I was most curious this morning to see Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Condi Rice since she is the point at which all the arrows are now pointing, even if it’s taken the press a few days to pick up on that fact. Frankly, it wasn’t pretty — certainly not on the level of substance, but not even on the level of presentation. All of the commentators this morning were coming around to the realization that the real question is less whether Tenet’s CIA didn’t push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president’s speech as why others were pushing so hard to keep it in.
And the ‘others’ — at least in an immediate sense — were staffers in Rice’s NSC.
Rice’s efforts to work her way out of this tight knot of logic — especially the new revelation that George Tenet personally told her deputy, Stephen Hadley, to keep the uranium canard out of a speech in October — were, to put it mildly, pathetic. The fact that the CIA Director had to intervene personally with the Deputy National Security Advisor to get the bogus information out of an earlier speech raises the obvious question: just how many times did the Agency have to warn the White House off the bogus uranium claim before they got the message and stopped trying to put it into the president’s mouth?
Rice’s efforts to answer these questions fell back on the same shambling claims that new information was becoming available between one incident and the next (if anything the opposite was true) or the endless repetition of her talking points that “it is sixteen words and it has become an enormously overblown issue.” Here presentation was incoherent, contradictory and filled with several more extremely misleading statements.
One in particular jumped out at me. I don’t have the transcript of her remarks yet. But she said, essentially, that Joseph Wilson’s report was comprised of official denials from Nigerien government officials and the suggestion that a private businessman acting as an intermediary for the Iraqis had made an overture to one of those officials about possible uranium sales.
I know on what I can only call extremely good authority that that is a woeful and wilful misrepresentation of what Wilson reported back to the CIA. That’s just not what he told them. (See this earlier post for more details.) Has Rice still not tried to get a hold of Wilson’s CIA debriefing?
I don’t think anyone is saying that Wilson is some reincarnation of Bill Donovan or a real-life James Bond, that he knows everything or that his judgments are utterly beyond question. He went to the country; he investigated the matter; he reported back his judgment. I’ve seen no reason or evidence to believe his reasoning was wrong in any way. But anyone can make a mistake or miss something. Thus one could say, well, Wilson’s reasoning was wrong for reasons A, B and C and therefore I disregarded it. If Rice has a beef with his argument, she should lay it out. Or if the CIA failed to pass on to her the relevant parts of his report, she should say that. Or if she has solid evidence that Iraq was trying to buy Uranium from another African country, she should say that. But she isn’t doing that. She’s simply saying he said X when in fact he said Y. She is, to use the vocabulary we used back in the 20th century, lying. Like the lawyers say: if the facts are on your side, bang on the facts. If the law is on your side, bang on the law. If neither the facts nor the law is on your side, bang on the table.
Rice is banging on the table.
He may not be the worst member of the United States Senate. But Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts’ prepackaged and coordinated role in the pin-it-on-Tenet operation yesterday was a marvelous audition for the role.
The key lines from his prepared remarks yesterday afternoon are …
So far, I am very disturbed by what appears to be extremely sloppy handling of the issue from the outset by the CIA. What now concerns me most, however, is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the President.
If you watch the Sunday shows tomorrow, watch to see which if any of the hosts asks an administration guest this question: If Tenet and the CIA are guilty of not pushing hard enough to keep bogus or ‘highly dubious’ information out of the State of the Union speech, who was pushing on the other side?
Read Tenet’s ‘mea culpa‘ (self-criticism session?) closely and you’ll see it points right back at Condi Rice’s NSC.
As noted in yesterday’s post, we have a pretty clear idea what the interplay was between the CIA and the White House. The CIA expressed reservations about the Niger-uranium claims. The White House pressed to keep it in. Officials at the NSC, by several accounts, suggested getting around the CIA’s reservations by using public statements by the British government as a figleaf — even though the CIA believed the British assessment was incorrect.
Whose hands are dirtier? The folks who caved in to pressure and signed off on that figleaf? Or the folks who pressed for it?
This is a passage buried at the end of the New York Times Saturday article …
Before the speech, the crucial conversations between the C.I.A and White House over whether to include the African reference in the State of the Union address were held between Robert G. Joseph, a nuclear proliferation expert at the National Security Council, and Alan Foley, a proliferation expert at the C.I.A., according to government officials.
There is still a dispute over what exactly was said in their conversations. Mr. Foley was said to recall that before the speech, Mr. Joseph called him to ask about putting into the speech a reference to reports that Iraq was trying to buy hundreds of tons of yellowcake from Niger. Mr. Foley replied that the C.I.A. was not sure that the information was right.
Mr. Joseph then came back to Mr. Foley and pointed out that the British had already included the information in a report. Mr. Foley said yes, but noted that the C.I.A. had told the British that they were not sure that the information was correct. Mr. Joseph then asked whether it was accurate that the British reported the information. Mr. Foley said yes.
Other government officials said, however, that Mr. Joseph did not recall Mr. Foley’s raising any concerns about the reliability of the information. If he had, they said, Mr. Joseph would have made sure that the reference was not included in the speech.
There are at least three separate reports that the idea for the British figleaf came from the White House side. Those reports are buttressed by common sense. If the CIA was questioning using the Niger claims and the White House was pressing for it, what sense does it make that the idea of having it come from the Brits would be suggested by the CIA?
Now the White House is having the president and Condi Rice first place the blame for the Niger debacle (allowing disinformation into a State of the Union address) squarely on the shoulders of George Tenet and then later having the president say he has complete confidence in Tenet, thus conveniently keeping him in the fold. In other words, no harm, no foul. I’m tempted to say that the White House wants to have its yellowcake and eat it too. But even I wouldn’t stoop so low.
One other point before I leave for what I’m hoping will be a blog and laptop free Saturday.
A number of administration officials have stated that Joseph Wilson’s report from Niger was largely made up of Nigerien officials denying that their country had sold uranium to Iraq. My reporting tells me something different. Wilson’s report went into great detail about how the uranium ore was processed, how the processing was regulated, and most particularly who had physical custody of the product from the time it was in the ground to the time it was delivered to the customer. Wilson adduced various findings relating to the custody, oversight and regulation of the state uranium mining industry which, in his view, made the alleged sale highly unlikely.
Perhaps these officials are referring to, or confusing Wilson’s report with, a different report back from Niger, one that hasn’t yet been mentioned.
A few weeks before Wilson’s visit to Niger, a senior military official from United States European Command visited the country (most of Africa comes under EUCOM’s purview). During his visit, this high-ranking officer raised the issue of the alleged uranium sales to Iraq in meetings with various current Nigerien government officials. Those queries resulted in the official denials that certain administration officials are now so dismissive of. Some record of this high-ranking officer’s report back to his superiors must be on record at the Pentagon.
With all the hullabaloo over the Niger uranium bogusness, I haven’t yet had a chance to address another story that’s been going on in the background over the last few days. The Department of Homeland Security a while back issued a famously incomplete IG investigation report of its role in the Texas redistricting manhunt. The Department of Transportation did an investigation too. Their report turned out to be much, much more thorough. One morsel from the Washington Post’s brief story on the report …
Mead’s report pins principal responsibility for the FAA efforts on David Balloff, appointed by President Bush in 2001 as the FAA’s assistant administrator for government and industry affairs. Balloff is a former adviser to Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) and a former Tennessee Republican Party official.
Mead’s report said Balloff withheld critical information during several interviews and fostered an “appearance” of trying to hide information about his activities from his FAA superiors. Kirk K. Van Tine, the department’s general counsel, promised that he and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey would counsel Balloff “appropriately regarding these issues.”
Also interesting: unlike the DHS report, the folks at DOT told Texas Department of Public Safety officer Will Crais that, yes, he actually did have to answer their questions. The results were revealing. State House Speaker Tom Craddick earlier said he and his office had no moment-to-moment involvement in the manhunt. He only put the DPS on the case. Apparently not …
In a civil deposition, DPS Lt. William Crais, a key player in the hunt, testified that he was told to try to initiate a federal search operation by state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, and by an aide to the state House speaker, Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
Meanwhile, a Texas state judge yesterday ruled that the entire state manhunt for the runaway Dems — soup to nuts — was illegal.
