The fact that they misled can no longer be doubted by any sane person with a shred of integrity.

Posted by: Matt at July 14, 2004 07:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mark. Huh? Now I'm all confused. See, I was under the impression that Bush was getting "darn good intelligence." Now I discover that it's not true, and suddenly my world has crumbled.

Posted by: praktike at July 14, 2004 07:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The White House did itself no favors by currying to the press and public opinion on the 16 words after Joe Wilson wrote his Op/Ed. The alleged outing to discredit Wilson was really unnecessary when you could have used Wilson's own words to discredit him. Specifically his interview on February the 28th of 2003 in which he statest that he agree with the President on Iraq, on war and on "coercive" disarmament. This was of course after Wilson's trip to Niger. It was after the SOTU 16 words. It was only a month shy of the launch of the invasion.

I blogged about this interview today.

Furthermore, the White House should have stuck to their guns. There was no reason for the White House to retract its words unless they were merely following the lead of the DCI George Tenat. The SSCI report shows that even the CIA should not have discounted the 16 words after Wilson's Op/Ed.

What occured was a harrowing defeat for the White House. It served the interests of critics in desperate search of an issue to occupy the daily White House press briefings. And occupy they did.

If I am to look left and right at what the bloggers have suggested then on one side of the coin I have Instapundit saying the Plame leak was a Rove Ploy and on the other side I have Marshall saying the SSCI is also a Rove Ploy. My my, what a grandmaster knight of manipulation this Karl Rove character has become.

Reader Matt does provide the premise saying "The fact that they misled can no longer be doubted by any sane person with a shred of integrity".. The shouts, claims and protests of "lies" was always about shifting the focus to the term "misleader". The trouble is there are many "misleaders" in the US government. They also include, Mr. Kerry, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Edwards.

Unless these politicians have shifted entirely on their votes claiming their votes, their statements and their speeches were wrong then I cannot exclude them from the club of "misleaders".

Posted by: Brennan Stout at July 14, 2004 07:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So much partisanship so little time.

Partisans cherry pick the intel they like and ignore the rest, whether they are CIA analysts or bloggers. That's why they are a danger to our country.

If you are honest you will recognize that a leader must go with the best intel interpretation he has 'AT THE TIME'.

Historians and political wonks have the luxury of hindsight to piece together a better interpretation.

Leaders must act at the time and with whatever they have on hand and thus they might overestimate the enemies force strength or even imagine forces that aren't really there or even bomb a pharmacy because the intel said it was a WMD factory.

Posted by: wlpeak at July 14, 2004 07:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Ofcourse there is still the big pink elephant of outing a highly undercover CIA WMD agent, but please ignore it. His wife may have asked for him to be sent. Ignore the countless missions/assignments/agents ruined and the setback to intelligence on WMD, his wife may have suggested him...AHHHHHH

Posted by: s at July 14, 2004 08:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

s: According to the Internet Wayback Machine, Joe Wilson's bio at the Middle East Institute(Saudi supported) lists Valerie Plame as Joe Wilson's wife.

According to Wayne Madsen the "leak" exposed the CIA's Saudi operations. If you are one to trust Wayne Madsen, as it was published in "From the Wilderness", then you might have an argument.

Posted by: Brennan Stout at July 14, 2004 08:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mmm, html code doesn't work. Here is the full link.


Posted by: Brennan Stout at July 14, 2004 08:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is extremely rare and uncomfortable for me to be disagreeing with Gregory, and my discomfort is compounded by the fact that I sound like Bill Clinton, but - I think it depends on what the meaning of "it" is.

The highlighted sentence was "His address suddenly gave the uranium issue high visibility, but it could not withstand global scrutiny. "

If "it" refers to the address, well, I don't like the possible implication that the President is lying, but objectively, the White House *did* throw in their cards, so how can one argue that "it" did survive global scrutiny? Fine, maybe Risen should have written "the claim did not survive", instead of "could not".

However, "it" might be the "uranium issue", with its new-found "high visibility". In which case, the sentence is even more defensible, since the forgery revelation did prompt US backpedaling. (But don't 'issues' survive, even as opinions change? Hmm.)

Excerpting a bit more does not really clarify that, but the context does *not* make the President appear to have spoken in bad faith (IMHO). In fact, it seems clear in context that the CIA failed to warn the White House:

"He [Tenet] passed [the SOTU draft] on to his executive assistant to give to other C.I.A. officials. He never read the speech, he told the Senate, and did not realize it included the uranium reference.

It was left to midlevel C.I.A. and White House officials to deal with the speech. A C.I.A. proliferation expert talked with his White House counterpart about the uranium reference, but he did not question its credibility, the Senate found.

The next day, in his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

His address suddenly gave the uranium issue high visibility, but it could not withstand global scrutiny. In February 2003, Washington sent copies of the Iraq-Niger documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors nuclear proliferation. The next month, the agency determined that the documents were forgeries. On March 11, the C.I.A. issued its own assessment, in which it said it could not dispute the atom agency's conclusion."

