I’ve long been fascinated by the dynamics of breaking news stories. One would imagine they move through a slow aggregation of facts. But that’s seldom the case. A story can be reported by a good reporter with solid sources and nothing happens. Then the same story is reported a few weeks later and it explodes. Not so much the facts but the context is different, the moment, the mix of suspicions and momentum. It’s reminiscent of the patterns discussed by historians of science like Thomas Kuhn or the sociologist Karl Mannheim.
But then I ditched that academic career, didn’t I? So let’s cut to the chase.
Tonight the CBS website is running a story that headlines … “Bush Knew Iraq Info Was False.”
For what it’s worth, I think the headline gets out a bit ahead of what the story actually reports. But not by much. The key passage reads thus …
Before the speech was delivered, the portions dealing with Iraqâs weapons of mass destruction were checked with the CIA for accuracy, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.
CIA officials warned members of the Presidentâs National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.
The White House officials responded that a paper issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion: âIraq has … sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.â As long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections and thatâs how it was delivered.
Let’s be clear what this means. The White House ran the charge past the CIA. Folks at the agency said, we don’t think it’s true. The White House’s response was to say, well, okay, we won’t say whether it’s true or not. We’ll just say that the British say this. And the Brits are saying this. So we’re good.
(Let’s just agree that Republican grousing about ‘depends what the definition of ‘is’ is’ just ain’t gonna have the same sting anymore, will it?)
As it happens, Tom Gjelten of NPR ran basically the exact same story three weeks ago on June 19th. You can hear Gjelten’s report here. My description of it from a recent column in The Hill ran as follows …
On June 19th, NPRâs Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. âEarlier versions of the presidentâs speech did not cite British sources,â a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. âThey were more definitive and we objected.â
At that point, according to Gjeltenâs source, âWhite House officialsâ said ââWhy donât we say the British say this?ââ
The White House disputes Gjeltenâs sourceâs account. But the upshot of the sourceâs accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.
This is, I think, exactly the same story. On June 19th it generated little if any attention. I suspect Martin’s story will generate a good deal more.