And off the plank he goes. CNN is running breaking news that CIA Director George Tenet is taking “responsibility for incorrect information in State of the Union address about alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa.”
This may not be good public policy or accountability. But I will say this: it’ll make for a great absurdist novel. (And since I’m casting around for a book idea I’m taking serious note. Where’s Joseph Heller when you need him?)
Here’s the deal, one which will be fairly familiar to anyone who has been reporting on this story for the last eighteen months. Broadly speaking, the internal battles which have gone on in the executive branch over Iraq have pitted the career intelligence bureaucracy against more ideological types — often political appointees. There’s been a lot of overlap between that division and one between the CIA and State Department on the one hand and the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President on the other, with the CIA and State having a much more skeptical take on the WMD/terrorism case against Iraq and the OVP and Pentagon having a much more maximal one.
The maximalists pushed like crazy to get this Niger-uranium charge and other dubious charges into the president’s speech and into the argument for war generally. Now, we hear that it’s the CIA’s fault for not having insisted strenuously enough that the White House not retail bogus information to the American people.
Like I said, the absurdist novel.
Ken Pollack captured some of this in his interview with TPM last week …
But in deference to my old friends at CIA … they were in a position where they felt so beaten down by this administration that I don’t think they were feeling terribly charitable. And I think that to any low-level CIA officer, the idea of going out, kind of out of channels to say, hey, this big story that you guys thought you had on Niger uranium, it’s false. You know, I think by that point in time they just felt like if I do that those guys in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] are going to beat the hell out of me. And why do I need this? … I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren’t sufficiently alarmist. And, again, not doing anything illegal, just making the lives of the analysts so miserable that they didn’t want to keep writing this kind of stuff while simultaneously cherry picking intelligence to try to put together the most alarming case you could in this shop over at the Pentagon and using that as an alternative set of analyses that was given just as much — what’s the word I’m looking for? — attention and credibility as what the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were coming up with in these high-level meetings.
Now Tenet has come forward and said, essentially, that his agency did not stand firm enough in the face of the White House’s insistence on using intelligence reports that almost everyone in the intelligence community believed were bogus. (Bear in mind that everything that is being said about Tenet applies equally to Powell.) Frankly, I think he’s right. They didn’t. No one resigned. No one went to the mat over this.
But what does that mean exactly?
Let’s look at what Tenet said in his statement …
Officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.
Again, I think Tenet is right. Going with the British say-so for an intelligence judgment that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies believed was bogus “did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches.” That’s a huge understatement, I’d say. He probably should be canned.
But who suggested hanging the allegation on the Brits? According to Rice and Tenet, the CIA was uncomfortable with including the allegation in the first place. Did they suggest the British angle? Not likely.
Here, frankly, is what I think happened. The White House wanted to include this charge in the State of the Union address. The CIA, as Pollack makes clear, had been getting beaten over the head for more than a year for intelligence assessments that, in Pollack’s words, “weren’t sufficiently alarmist.” But including an allegation in the State of the Union which they more or less knew to be false was just further than they could go. They balked.
The White House and folks from the Agency then started a negotiation over what was okay to put in the speech. At this point, someone suggested hanging the charge on the Brits. Again, I think it’s very hard to believe that this suggestion came from the CIA folks. And in fact we have both NPR’s and CBS’s reporting saying that the suggestion came from the White House side. Saying that the British said this was technically true. Thus the speech was technically true.
The problem was that it was willfully misleading since the CIA believed the Brits were wrong. The people on the Agency side seem to have decided that the White House had made their objections to such unhelpful information very clear. They felt they’d acquitted themselves of their minimum responsibility but getting the statement into the technically true category. And they relented.
That was a terrible decision. No one had the guts to resign over this or really make a stink. Maybe heads should roll at the Agency. Maybe it should be Tenet’s.
But all of this begs the obvious and singularly important question: the charge is that CIA didn’t push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president’s speech. Who was pushing on the other side? Who was pushing to keep the bogus information in? And why?
We noted yesterday that Colin Powell told reporters that the Niger uranium charge “was not standing the test of time” and thus dropped it from the presentation he gave the UN on February 5th. We further noted that given the timing of the State of the Union speech and the preparations for the UN presentation, that the time span over which the evidence didn’t stand up stretched from January 29th to February 1st. Now The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman is reporting that the State Department’s intelligence bureau, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, sent Powell a detailed memo in March 2002 stating that the Niger-uranium charges were, in its opinion, false. (They came to this judgment without seeing Joseph Wilson’s report which, separately, helped scotch the story at the CIA.) “We knew it was important,” an analyst who worked on the I&R report tells TNR. “The [Niger] issue might have traction, and so we wanted him to know what our opinion was.”
Look, I’m as big a Star Trek fan as the next guy. And I try to think outside the box. But I was assuming that the test of time referred to linear time.
A couple days ago, Andrew Sullivan clipped this damning passage from a new Vanity Fair article on Howell Raines …
Worse, Raines would not let facts get in the way of a story he had ordered up or a point he decided to make. “Howell wanted a thought inserted high in one of my stories,” says a metro reporter. “The only problem was, it wasn’t true. Mind you, this was on my beat, a beat he didn’t really know about. I said to the editor who was the message-bearer that it wasn’t true, and it didn’t belong in the story, period. A while later he came back to me and said, ‘Well, you’re right, but Howell wants it anyway.’ It became clear that the editor had not fully conveyed my arguments to Howell, because he was afraid to. I said, ‘F— that — I’ll tell him myself.’ And he literally seized my arm and said, ‘You don’t want to do that.’ And ultimately the editor-intermediary and I compromised on a version of what Howell wanted that was just vague enough not to mean much, but still close enough to a falsehood to make my very uncomfortable.”
Remind you of anyone?
An apt observation from &c, The New Republic’s blog …
WHEN YOUR ZONE GOES BONE DRY: We’ve taken our fair share of shots at Howell Raines. But say this for the former New York Times executive editor: You’d certainly be able to tell from reading his paper that the Bush administration was embroiled in its first major foreign policy scandal. By contrast, the Times’ actual coverage of the Niger uranium hoax has been virtually non-existent under interim executive editor Joe Lelyveld–save for a single David Sanger piece earlier this week, written mostly on the basis of an Ari Fleischer press conference. Pretty much the only place you can consistently read about that scandal in the Times these days is in the paper’s the op-ed pages. Is it too much to ask that the paper put a single investigative reporter on the beat? (Or, if there already is one, then how bout an investigative reporter who produces a piece every once in a while?) Under Lelyveld the paper seems to have lapsed into its prior stupor as the official, but barely readable, paper of record.
Too true …
The president’s partisans can’t seem to decide whether the CIA didn’t tell them what they knew or whether what they knew was bogus. Along those lines, here’s Cliff May’s opening salvo in the smear-Joseph-Wilson campaign in National Review Online. May’s final line reads: “In other words, Wilson is no disinterested career diplomat â he’s a pro-Saudi, leftist partisan with an ax to grind. And too many in the media are helping him and allies grind it.” In response to May, Wilson tells TPM: “So those are the talking points. Good to know. Not worth responding to. The article stands, the administration has made the acknowledgement. The story is not, and never was about me. It is and has been about who put the statement in the State of the Union. I am not going to rise to bait that is clearly designed to resurrect the notion that I am the story. I am not. The story is the story.”
A reader points out to me this passage in Colin Powell’s Thursday press briefing which I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t yet noticed. A momentary, but revealing departure from message …
I think the President in the State of the Union address had this sentence in there and it talked about efforts on the part of Iraq to obtain uranium from sources in Africa. There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used. It’s that once we used the statement and, after further analysis and looking at other estimates we had and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn’t hold up. And we said so. And we’ve acknowledged it and we’ve moved on. [emphasis added]
Holding people to momentary, extemporaneous phrasings is often unfair. But in this case I think Powell’s first characterization was probably closer to his true views. The uranium charges cleared the “not totally outrageous” bar, but not much more than that. Powell wanted to apply a higher standard. Now he’s holding the bag.
