Bush and Iraq: Follow the Yellow Cake Road

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Is a fib really a fib if the teller is unaware that he is uttering an untruth? That question appears to be the basis of the White House defense, having now admitted a falsehood in President Bush's claim, in his State of the Union address, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa. But that defense is under mounting pressure from a variety of sources claiming that the White House could not have been unaware that the claim was false, because it had been checked out — and debunked — by U.S. intelligence a year before the President repeated it.

So, the White House is not contesting the fact that the President made a false claim — merely whether he, or those who prepared his speech, knew at the time that it was false. And holding the line forces White House press secretary Ari Fleischer into a rhetorical dance that can only be called Clintonesque: conceding on the one hand that the claim made by the President was based on forged evidence that Iraq had tried to buy "yellow cake" refined uranium from Niger, but at the same time maintaining that "I see nothing that goes broader that would indicate that there was no basis to the President's broader statement."

While the Bush administration may have been sweating, just a little during the past two months, over the absence of WMD finds in Iraq, a majority of Americans appear willing to believe that going to war was justified even if no such weapons are ever found. Across the Atlantic, however, Bush's closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, is being roasted daily by Britain's media and legislature, some of the fiercest attacks coming from within his own party. Just this week, a parliamentary inquiry exonerated Blair's government on the charge that it "sexed up" intelligence reports to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam's regime, but nonetheless remained deeply skeptical of the case made by Blair for going to war.

The fact that Blair's and Bush's governments face parallel but separate inquires from their own legislatures operates, in some ways, like the police tactic of interrogating suspects separately in the hope of finding discrepancies in their testimony. The U.S., for example, started a lot earlier than the British conceding that actual weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq. British officials were apoplectic some weeks ago when the President and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld suggested Saddam may have destroyed his banned weapons before the invasion. Blair, after all, has stuck by the promise that WMD will be found in Iraq — at least until this week, when he began the subtle migration to a claim that the coalition may only find evidence that Iraq had maintained weapons programs rather than any actual weapons.

Blair, moreover, appears to be sticking by the Niger uranium allegation despite the White House retraction, insisting that it was based on sources besides the forged letters. U.S. officials had hinted, also, that other sources had pointed to Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Africa, but that none of these leads was considered strong enough to include in the President's speech.

Hardly surprisingly, the Democrats are demanding an inquiry. The surging support for antiwar Vermont governor Howard Dean in the Democratic nomination race signals deep discomfort among the party's core supporters over the war, and some of those who voted for the war may be inclined to use the presence of fake intelligence in President Bush's case for war to back away from their own support for the invasion. Still, they may have plenty to work with, because there's plenty of evidence emerging to challenge the White House assertion that it was not informed, before the State of the Union speech, that the Niger claim had been debunked by U.S. intelligence.

Just last weekend, the man sent by the CIA to check out the Niger story broke cover and revealed that he had thoroughly debunked the allegation many months before President Bush repeated it. Ambassador Joseph Wilson emphasized that he had reported back through traditional channels, and asked whether his report had been ignored because it didn't fit with the administration's preconceptions about Iraq.

More troubling questions arise from the claim by IAEA chief Dr Mohammed el-Baradei, who was in charge of the nuclear component of the prewar UN inspection program in Iraq, that he was provided with the Niger "evidence" only in February, despite it having been shared on Capitol Hill the previous October. The U.S. and Britain were publicly committed to sharing intelligence with the UN inspectors in order to help them find a "smoking gun," yet el-Baradei was kept in the dark about evidence that was ostensibly directly relevant to his inquiry. And, of course, almost as soon as he was shown the Niger documents, el-Baradei and his team concluded that they were forgeries. Also, despite U.S. and British claims that "other sources" had indicated Iraqi efforts to buy uranium in Africa, el-Baradei stresses that the Niger forgeries were the only evidence offered to the investigators.

Even more damning are reports that CIA sources insist the Bush administration was made aware some time before the State of the Union address that the Niger allegation was false. If those prove true, it kicks the jams out from under the administration's claim that the presence of a falsehood in the President's case against Iraq was simply the product of ignorance. And it may be expected that the CIA will more and more sharply signal that it passed its findings up the food chain, because on the basis of Ambassador Wilson's revelations, they'd be left to take the blame if they didn't. Then again, the media may turn its attention to the role of the Vice President's office: After all, Ambassador Wilson claims his inquiry was initiated by a request from Dick Cheney's office to check out the allegation. So presumably, Wilson's findings will have been reported back there. If so, the former ambassador is not the only one who will want to know what they, and other top officials, made of, and more importantly did with his information.

And right now, the game in Washington is to pin the blame for the fact that a fib, conscious or unconscious, made it into the State of the Union address. And in a summer news trough, that's bad news for the White House.