It's nice to see some war-hawks are waking up to what George Tenet actually wrote in his July 11th plank-walking press release, the 'mea culpa' that had an extremely sharp barb hidden amidst all the abject language.
Over the last week people who've been following this case have slowly woken up to a realization of how dexterous a game Tenet has been playing. I wrote back on the 12th that if you "read Tenet's 'mea culpa' (self-criticism session?) closely ... you'll see it points right back at Condi Rice's NSC."
But I didn't grasp quite the degree of Tenet's bureaucratic savvy. Nor do I think did the White House. Actually, scratch that: I'm sure they didn't.
Having covered himself with a dignity-dashing mess of sorries and self-criticism (which sounded vaguely like something out of Russia in the mid-late 1930s), he set out an explanation that pointed right back to the White House, or specifically to the NSC.
He upped the ante dramatically when he and his aides gave more information in the recent closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill. Tenet and company are slowly reeling out piece after incriminating piece of information. It's hard to attack him since he's already 'taken responsibility' for the goof (still the only one as far as I can see.) But the real reason it's hard to attack him or, for that matter, fire him, is that the White House realizes that it is far better to have a dishing Tenet on the inside than on the outside. Amazingly, Tenet has managed to make himself nearly untouchable -- at least for the moment.
In any case, back to war-hawks realizing this.
In Bill Kristol's new column, he writes ...
On January 28, the president said in his State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Perhaps he should have said "the British government believes" rather than "has learned." But this statement was unremarkable at the time, and remains unremarkable today. And, contrary to the implications of George Tenet's disingenuous press release of July 11, the president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address.
There are three points I'd like to note about these two grafs. But let me start with the point about Tenet. The "president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address"? Is that really your final answer, Bill? If it is, which part of the public record are you disputing? As nearly as I can tell we have at least two instances where the CIA did just that -- we can leave aside for the moment the instances that haven't been reported yet.
It now turns out the CIA had its doubts--though they were less than definitive. It also turns out the British are sticking by their claim. And it remains the case, most important, that the African uranium business, whatever the truth of it, was never more than a single piece of the otherwise voluminous evidence driving allied concern over Saddam and weapons of mass destruction. How important were those "significant quantities of uranium from Africa"? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union.
George Tenet personally -- and it seems, repeatedly -- interceded with Hadley to keep the Niger uranium story out of the president's October 7th speech. Isn't that right? And then Alan Foley tried to keep the statement out of the State of the Union speech, but eventually gave way over the 'Brits-said-it compromise.' The White House first agreed that Foley had done this and now they seem to have un-agreed.
But does anyone really buy the line from the "senior administration official" on Friday that the White House came up with the 'British caveat' on their own to make the claim seem more credible? It seems like there are at least two instances where Tenet or one of his subordinates tried to warn the White House off those claims, on the reasoning that they were not credible enough for public dissemination. The sentence that reads "the CIA had its doubts" probably ought to read "the CIA had its doubts and communicated them to the White House on at least two occasions after the NIE was completed."
Second point. Kristol asks "how important were those 'significant quantities of uranium from Africa'? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union." This comes after he argues that the uranium claim was just a minor part of the case against Iraq.
If I didn't know better I'd think this was an attempt at a rhetorical sleight of hand. Kristol seems to be saying that the uranium claim didn't merit mention because it was a matter of such negligible significance.
Let's try that again.
If they didn't merit mentioning it was because the allegations weren't particularly credible. It's almost as if Kristol wants to have it both ways -- to grab the uranium claims out of the speech but to do so for reasons that have nothing to do with their credibility. Does anyone really believe that evidence of Iraqi purchases of tons of uranium ore from Africa -- if credible -- wouldn't "merit mention in the State of the Union"?
I didn't think so.
The only possible reason not for including those claims when building the case for the magnitude of Saddam's WMD program would be their lack of credibility.
And finally to the Brits and the claim they're "sticking by." Based on my own snooping I think I know what the Brits' other evidence is. I can't say I'm certain of it yet. But I have to figure that the White House -- having rather better sources of information than I do -- is hearing the same thing. The "other evidence" is not insignificant. If I were the DCI I'd probably have someone look into it. Hell, I might even send Joe Wilson over to Africa to check it out. But if it's not insignificant, it's pretty close. I think I know why the Brits are keeping it mum. They have their own domestic political reasons for sticking by their other evidence -- even if it's little more than a placeholder -- and the president's defenders know it. But partisans of the White House probably don't want to press too hard, lest everyone actually find out what that 'other evidence' really is.