I have to tell you that I’m stunned by how pointed and personal this Niger-uranium controversy is becoming, and so quickly. Condi Rice gave a fifty-minute briefing on Air Force One today in which she explicitly sought to pin the blame for the entire matter on CIA Director George Tenet.
Those are strong words, I grant you. But I don’t think there’s any other way to characterize what she said. Her comments are the sort that make it difficult, though by no means impossible, for a DCI to remain in the government’s employ.
Here are a few clips from the AP’s version of the story …
Bush’s national security adviser specifically pointed to the CIA and said it had vetted the speech. If CIA Director George Tenet had any misgivings about that sentence in the president’s speech, ”he did not make them known” to Bush or his staff, said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Rice said ”the CIA cleared the speech in its entirety.”
The agency raised only one objection to the sentence involving an allegation that Iraq was trying to obtain ”yellow cake” uranium, she said.
”Some specifics about amount and place were taken out,” Rice added.
”With the changes in that sentence, the speech was cleared,” she said. ”The agency did not say they wanted that sentence out.”
If anyone at the CIA had doubts about the veracity of the uranium-Iraq allegation, Rice said, ”those doubts were not communicated to the president.”
”If the CIA the director of central intelligence had said ‘Take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone,” Rice said. ”We have a high standard for the president’s speeches.”
Rice later made a perfunctory statement that the president still has confidence in Tenet’s ability to the do the job. But, frankly, that seems hard to square with almost everything else she said.
One other point worth mentioning is that Rice seems to have conceded that Powell’s doubts about the uranium story predated his UN presentation, but that he also didn’t make his views known to the White House …
Rice did say that the State Department’s intelligence division considered the uranium-purchasing allegations dubious, and this was also noted in a footnote in the intelligence assessment given to Bush.
Powell, however, did not discuss his misgivings with her or anyone on her staff between the time of the State of the Union address and Powell’s presentation to the United Nations, she said.
Rice’s comments are flatly contradicted by several different news stories, which say that the CIA repeatedly pressed their objections, both prior to the speech and during the final sign off. However, Rice is going on the record. And that will give her version of events some added weight unless and until the unnamed sources on the other side do the same. She is as much as daring Tenet to contradict her.
At the same time, even the other reports show that the CIA did eventually cave, at least in a sense. They relented when the White House opted for the fig leaf of hanging the allegation on what the Brits were saying — even though the CIA thought the Brits were wrong. If you read the rendition of events in last night’s CBS report, the CIA still acquiesced in a version of the speech that was willfully misleading. It was only technically true because the Brits were saying that, even if our own intelligence agencies thought they were all wet, and had sought to stop them from publicly making the claim.
And this raises another question: just how much had the White House — over a period of more than a year — beaten down its intelligence professionals to the point where they just didn’t want to stick their necks out any more? Just how much had the White House already made it very clear that it didn’t want to hear any opinions or facts that got in the way of the president’s Iraq policy? This is the point Ken Pollack made in his comments to TPM a few days ago. I think we’re going to find that at many points and in many ways over the last year they made that message very clear.
A sad commentary, on so many levels.
From last night’s Larry King with Bob Woodward …
KING: The comments about — that he has made concerning Iraq, where he sort of like — well, Powell let’s go to work — Powell said first. Powell said it was a minor issue, this thing about uranium and Africa. Do you think it’s a minor issue?
WOODWARD: It’s got to be explained. But one of the things that’s most difficult to understand is what is the basis of an intelligence report? And the CIA and the intelligence community do these things called National Intelligence Estimates. And they are big documents where they take all source intelligence, they put it together, they sit in a room, actually, and debate, do we believe this? Is this credible? Is this supported here?
They do them on things when we’re not sure. You don’t need a National Intelligence Estimate, for instance, on whether the Soviet Union is collapsed. We know it collapsed. But they would do National Intelligence Estimates on things like, well, what is the threat that Iraq poses? Weapons of mass destruction? And so it clearly says it’s an estimate. They make judgments. I’ve seen some of these things. And there will be a liaison intelligence service report, say from the Jordanians, saying we have a source who says the following. There will be a satellite picture. They’re little pieces, little fragments. And it’s inevitable one’s going to be wrong.
KING: But what makes the State of the Union? That’s got to go through — doesn’t that go through a lot of checkpoints?
WOODWARD: Yes, yes, it does. And that’s a serious mistake. They’ve backed off on it in the White House. But Bush needs to explain it. He needs to come forward and say hey, look, people accept in their human relations and in their presidents somebody who says, you know, I messed up on this, and this is how it happened. They need to do that.
KING: Were you surprised that Powell, kind of, dismissed it?
WOODWARD: Well, you know, I’m really on sound ground, here, when I say it’s one little piece of thousands of pieces that get sifted when they put something like this together. And you know, I’m sure on occasion, on your show you’ve said something that turned out to be wrong. You’ve had bad information. I know in my work, it’s happened. And you regret it and you step forward and say, I goofed.
KING: You don’t see anything deliberate.
WOODWARD: Not at this point. Not at all. And at the same time, as Richard Nixon said, the cover-up is always worse than the offense. And if they try to not explain it, if they try to say, Oh, you know, we don’t have to deal with this, or dismiss it, it’s not going to work. They’re going to have to come forward and say, Look, this came — this person — my understanding is there was some debate about it, and it may have been in one other speech earlier and got deleted and then got put in this one, so…
One little piece? De minimis deception?
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.
What a difference a day makes! Or, okay, say two days, maybe three …
Here’s Colin Powell’s statements today and yesterday on why the president used the uranium-Niger material in his State of the Union address and why Powell himself passed on those charges in his UN presentation.
According to Powell, the Niger uranium documents were “a reasonable statement at [the] time” the president used them in the State of the Union address on January 28th. But by the time Powell gave his presentation at the UN one week later, on February 5th, the charge “was not standing the test of time.”
Actually, according to reports from Newsweek and other news outlets in late May and early June, Powell spent February 1st through 4th going over the intelligence evidence in meetings at the CIA. (He derided much of it with what the late, great J. Anthony Lukas once famously called a ‘barnyard epithet’.) In any case, this would seem to show that the ‘test of time’ that the Niger evidence failed to stand stretched from January 29th, 2003 to February 1st, 2003.
Let’s go to the tape …
From today in Pretoria …
And at the time of the President’s State of the Union address, a judgment was made that that was an appropriate statement for the President to make. There was no effort or attempt on the part of the President, or anyone else in the administration, to mislead or to deceive the American people. The President was presenting what seemed to be a reasonable statement at that time — and it didn’t talk to Niger, it talked specifically about efforts to acquire uranium from nations that had it in Africa.
Subsequently, when we looked at it more thoroughly and when I think it’s, oh, a week or two later, when I made my presentation to the United Nations and we really went through every single thing we knew about all of the various issues with respect to weapons of mass destruction, we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore. It was not standing the test of time. And so I didn’t use it, and we haven’t used it since.
And from yesterday’s interview with the BBC …
MR. FREI: Two more brief ones, if I may, Niger and the issue of the allegations of the uranium exports to Iraq. You, yourself, if I am correct in thinking, thought that that was not a truthful allegation at the time it was made; is that right?
SECRETARY POWELL: The question is not truthfulness. The question is credibility at a moment in time.
MR. FREI: But you had your doubts about it, didn’t you?
SECRETARY POWELL: I did not use it in the formal presentation I made on the 5th of February because by then there was such controversy about it, and as we looked at all that we knew about it, it did not seem to be the kind of claim that I should take into the UN. [emphasis added]
What are we, the United States of Chopped Liver? Can’t we get the non-bogus intel briefing too? And since when are Republicans UN lovers? I’m lost …
I guess I have to give Dan Bartlett some measure of credit. He seems to have removed all the squishiness from the story of how that Niger-uranium malarkey got into the State of the Union address.
Read these clips from this article in Thursday’s Post …
White House officials said the uranium claim was included in the president’s Jan. 28 address only after the wording had been approved by the CIA, Pentagon and State Department. In his remarks, Bush declared, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Bartlett said the passage was included in drafts of the speech for at least 10 days before Bush delivered it. Bartlett said he knew of no objections to including the charge or debate over the wording.