Which, as I read it, means that Tenet and the CIA messed up, not that Bush Lied.

Now, another angle would be that, a year later, the claim has survived, in the sense of being viewed as reasonable at the time it was made. But that is still a news management issue - if the White House had pounded the point that the Brits never backed off their claim, maybe the address would have survived.

I think not, BTW - the 16 Words were a Clintonian, cleverly phrased bit of information (should that be Wilsonian, as in old Joe?). If he had spoken 20 Words - the Brits have learned, but we can't verify, that... - the phrase would have been dropped altogether.

I guess we need to see how the NY Times treats the Butler report tomorrow.

Posted by: Tom Maguire at July 14, 2004 09:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We already know the answer to that Tom... they wrote about it today online and totally ignored the Niger matter. These people published the Wilson op-ed and as far as I am concerned, this is pretty close to Jayson Blair all over again.

Posted by: HH at July 14, 2004 10:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg are you related to Edward Djerejian?

Posted by: praktike at July 14, 2004 10:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The central issue of the "16 words" and Wilson's Niger trip is the larger fact -- now irrefutable -- that Bush used false intelligence to terrify us into war. He was given an array of data from various sources, and he chose what to do with it. There were plenty of reports expressing doubt, which alone should have been reason enough to pause. But there were also invasive teams of inspectors on the ground for three months going to all of the "100% certain" weapons sites, finding nothing. They were right. Bush was wrong. Period.

In fact it is now painfully clear that the rush to war was precisely because inspectors on the ground were telling us that the hyped-up weapons intelligence was false, meaning that the primary public justification for invasion was slipping away by the day.

You don't feel Bush lied? Okay, fine. Maybe he believed what he was saying. But he was dead wrong.

Frankly I would prefer that he were a liar, because it speaks of a cynical ability to strategize. The other option -- that he had on-site experts frantically telling the him that there were no weapons, but he chose to simply disregard them and invade -- seems far more frightening.

Posted by: Bitter Mastermind at July 15, 2004 03:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

s: According to the Internet Wayback Machine, Joe Wilson's bio at the Middle East Institute(Saudi supported) lists Valerie Plame as Joe Wilson's wife.

Posted by: Brennan Stout at July 14, 2004 08:54 PM

So? What is the relevence. Why would he not list his wife on his bio?

Posted by: MattR at July 15, 2004 04:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

With respect to the new NY Times article on the Butler report, who are they kidding? The Niger-uranium news is buried in the thirtieth paragraph, and the specific exoneration of the "16 Words" is not mentioned at all.

Considering the play the "16 Words" got last summer, that is inexcusable (but not inexplicable).

Posted by: Tom Maguire at July 15, 2004 05:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You wrote:
"Yep, we overstated Iraq's WMD capabilities by a long shot."


Saddam was entitled to ZERO capability.
Period. All the UNSCR's said so.

And Saddam had to prove it. The onus was on Sadam. Inspections were meant to verify Saddam's adherence, as in AUDIT COMPLIANCE; they were not meant to be an OVERT INTELLIGENCE GATHERING/DETECTIVE MISSION.

Saddam did not prove he had complied.

A last chance Saddam BLEW.
And Saddam kept is unlawful capabilities, and he kept trying to expand them RIGHT UP UNTIL THE WAR!!!!! At lest according to Blix and Kay, that is.

So... I think you should stop falling into the "Leftist trap",
and stop FALLING VICTIM TO the "moving goal-post" strategy of the Left:

STOCKPILES WERE NOT PART A NECESSARY OF THE EQUATION; in fact, the word "stockpile" does not appear once in any of the 17 UNSCR's that relate to Saddam.

IN FACT: the word "stock" appears only ONCE,
and in the context of ANY-AND-ALL STOCKS, as in:


Not a drop.

He was in violation of UNSCR#1441 - as Kay has sworn under oath to Congress - and that means SADDAM ABROGATED HIS TREATY OBLIGATIONS, and that means we had the DUTY to resume hostilities in order to neutralize Saddam.

It was a resumptive war, not a pre-emptive war

Daniel Aronstein

Posted by: dan at July 15, 2004 06:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So? What is the relevence. Why would he not list his wife on his bio?
Posted by: MattR


Posted by: Brennan Stout at July 15, 2004 06:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Reviews of Belgravia Dispatch
--New York Times
"Must-read list"
--Washington Times
"Always Thoughtful"
--Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit
"Pompous Ass"
--an anonymous blogospheric commenter
Recent Entries
English Language Media
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Non-English Language Press
U.S. Blogs
Western Europe
United Kingdom
Central and Eastern Europe
East Asia
South Korea
Middle East
Think Tanks
B.D. In the Press
Syndicate this site:


Powered by