As I hinted at in this post from earlier this evening, in his 2003 State of the Union address President did not say "Iraq purchased uranium from Niger" or even that "the British say that Iraq purchased uranium from Niger." He said something much more specific and couched, using language the significance of which would only become clear months later.
"The British government," said the president in the famous sixteen words, "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
As we learned later that summer and fall, those carefully chosen words had a very precise rationale behind them. The White House tried and failed to get the uranium claim into the October 7th, 2002 Cincinnati speech. The same battle was refought in late January of 2003 as the same parties struggled back and forth over whether the claim would be inserted in the State of the Union address. The CIA refused to countenance the use of the claim. So a compromise of sorts was struck. The president wouldn't be a fact witness to the allegation. He'd hang it on the Brits.
So the president wasn't saying Saddam had bought uranium. He wasn't even saying he'd tried. He said the Brits had "learned" that he tried.
Some White House defenders still hang their hat on this point, arguing that nothing the president said was in fact false. Anybody who got the wrong impression just didn't read the fine print.
That argument (let's call it 'the con-man defense') speaks for itself, I think.
But all of this brings us back to the question: What did the British know? They said they had good intel. The CIA didn't buy it. So what did they know?
Did they have separate non-discredited intelligence? Or, were they just holding out, refusing to admit they'd either been scammed or in on the scamming?
To date the British have refused to concede that they too may have been relying on flawed or phony evidence. They stand by their claim, but refuse to disclose the source or the nature of their evidence.
Last year's Butler Report (a rough analogue to last year's Senate intelligence committee report) went to great lengths to insulate the British finding from the taint of the forgeries. In one passage it says that ...
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.
Later in the Report, in a pretty telling illustration of how tied the Butler Report was to the needs of US politics, the authors went so far as to provide the president with a specific exoneration ...
We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Governmentâs dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bushâs State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about how such a passage could have found its way into a British government inquiry. But let's review the story. The Brits say that they had multiple pieces of evidence upon which they based their claim. And the forged documents -- which they only found out about much later -- were not one of them. So the discreditation of the forgeries is irrelevant to their finding. The taint, shall we say, does not attach.
My assumption, and that of many others, is that the Brits are, to put it bluntly, full of it on this one. My best guess is that they are holding on to some de minimis 'other' evidence as a placeholder to get out of taking their own lumps in the Niger skullduggery.
With the claims of an intelligence agency especially, proving a negative is near impossible. So I can't prove to you that the Brits have nothing else. But I think I can make a pretty strong argument that the Butler Report was intentionally misleading on this key question.
The Butler Report wasn't the only British government inquiry into the faulty intelligence question. There was also a parliamentary committee report published in September 2003, before the question of the forgeries and Wilson and the rest of it became so intensely politicized. And a close look at this earlier report, chaired by Labour MP Ann Taylor, shows pretty clearly, I think, that the Butler Report was willfully misleading about the Brits' reliance on the forgeries.
I discussed this point at length in a post from July 17th, 2004. So if you're interested in finding out more, seeing the evidence and the argument, read that post and draw your own conclusions.