“We wouldn’t lead with something that we thought could be refuted,” Bartlett said. “There was no debate or questions with regard to that line when it was signed off on. This was not a last-minute addition.”
A senior administration official said that numerous officials at the CIA had the chance to object to the line about Hussein’s quest for uranium. “If [CIA Director George J.] Tenet had called up and said, ‘Take it out,’ we would have taken it out,” the official said. “When it was signed off on at highest level, it was not brought into question by those who would know or those who were tasked to know at the agency.”
The official said the claim was tied to British officials because they had included it in a government intelligence dossier last September. “When given a choice, why not cite a public document?” the official said.
Up until now the line has been that this was some sort of snafu. People at the CIA or State may have known the Niger story was bogus. But the word hadn’t filtered up to the White House. Or the speech didn’t get shown to the people who knew the details. As Ken Pollack noted in this portion of TPM’s interview with him posted on Wednesday, this is what they have been telling him.
But now the story is quite different. It was in the speech for at least ten days prior to its delivery. And the appropriate people from all the key national security agencies and departments signed off on it.
Bartlett’s drawn the line pretty clearly, leaving only two real possibilities. Either the speech was intentionally deceptive or folks at the State Department and the CIA were guilty of some mixture of gross negligence and incompetence. The ‘senior administration official’ quoted in the second passage doesn’t even want to leave it that ambiguous. It’s George Tenet’s fault, he says.
Who falls on his sword here?
Is he kidding? Here’s a clip from John Lumpkin’s Wednesday evening AP story …
Rumsfeld, in a terse exchange with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he learned only “within recent days” that the Africa claims were based on faulty evidence. U.N. officials determined the documents were forgeries before the war.
I guess it depends on what the definition of ‘recent’ is.
It’s been widely known since at least March 8th that the evidence in question was ‘faulty’. The US turned over the evidence to IAEA. The IAEA quickly determined they were forgeries and announced its findings publicly. What’s more, from the beginning, the US government made it clear that it did not dispute the Agency’s findings. The understanding was that the US had got taken in by some forged documents, was a bit embarrassed, but didn’t want to dwell on it. A week later, according to an article in the Washington Post (March 13th, 2003, pg. A17.), the FBI began a preliminary investigation into who might have forged the documents — a fact I figure we can take as prima facie evidence that the US government thought the evidence was ‘faulty’.
Whatever the ins and outs of it, everyone has known the documents were bogus for at least four months. (If you were a cabinet secretary in the Bush administration and a member of the National Security Council, let’s just say there’s some possibility you might have known even before that.)
Even if you take the most innocent possible explanation of how the Niger-uranium docs got into the State of the Union address, Rumsfeld’s comments can’t possibly be true can they?
Tim, this counts as a whopper, doesn’t it?
Or is he already over his quota?
It’s usually a bad sign when a criminal defendant has half a dozen defenses against the same charge. You know the drill: I couldn’t have been there. I have an alibi. But if I was there I didn’t have my glasses. And if I did have my glasses, then I saw someone else do it. And if I did it, well, let me tell you what happened to me when I was three …
Needless to say, this brings us to Mr. Ari Fleischer.
An alert reader just brought Richard Stevenson’s article in the Times‘ today to my attention — and in particular this quote …
But Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Wilson’s report was vague and did not specifically address the main problem with the intelligence, that documents purporting to document Iraq’s efforts were almost certainly forged.
“He spent eight days in Niger and concluded that Niger denied the allegation,” Mr. Fleischer said. “Well, typically nations don’t admit to going around nuclear nonproliferation.”
Let’s take this one step at a time.
First of all, Fleischer is lying. Wilson didn’t conclude that Niger “denied the allegation.” He concluded, after investigating the allegations from a number of vantage points, that the purported sale was close to impossible, or at least quite unlikely. The reasoning turned on the structure of Niger’s uranium consortium, how the uranium is accounted for, and how much Iraq was alleged to have purchased. (Why Stevenson didn’t note this, shall we say, ‘discrepancy’ I have no idea.)
Fleischer is lying — there’s no other way to describe it — about what Wilson’s report said to make it seem less significant than it was. (If Fleischer had said Wilson’s reasoning was flawed or his investigation incomplete, then you could say he was spinning or distorting. But saying he said something completely different from what he said means he’s lying.) He’s making it seem less significant than it was to make it appear less culpable that the White House ignored his findings. But the White House’s story is that it never heard about his findings. So why the need to discredit his report?
The answer is obvious. They’re trying to set up multiple lines of defense.
We didn’t hear about it. But if we did hear about it, it didn’t amount to much so we ignored it.
Let’s have one defense and stick with it, okay?
I had planned on publishing part two of TPM’s interview with Kenneth Pollack at the end of this week. But the first couple questions in that second part deal with the controversy surrounding those bogus Niger uranium documents. And with that story seeming to catch some fire in the last couple days, I’m going to go ahead and post that part of the interview this afternoon. The rest of part two of the interview will follow later this week.
Keep in mind that this back and forth took place at the beginning of last week, before the revelations of the last few days …
TPM: Let me ask you one more question on this front before we move to the post-war part â¦ this question of these uranium sale documents. There’ve been three or four fairly heavily reported pieces on this — there’s Nick Kristof’s piece, there’s one in The New Republic, a few electronic media reports. And I think in toto, they make a pretty decent circumstantial case that either principals in the administration must have known about this CIA report or that if they didn’t then you have a breakdown in communications that is the kind of thing that people get fired over. It’s hard to see that that information wouldn’t have gotten to the Vice President or to Condi Rice or something like that. What’s your sense of that?
Pollack: Yeah, it is the most interesting thing out there because if it turns out to be true in the sense that Sy Hersch has suggested, and that Nick Kristof is trying to prove, I think it really is a damning indictment of the administration. What I’ll say is that people from inside the administration have been trying very hard to convince me that in fact it’s not nearly as bad as suggested. And, you know, they have some interesting points. What they basically say is, look, you know, the vice-president’s office did find out but the timing isn’t the way that you’ve got it. And in fact when they found out that it was forged that’s what led to its being yanked from Colin Powell’s presentation. But simultaneously the speechwriter for the State of the Union address had just gone to the earlier, to the British report basically and pulled it from the British report. And they make the point — and they’re absolutely right about this — which is that no one saw the State of the Union.
TPM: Wouldn’t the vice-president, the vice-president has to see the State of the Union.
Pollack: You would be, the vice-president may have. But the vice-president may not have known the information. It doesn’t necessarily go to the staff. And I think that people really would be struck or be really stunned at how few people see the State of the Union address. That actually does ring true for me. Again, this is all unsubstantiated. Even there, I think that you could make the case that, well, alright, if they did find out later on that it was a forgery, shouldn’t they have gone out and said â¦ ladies and gentlemen of the American public and the world we actually told you something that was incorrect. We talked about this uranium from Niger â¦ we’ve now found that the information was forged.
If that’s true, which is the version that the administration is telling me, I think that that’s still an indictment. But it’s obviously not nearly as bad as if they knew about it and purposely let this stuff go out knowing that it was forged. That’s kind of a longwinded way of saying at the moment I think the jury is still out.
It certainly looks bad any way you slice it. Certainly there are people at CIA who seem to have known about this long in advance. And it’s just unclear exactly how they disseminated that information. But in deference to my old friends at CIA — and I don’t mean to be apologetic for them — they were in a position where they felt so beaten down by this administration that I don’t think they were feeling terribly charitable. And I think that to any low-level CIA officer, the idea of going out, kind of out of channels to say, hey, this big story that you guys thought you had on Niger uranium, it’s false. You know, I think by that point in time they just felt like if I do that those guys in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] are going to beat the hell out of me. And why do I need this?
