Accuracy in Media

Taking his cue from the media, a new audiotape, purportedly from Saddam Hussein, accuses the Bush administration of “tricking” the American people into war with Iraq. Working with congressional Democrats, the media are fueling a left-wing movement that is calling for the impeachment of the president because he supposedly lied to the American people about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa. But the President’s controversial statement in his State of the Union address stands up under scrutiny.

The President had said, “The British government has learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

On ABC World News Tonight on July 16, anchor Peter Jennings introduced a story about the “forged documents about uranium and Iraq”?”the ones the President used in his State of the [Union] address.” This false claim has been repeated over and over again by the media, with Associated Press even claiming that President Bush’s statement had been acknowledged by spokesman Ari Fleischer to have been “based on forged documents.” Fleischer conceded that the forged documents, which outline a deal between Iraq and Niger for uranium, were dubious, but he noted at his July 7 briefing that the President had made a “broader statement” that was accurate.

In the July 11 statement in which he said the President’s statement “did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for Presidential speeches,” CIA Director George Tenet also acknowledged that it was “factually correct.” The apparent contradiction can be found in the fact that the CIA did not have the resources to confirm or deny what the British and other sources were saying. This doesn’t make the British information false, and it may reflect poorly on the CIA. Tenet also acknowledged that an October, 2002, National Intelligence Estimate had cited “reports” that Iraq began “vigorously trying to procure” uranium from Niger and other African countries. This backs up what the President said, and is clearly based on far more than the forged documents that reportedly did not reach the CIA until February 2003?after the Bush speech.

Vice President Cheney had asked the CIA about such reports, and it dispatched former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson to investigate. The report on the Wilson mission is still classified, but both the British and the CIA say it includes information about Iraqi efforts to get uranium. This is information that has nothing to do with the forged documents. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that, “Ambassador Wilson’s report also noted that in 1999 an Iraqi delegation sought the expansion of trade links with Niger?and that former Niger government officials believed that this was in connection with the procurement of yellowcake. Uranium is Niger’s main export. In other words, this element of Ambassador Wilson’s report supports the statement in the [British] government’s dossier.”

The Tenet statement, referring to what was in the Wilson report, reported that a former Nigerien official “said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss ‘expanding commercial relations’ between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.”

Wilson, in his July 6 New York Times column, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” didn’t discuss that overture. Instead, he emphasized that he couldn’t confirm a uranium deal was made, and that he regarded the documents about such a transaction as being dubious. He concluded that the Bush administration had “twisted” the data and exaggerated the Iraqi nuclear threat.

It’s difficult to see how Wilson came to this striking conclusion based on the limited results of his own mission, which consisted of talking to a few officials. Whether Iraq concluded such a deal or not, the President’s statement in the State of the Union appears to be entirely true, except possibly for his use of the word “recently.” And this may be true as well, depending on the credibility of the other reports and information available to the British and perhaps the CIA.

The only valid criticism of the President could be that he relied on the British government, which stands behind the information, rather than the CIA. The documented record of the CIA’s intelligence failures may have led him to do this, and the White House may be reluctant for obvious reasons to publicly explain why it doesn’t have full confidence in the CIA. But if there has been a CIA failure to document and confirm an alleged Iraq-Niger uranium link, the President has only himself to blame. He kept Tenet on the job from the Clinton era.

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