And this is kind of part of the larger picture out there. We’re focused on these specific details and there’s a reason for that. Because if you can make the case stick on the Niger uranium then you’ve got a really damning indictment, as I’ve said. But I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren’t sufficiently alarmist. And, again, not doing anything illegal, just making the lives of the analysts so miserable that they didn’t want to keep writing this kind of stuff while simultaneously cherry picking intelligence to try to put together the most alarming case you could in this shop over at the Pentagon and using that as an alternative set of analyses that was given just as much — what’s the word I’m looking for? — attention and credibility as what the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were coming up with in these high-level meetings.
Oh, Rick! Every good defense attorney knows that you need to make sure you’ve got a handle on the facts in evidence before you come up with your cover story. We all know that, right?
Yesterday, Senator Rick Santorum said the following to The New York Times …
Obviously, when you use foreign intelligence, you â we don’t have necessarily as much confidence or as much reliability as you do your own. It has since turned out to be, at least according to the reports that have been just released, not true. The president stepped forward and said so. I think that’s all you can expect.
Now, I’m all for buying only bona-fide Made-in-the-USA product. But there’s a bit of a problem with Santorum’s angle on this controversy. According to what we currently know, the White House preferred British intelligence to American intelligence. In fact, according to reporting by NPR’s Tom Gjelten (noted in yesterday’s post below), the White House had American intelligence that said one thing (no, Niger uranium) and British intelligence that said something else (yes, Niger uranium). And the White House went with the British intelligence because it was more helpful in making the White House’s case.
We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that the White House almost certainly knew that the Brits’ intelligence was based on the same bogus documents the CIA had already concluded were fakes.
It just goes to show, you’re always better off buying American. Especially if you’re a politician.
The most interesting bit of reporting I’ve seen today on the White House’s concession about the fraudulence of the Niger-uranium documents comes at the tail end of a wire story from Reuters …
A U.S. intelligence official said [Joseph] Wilson was sent to investigate the Niger reports by mid-level CIA officers, not by top-level Bush administration officials. There is no record of his report being flagged to top level officials, the intelligence official said.
“He is placing far greater significance on his visit than anyone in the U.S. government at the time it was made,” the official said, referring to Wilson’s New York Times article.
The message here seems pretty clear: Joseph who? Wilson, this ‘intelligence official’ is saying, is some small-time operator who got sent to Niger by some mid-level functionaries at the CIA. All the people who counted had no idea he’d even gone on his trip. And they certainly didn’t know about his vaunted report.
Now, I wouldn’t be being very straight with you if I didn’t start by saying that I don’t find this claim particularly credible. But could this be true?
Let’s run through what we know.
Wilson has said repeatedly that he was sent to Niger because, as he wrote in the Times, “Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report.”
Now, note the difference in what’s being said here. No one, let alone Wilson, has claimed that any “top-level Bush administration officials” sent him on his investigatory trip. What he and others have said is that CIA officials sent him out, because they were following up on a request from the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to look into the Niger-uranium allegations.
So to start with you can say that the ‘intelligence official’s’ statement amounts to a sort of non-denial denial. But what about the broader question? Was the whole effort triggered by an inquiry from the OVP or not?
Wilson says yes. And presumably he’s basing this on some knowledge of the situation. Nick Kristof said the same thing in his June 13th column in the Times, though it’s possible that Wilson was his source. But if there’s a factual dispute here, let’s find out. Is Wilson’s description of the OVP’s involvement accurate? In particular, did the OVP get Wilson’s eventual report? I think this is something a good investigative reporter with juice should be able to resolve for us pretty quickly. So, again, let’s find out.
And there’s another problem with the ‘intelligence official’s’ angle. Let’s say this was just something Joseph Wilson and a few of his buddies at the CIA knew about. And no one at the White House found out about it. Even if that’s true, he’s not the only person nor is the CIA the only agency, for that matter, that came to this conclusion.
Greg Thielmann recently left the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State’s intelligence bureau. He says that I&R independently came to the same conclusion as Wilson about the Niger story. And he told Kristof — again in the June 13th column — that he was “quite confident” that that judgment had been passed all the way up the chain of command at State.
Kristof threw in this line for good measure …
“It was well known throughout the intelligence community that it was a forgery,” said Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Center for International Policy.
What I think we can draw from this is that there were multiple agencies in the national security bureaucracy that had judged the Niger information to be bogus. Perhaps none of them were passed on to high-level administration officials. But the more and more widely the documents’ bogusity, shall we say, was known throughout the government, the less credible it is that the whole top level of the executive branch was out of the loop on what everyone else seemed to know.
Then you have the biggest problem, as I see it at least, with this argument.
The White House seemed to go to great lengths to find some outside authority to base its uranium sales claims on. The State of the Union speech ended up basing the claim on what the Brits had said.
In fact, according to one report by NPR’s Tom Gjelten, this is exactly what happened: they used the Brits as cover because their own intelligence people were telling them the story was bogus. You can hear Gjelten’s report here. But here’s my summary of it from a recent column in The Hill …
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.
Now, even if we discount Gjelten’s report, it does seem like the White House knew it would be nice to have some other support for their claims about Iraqi uranium purchases and that there were some reasons for concern about their own ‘evidence.’ Their own actions seems to show they suspected something was wrong.
So I don’t think dumping on Wilson, which seems to be the White House’s preferred strategy now, is going to cut it. But in each of these cases, let’s find out. If Wilson and Thielmann are fibbing let’s expose them. And if their superiors are playing fast and loose with the truth, let’s find that out too. Let the chips fall where they may.
Some military jets are equipped with the ability to toss off a cluster of flares in mid-flight to throw off heat-seeking missiles. I think that’s what Ari Fleischer and the White House were doing yesterday when they admitted that the president’s State of the Union claims about Iraq buying uranium in Africa were wrong.
Yesterday, I posted portions of Fleischer’s remarks from Monday morning’s press gaggle in which he got awkwardly tripped up in questioning about the Niger-uranium issue and promised a definitive answer later in the day.
That statement went out in dribs and drabs overnight and the Times and the Post have stories on it on their websites today.
But let’s look at what the White House is saying. In essence, they’re saying that the Niger documents were forgeries. But then, we already knew that. Indeed, the White House has conceded this for months. Sometimes publicly; sometimes privately. Here’s what they’re saying now, according to the Post: “Knowing all that we know now the reference to Iraq’s attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech.”
But, of course, the real issue is that there is at least very strong circumstantial evidence that knowing what they knew then, the Uranium hocum never should have been put into the speech either. This is a classic case of trying to jump out ahead of a story by conceding a point that no one is actually disputing in the first place.
Now, there is one small admission here that’s worth noting. Up until now, the White House has often implied that, though Niger-uranium documents were bogus, there was other intelligence that justified the claims about uranium purchases in Africa. Last month, NSC spokesman Sean McCormack said: “Those documents were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa. The issue of Iraq’s pursuit of uranium in Africa is supported by multiple sources of intelligence. The other sources of evidence did and do support the president’s statement.”
This was always one of the most intriguing elements of the White House’s defense. Because they seemed to be referring to intelligence so top-secret and rarefied that they couldn’t even share it with the CIA or other members of the intelligence community. It was so top-secret that only the president’s speech writers had sufficiently high security clearances to see it. That was the story on some days. On others, the other intelligence seemed to be the ‘dossier’ published by the British — which of course was based on the same bogus Niger documents.
Whatever the case, the ‘other intelligence’ line no longer seems to be operative.
According to the White House’s statement last night, quoted in the Times: “There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made.” A “senior administration official” told the Post that there were “possible attempts” by Iraqis to buy uranium in Namibia and Gabon but that those reports “were all somewhat sketchy.”
(I translate this roughly as: “It’s not true that we had no other information. We had some. But it was information so fragmentary, questionable and meaningless that we’d really just as soon not go into it.” Further translation: according to the distinct recollection of Ahmed Chalabi’s brother’s butler …)
The new White House line leaves just as many unanswered questions as before. Did the White House know the CIA had reported that the story was bogus or not? If they didn’t know there were problems with the Niger documents, why the big fuss about hanging the allegations on what the Brits said? And if they did know about the problems with the Niger documents, why use the Brits’ report as a fig leaf, when their claims were based on the same Niger documents the CIA — i.e., our lead intelligence agency — had already decided were bogus? Who approved putting it in the speech in the first place and was that line run by intelligence officials or not?
Both the Times (David Sanger) and the Post (Walter Pincus) have stories on these latest developments today. But surprisingly, Pincus doesn’t get into any of the obvious questions which the new White House line poses. Sanger’s piece goes much further and asks a lot of those questions.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Sanger’s piece is more aggressive and incisive. He, after all, was the ‘David’ who Fleischer was sparring with in yesterday’s interchange.
Okay, I have to confess. I came up a little short on the Niger-uranium exchange Ari Fleischer had this morning in the gaggle. I was going to come up with something clever to say about it or point out the merciless spinning. But it’s so incomprehensible I couldn’t manage it. So I’m just going to reproduce a portion of the transcript in its entirety.
Now keep in mind that one of the things the White House has said about the Niger-uranium issue is that even though the Niger documents were bogus, the White House had other evidence to support the president’s claim. In other words, White House intelligence that was so top secret that it apparently couldn’t be shared with the CIA either then or even now. In any case, let’s go to the tape …
Q: Can you give us the White House account of Ambassador Wilson’s account of what happened when he went to Niger and investigated the suggestions that Niger was passing yellow cake to Iraq? I’m sure you saw the piece yesterday in The New York Times.
FLEISCHER: Well, there is zero, nada, nothing new here. Ambassador Wilson, other than the fact that now people know his name, has said all this before. But the fact of the matter is in his statements about the Vice President — the Vice President’s office did not request the mission to Niger. The Vice President’s office was not informed of his mission and he was not aware of Mr. Wilson’s mission until recent press accounts — press reports accounted for it.
So this was something that the CIA undertook as part of their regular review of events, where they sent him. But they sent him on their own volition, and the Vice President’s office did not request it. Now, we’ve long acknowledged — and this is old news, we’ve said this repeatedly — that the information on yellow cake did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect.
[Here there were questions unrelated to the Niger-uranium issue – tpm ed. note]
Q: I just want to take you back to your answer before, when you said you have long acknowledged that the information on yellow cake turned out to be incorrect. If I remember right, you only acknowledged the Niger part of it as being incorrect — I think what the —
FLEISCHER: That’s correct.
Q: I think what the President said during his State of the Union was he —
FLEISCHER: When I refer to yellow cake I refer to Niger. The question was on the context of Ambassador Wilson’s mission.
Q: So are you saying the President’s broader reference to Africa, which included other countries that were named in the NIE, were those also incorrect?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President’s statement in the State of the Union was much broader than the Niger question.
Q: Is the President’s statement correct?
FLEISCHER: I’m referring specifically to the Niger piece when I say that.
Q: Do you hold that the President — when you look at the totality of the sentence that the President uttered that day on the subject, are you confident that he was correct?
FLEISCHER: Yes, I see nothing that goes broader that would indicate that there was no basis to the President’s broader statement. But specifically on the yellow cake, the yellow cake for Niger, we’ve acknowledged that that information did turn out to be a forgery.
Q: The President’s statement was accurate?
FLEISCHER: We see nothing that would dissuade us from the President’s broader statement.
Q: Ari, that means that, indeed, you all believe that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain uranium from an African nation; is that correct?
FLEISCHER: What the President said in his statement was that according to a British report they were trying to obtain uranium. When I answered the question it was, again, specifically about the Niger piece involving yellow cake.
Q: So you believe the British report that he was trying to obtain uranium from an African nation is true?
FLEISCHER: I’m sorry?
Q: If you’re hanging on the British report, you believe that that British report was true, you have no reason to believe —
FLEISCHER: I’m sorry, I see what David is asking. Let me back up on that and explain the President’s statement again, or the answer to it.
The President’s statement was based on the predicate of the yellow cake from Niger. The President made a broad statement. So given the fact that the report on the yellow cake did not turn out to be accurate, that is reflective of the President’s broader statement, David. So, yes, the President’ broader statement was based and predicated on the yellow cake from Niger.
Q: So it was wrong?
FLEISCHER: That’s what we’ve acknowledged with the information on —
Q: The President’s statement at the State of the Union was incorrect?
FLEISCHER: Because it was based on the yellow cake from Niger.
Q: Well, wait a minute, but the explanation we’ve gotten before was it was based on Niger and the other African nations that have been named in the national intelligence —
FLEISCHER: But, again, the information on — the President did not have that information prior to his giving the State of the Union.
Q: Which gets to the crux of what Ambassador Wilson is now alleging — that he provided this information to the State Department and the CIA 11 months before the State of the Union and he is amazed that it, nonetheless, made it into the State of the Union address. He believes that that information was deliberately ignored by the White House. Your response to that?
FLEISCHER: And that’s way, again, he’s making the statement that — he is saying that surely the Vice President must have known, or the White House must have known. And that’s not the case, prior to the State of the Union.
Q: He’s saying that surely people at the decision-making level within the NSC would have known the information which he — passed on to both the State Department and the CIA.
FLEISCHER: And the information about the yellow cake and Niger was not specifically known prior to the State of the Union by the White House.
Q: What does that say about communications?
FLEISCHER: We’ve acknowledged that the information turned out to be bogus involving the report on the yellow cake. That is not new. You can go back. You can look it up. Dr. Rice has said it repeatedly. I’ve said it repeatedly. It’s been said from this podium on the record, in several instances. It’s been said to many of you in this room, specifically.
Q: But, Ari, even if you said that the Niger thing was wrong, the next line has usually been that the President’s statement was deliberately broader than Niger, it referred to all of Africa. The national intelligence estimate discusses other countries in Africa that there were attempts to purchase yellow cake from, or other sources of uranium —
FLEISCHER: Let me do this, David. On your specific question I’m going to come back and post the specific answer on the broader statement on the speech.
When it’s ‘posted’ we’ll let you know.
Ari Fleischer apparently got himself in a mess this morning trying to explain what happened with the Niger-uranium documents. More on this soon when I get the transcript.
Am I overly suspicious? Or is Matt Drudge taking his, shall we say, talking points directly from Karl Rove? Or maybe from Karl Rove, via Ed Gillespie, long-time GOP operative, money-shoveler and incoming chairman of the RNC? Drudge has an over-the-fold headline this evening which claims that there’s some sort of super smackdown brewing between Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe.
For all I know the two may hate each other, I have no idea. Dean has pissed a bunch of people off in DC.
But look at the key quote in Drudge’s ‘story’ about Dean’s alleged intention to fire McAuliffe.
“We’ll make a change there immediately [after the New Hampshire primary],” a top Dean source said of the DNC leadership. “I think it is important, as does Howard, to mark a new beginning, cut ties from the past.”
This ‘quotation’ suggests a pretty short list of possibilities. Either people in the Dean campaign are incredible morons or this is a bogus quote.
How exactly is Dean going to clean house after — presumably — winning the New Hampshire primary? Even though a presidential nominee controls the party apparatus after he gets the nomination, there are a number of reasons why they seldom install their own chairman at the DNC before even winning the presidency. But they certainly don’t — or rather can’t — fire the chairman of the party during the middle of the primary campaign.
Basically for the same reasons that I’ve so far refrained from firing New York Times Executive Editor Joe Lelyveld or the fact checker of Ann Coulter’s ridiculous new book Treason (of which we’ll be saying more soon): because I can’t.
Who really gave Drudge that ‘quote’?
Early last week I sat down with Ken Pollack in his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC for an hour-long interview on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and the current state of the US-sponsored rebuilding and democracy-building effort.
Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm. And, as regular TPM readers will remember, this is a follow-up to an earlier interview we conducted with Pollack late last January — about six weeks before the start of the war.
We’ll be publishing this interview in three parts. The following is part one, which covers the state of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as of June 30th, 2003.
TPM: I want to do this chronologically, starting with things that came before the war and ending with things looking forward. I guess my first question and the question that a lot of people are wondering about now is not ‘why haven’t we found ten nuclear weapons?’ but ‘why haven’t we found even some stuff on the chemical or biological front?’
Pollack: I think there are two different answers to that. I think the first question is, why haven’t we found more of the production capabilities? I think we now have good evidence that indicates that the Iraqis were holding on to a production capability. That centrifuge that was discovered last week and the plans to reconstitute the program are the best evidence we have of what was always believed, which was that the Iraqis at the very least were holding on to the ability to start manufacturing stuff when Saddam gave the word.
In the case of the chemical and biological stuff that seems to have taken two forms. First on the biological side there were the mobile trailers. And I will say that my expectation is that when a judgment is finally rendered on these two trailers that my guess is that we’re going to find that they were biological warfare trailers. A) The counter-explanations that people have offered are kind of absurd on the face of them – the hydrogen balloons explanation really doesn’t hold a lot of water, or air, as you may see fit. The idea that these were for rocket fuel? Possible. But again, seems unlikely, and that would be prohibited as well. That would be part of maintaining a prohibited production capability.
On the chemical side, it’s just unclear what if anything else we’re going to find. Our understanding from a whole variety of things including the specifications of the plants themselves, as we saw them constructed, was that the Iraqis were building pharmaceutical plants which were dual-use. Well, if the facilities are dual-use and it’s a facility that can be relatively quickly transitioned into making prohibited chemicals, you don’t need anything else. You don’t need a biological facility, you don’t really need anything beyond that.
On the missiles, we just don’t know. I think it’s pretty clear that the Iraqis were using the Al Samoud and [inaudible] programs, in fact even the UN suspected as much, as that same kind of thing — the ultimate production capability. On the nuclear side, the interesting question is whether there was anything beyond what we’ve so far learned from this one nuclear scientist, which is that they basically shelved the program and it went into hibernation and the expectation was that at some point in the future when Saddam felt that the sanctions were sufficiently lifted or eroded that he would reconstitute the program. It’s still possible that there was a more active program going on. But that seems fairly unlikely at this point in time.
I think that the bottom line is that this stuff was all very difficult to find. Had that scientist not come forward and said “I’ve got this stuff buried in my backyard,” we never would have found it. And again that goes to the point of just how difficult this stuff is to find, how hard it is to find.
The second issue is, why was there not a lot of stuff deployed? And there I think there is simply a mystery out there. Before the war I always believed that the Iraqis wouldn’t have a whole lot of munitions lying around because that made no sense. As I said in the New York Times piece, the munitions degrade very quickly and they’re very easy to produce. So you wouldn’t want to have lots of them sitting around. That said, there were intelligence reports all through the spring of 2003 suggesting that the Iraqis were deploying actual [i.e. chemical] rounds with Republican Guard divisions â¦
TPM: Do you think it’s possible, and this applies to what you’re talking about now and also more broadly to the whole chemical and biological programs â¦ that some of the intelligence may have been not just exaggerations but actual disinformation coming from the Iraqis. Do you think that’s possible?
Pollack: It’s possible and certainly the Iraqis were trying to mount a kind of deterrence campaign, saying that if you come into Iraq you will be hit very hard and very badly … We saw clear aspects of that where you had unnamed Iraqi officials telling various Arab newspapers that if the United States came in that they’d be hit with chemical and biological weapons and that there’d be waves of terrorism (all things that were actually to be expected, were very predictable). And it is possible that some of the stuff that they were doing was intended to make us think that it was deployed – that weapons of mass destruction were deployed – when in fact they weren’t.
You’ve seen other people speculate in the press that maybe what they were doing was not deploying the weapons but actually pulling them back for destruction. It’s possible. You know, who knows? This is my point: it is a mystery, ultimately. It’s a mystery to me why Saddam didn’t fill the rounds, because as I said, while I didn’t expect him to have lots of it sitting around, I did expect that at some point in time he would begin to think the Americans may actually invade and when that happened he would say, ‘alright, you know what? Let’s gin up a batch of this stuff, so if they do come in, we’ve got it waiting.’ Because I never expected that he’d go without a fight.
He clearly didn’t [do that]. And it is a mystery as to why, although the reports that are increasingly surfacing are that he believed to the last that we absolutely wouldn’t come in and we moved on Baghdad much faster … That was my fondest hope, that was my best case scenario, but I was pessimistic that we would actually be able to get that best case scenario. If we did, that is fantastic. And I am obviously delighted. But right now it’s a mystery. And there’s also this mystery about what happened with those intelligence reports. Was it Iraqi disinformation? Were they simply mistaken? Were we reading something that was inaccurate or were we getting defector reports that turned out to be inaccurate? That is clearly a mystery.
TPM: Let me ask you this. I guess people are saying this less now, three months out, than they were a couple weeks out, but what about the idea that it’s a huge country and it’s hard to unearth the stuff? On the other hand, we have, not everybody, but a lot of regime leaders in custody. I assume a lot of these are people who had government status but were also scientists … And my premise or assumption has always been that we’re using very big carrots and very bit sticks with these people. Someone should have squealed. It’s one thing to have a latent brain-power capacity and a dual-use infrastructure that you could quickly move to making chemical or biological weapons. But it’s another thing to have something a little more than that, to have a program where you’re actually building up, etc., etc. It seems to me that if you have the latter, one of these people should have talked by now. Even if you’re worried about Saddam, whatever, with a lot of people, someone should have said something. And I imagine that, especially with the political pressure now, we’re offering the world to anybody that could take us to the stuff. Does that logic make sense to you?
Pollack. Yes, I think it is logical. I’ll start by saying, I mean, I tend to agree with you, Josh. I also expected that at least some of the people that we have in custody would have started to speak. And that they would have revealed at least part of what was going on. That may in fact suggest that the programs weren’t as far along or as aggressive or as big as was believed before the war. That’s entirely possible and you cannot rule that out.
By the same token, there are several other alternative explanations. It may be that they are speaking and they’re saying very interesting stuff and we just don’t know about it yet. I note that I continue to hear all kinds of rumors from friends inside the government that there is in fact lots of interesting stuff floating out there. And it will surface fairly soon. That may be true.
TPM: I think David Kay said something like that a few days ago, even publicly.
Pollack: And it’s also worth noting that on a number of these different issues the government’s actually managed to keep it quiet for a number of weeks before it did leak out or was publicly put out. They had the first of the trailers for two weeks before they said anything. With the Iraqi scientist it was a week or two before that stuff came out. There’s actually a bunch of stuff where you can say that they’ve actually sat on it for a period of time. And they’ve been able to successfully keep it secret. So it may be that some of these guys have said some very interesting stuff, maybe even some very revealing stuff, and the administration or – put it a better way – the government has done a good job of sitting on it. That may also be the case. Again, at this point in time other alternative explanations are still out there.
TPM: Do you think â¦
Pollack: Oh, one other point â¦ One other alternative explanation, which is worth mentioning, is that I do know for a fact that the initial exploitation teams did a terrible job … I’ve heard good stories from people on the inside about what the initial teams were looking at and what they overlooked. It was very clear that the initial teams really didn’t know what they were doing. They seem to have been sent in and been told: find shells with VX nerve agent â¦
TPM: So they were sort of expecting literally armaments lying around as opposed to â¦
Pollack: Right. And they boxed up huge numbers of documents and simply shipped them off to Qatar without actually looking through them. So there is a lot of hope and expectation that there will be lots of information found in those documents. And then beyond that, my understanding is that the initial debriefings of the Iraqis, which were conducted by military debriefers, were also considered very poor. These were military debriefers who were looking for military types of information. And they do it in a manner and style that is consistent with on-going military operations. And they’ve just recently turned those over to CIA debriefers. So the third alternative explanation is that it may just be that we did a rotten job looking for the stuff early on because we came in expecting to find it lying all over the place, which, again, if you’d thought about it for 30 seconds you’d realize that was almost certainly not the case. Because if it was lying all over the place, the inspectors would have found it.
TPM: Moving from the technical and intelligence side to the political side in the lead-up to the war, let’s say hypothetically that each of these programs was in a state in some sense similar to where the nuclear program seems to have been. In other words, there was an effort to keep the intellectual infrastructure in place, and at least some of the hardware infrastructure in place for that day when the political climate would be such that you could ramp up. And maybe with chemicals it would be different because you could have factories that were dual-use, and so forth. I mean, that is certainly different from what the administration was saying in the six months prior to the war. And in retrospect I think it would be hard to argue that we had to do this in the Spring of 2003 if what we were talking about was Iraq’s medium to long-term ambition to get back into the WMD business.
Pollack: Yeah. I’d put it this way. I’d go even further. If – if – the nuclear program was exactly as you describe it … that the program was basically dormant. Yes, they had the plans, some elements of the physical base to do it, and certainly they had the know-how to restart the program. But they didn’t even have some kind of centrifuge facility going somewhere. Not only is that a far-cry from what the administration was implying but it didn’t even really match up with the intelligence estimates.
I’m not a technical expert and I need to be very careful about that. But I am struck by the fact that what all the technical experts were saying to me, and to others like me, was that they thought that in the period between 1998 and 2002 the Iraqis did have some kind of clandestine centrifuge facility up and running and that they were probably working on enriching stuff even as we were speaking. This seems to be what led to their estimates that the Iraqis were probably somewhere on the order of five years, maybe as little as two or three years away from having a nuclear weapon. It was all based on the assumption that the Iraqis had restarted the program in 1998. And there were reports that this had been the case. But that doesn’t seem to be the case â¦
TPM: Was this an inferential judgment? If you take aside everything we know from April 1st — ironically — onward, that makes sense to me. What I was struck with in the Obeidi [interview], though, was that he said that they had it on ice. And I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t they have him dig that stuff up in 1998?’ That’s sort of a mystery to me. But go ahead â¦
Pollack: I agree. It’s another one of those mysteries where we’ve got to get inside Saddam Hussein’s head and figure out what was this guy thinking. With regard to the intelligence estimates, I don’t really know exactly why they came to that. I know it was a combination of defector reporting [and] watching the Iraqis purchasing. We watched their clandestine purchasing and procurement network very carefully. And a variety of other intelligence. But in some cases there were defectors who saying flat out that they’ve restarted the program. And this was a consensus among the technical experts among the various intelligence communities, not just the United States, but among many of the European countries and in Israel as well.
What we’ve seen so far clearly isn’t consistent with that. And I think that you’re right. The biggest question it gets to is the timing of the war. Now I think it is fair to say that based on what the intelligence experts were saying it would have been fair for the Bush administration to say, “Alright, we don’t have a lot of time here. We’ve got a period of years, not necessarily months. But we don’t have forever. Because at some point in time he is going to get these things. And as Condi Rice once famously observed, “The smoking gun we may see may be a mushroom cloud.”
By the same token, it’s very clear that the evidence that we’ve found so far doesn’t match up the with implied threat which the administration tried to create, which was that this was an imminent threat, that the Iraqis were very close to the acquiring the stuff or very close to giving the stuff to terrorist groups, that we could face an attack in the very near future. And that therefore the war had to be fought this year â¦
But in some ways it’s unfair to use the evidence that we’ve found since April 1st against the administration, because that was unknown. All the administration really had to go on were the intelligence estimates. And that’s why in my New York Times piece the point that I made was that, not that I felt that what we’ve found since was an indictment of the administration. As I say, it wasn’t fair to hold the administration accountable for that because the fact is that the intelligence community did believe that there was an active program. What I think it is fair to hold against the administration is that they stressed continuously the imminence of a threat which in fact the intelligence community felt was much more distant. Even at the time, even before the war.
TPM: But that’s a big difference.
Pollack: Oh, I agree. It’s a very big difference. It’s why my argument was that you have to do this sooner rather than later. But not immediately. And most importantly, and I think this was important for a lot of other moderate Republicans, Democrats, non-Americans, was that it meant that you had more time. And that you could do other things before you went to war. You could take the time to address the peace process before you went to war. You could take the time to build broad international support. You could take the time to wage the war on terrorism more aggressively. You didn’t have to go right after Iraq. There was time available to go after all of these other issues. You could also take the time to do a better job in terms of post-war planning. So that you didn’t have to rush into this thing. You could have taken the time to prepare the ground work for the war. So that when it happens it would have gone more smoothly and had fewer repercussions.
TPM: Does it sound accurate to say that the intelligence consensus – in our intelligence community and in others – was that maybe this was, say a 6, on the threat scale. The administration was saying that it was more like a 9 or higher. But it’s possible that it may end up that it was more like a 3, in terms of the 24 month threat window. Whether those numbers are exactly right or not, the point is that it’s not like the CIA was saying we were going to find what we’ve found so far. They were off the mark in some ways too. But the administration was making a more maximal argument than they were as well.
Pollack: I certainly think the way you’re setting it up is right. I’d quibble with the numbers. And here let me make a bigger point, which is that I think people are getting really hung up on this issue of the weapons. I think it’s an interesting question; it’s a mystery; it’s clearly one that the intelligence community seems to have gotten wrong. But with weapons of mass destruction – and I’m using that in the broadest sense of the word – not having the physical shells, the physical filled rounds, or missile warheads isn’t terribly important because the stuff is so easy to make, that if you’ve got the production capability you can make the munitions up in short order. So that the fact that we didn’t find 10,000 VX rounds is an interesting mystery to me and it says, it makes me ask some questions about what the intelligence was seeing. But I don’t see that as necessarily being an order of magnitude off of what the intelligence [community] thought before the war.
My quibble here is with your 6 versus 3. You know, it may have been a 5. But you’re certainly right that it wasn’t the 9 that the administration was claiming it to be. The one other thing that I would add is that in every case it was I think a 5 going up, increasing over time. And the big interesting issue now is ‘how much time?’ And we may find after the war that it was increasing much slower. So maybe I’m right. Maybe it was a 5, but it wasn’t going up as quickly as the intelligence, the technical experts, believed before the war. So even if it wasn’t the 6 we believed it was … or a 6 that we expected to be a 9 in five years, maybe it was a 5 that wouldn’t get to be a 9 for ten years.
Part two of the interview, where we get into the question of the Niger-uranium transfer documents and what’s happening in Iraq today, will follow later next week.
“Was [Judith] Miller a cheerleader or a reporter? A propagandist or a journalist? How tainted was her work by a demonstrable bias for one set of informersâthe former Iraqi exiles, who have their own agenda to push? Did the Times publish inaccurate stories because it failed to police her bias? Never mind her high-handedness: The Times owes its readers a comprehensive review of her recent work.”
Those are questions Jack Shafer asked last week in Slate about New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Shafer’s been asking questions about Miller’s reporting for months. And he’s posed some pretty damn good ones — as has Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post — largely centering on Miller’s biased reporting, extreme partiality to a particular source with an extremely conspicuous agenda, and questionable adherence to several basic canons of journalism.
I’m confused. I thought mau-mauing the Times was all the rage these days. In media criticism terms, this is twenty M80s, half a jerrican of gas, ten packs of sparklers and a six-pack of Pop Rocks — all waiting for a spark.
But no spark.
What is it exactly that has prevented all this from blowing up other than the fact that most of the people who drummed Howell Raines out of the business have benefited so mightily — ideologically, that is — from Miller’s excesses?
Don’t bother sending me the answer. I think I’m set.
I do wish they’d gotten on it sooner. But The Washington Post has a very good editorial today — Tuesday — on the continuing shenanigans of the Texas GOP. Mid-decade redistricting is bad idea — no matter how many novel excuses party shills come up with. And the Department of Homeland Security’s investigation was, as The New Republic recently put it, “a joke.” In the words of the Post, “The inspector general’s office has deemed off-limits the concerns that prompted calls for an inquiry in the first place, while reporting no wrongdoing in a corner of this weird affair where wrongdoing never seemed likely. If the IG’s office is right that the rest of the matter is not its business, then a different investigation must be conducted.” Even The New York Times has some good stuff on the story today.
From an article in Tuesday’s Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily …
According to Abbas, immediately thereafter Bush
said: “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I
struck them, and then he instructed me to
strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am
determined to solve the problem in the Middle
East. If you help me I will act, and if not,
the elections will come and I will have to
focus on them.”
Maybe Abbas has a problem with liberal bias?