The Washington Post's Peter Eisner reports on the front page today (4/3/07):
It was 3 a.m. in Italy on Jan. 29, 2003, when President Bush in Washington began reading his State of the Union address that included the now famous -- later retracted -- 16 words: "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Like most Europeans, Elisabetta Burba, an investigative reporter for the Italian newsweekly Panorama, waited until the next day to read the newspaper accounts of Bush's remarks. But when she came to the 16 words, she recalled, she got a sudden sinking feeling in her stomach. She wondered: How could the American president have mentioned a uranium sale from Africa?
Burba felt uneasy because more than three months earlier, she had turned over to the U.S. Embassy in Rome documents about an alleged uranium sale by the central African nation of Niger. And she knew now that the documents were fraudulent and the 16 words wrong.
Nonetheless, the uranium claim would become a crucial justification for the invasion of Iraq that began less than two months later. When occupying troops found no nuclear program, the 16 words and how they came to be in the speech became a focus for critics in Washington and foreign capitals to press the case that the White House manipulated facts to take the United States to war.
Dozens of interviews with current and former intelligence officials and policymakers in the United States, Britain, France and Italy show that the Bush administration disregarded key information available at the time showing that the Iraq-Niger claim was highly questionable.
Some of the information in the article is not new, but the piece does fill in many details. Seymour Hersh reported some of the core information in his 10/27/03 article "The Stovepipe," one of the first major post-invasion pieces on the Bush's administration's cherry-picking of intelligence. Blogger Josh Marshall also covered several aspects of this story over at Talking Points Memo (here's parts one, two and three). In a previous post we mentioned some of Slate's coverage on then DCI George Tenet being asked to fall on his sword for false tales the CIA had debunked (here's Jack Shafer, here's William Saletan, and here's John Dickerson). Then there's this section from Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctine, occurring after the CIA had debunked several pieces of "evidence":
Relentless pressure is a strategy. Usually quite successful. It was employed both in the "war on terror" against al Qaeda, and by the White House against the CIA.
Libby and Hadley, meanwhile, continued to push, and push hard, on the analysts, asking the same question Tenet was often asked in high-level meetings. Aren't these potential threats precisely why an invasion is necessary? Is there even the slimmest possibility—a one percent chance—that uranium was bought in Niger, that the aluminum tubes were usable in uranium centrifuges, or that Mohammed Atta managed to meet with an Iraqi, any Iraqi, in Prague?
The thing to watch out for with a program of relentless pressure is the blowback.
On Friday afternoon, January 10, Jami Miscik, the head of the DI walked down the hall on the seventh floor shaking with rage.
Josh Moseman, Tenet's chief of staff, saw her as she passed his office.
"No, I'm not okay. I'm definitely not okay!"
A moment later, she'd made it to Tenet's suite.
She barely could get out the words. Stephen Hadley, Condi's second, has called from the office of "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.
They wanted her down at Libby's office in the White House by 5 p.m. At issue was the last in an endless series of draft reports about the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. How many drafts? Miscik couldn't remember. The pressure for the White House—and from the various intelligence divisions under the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense—had started a week after 9/11.
Cheney's office claimed to have sources. And Rumsfeld's, too. They kept throwing them at Miscik and CIA. The same information, five different ways. They'd omit that a key piece had been discounted, that the source had recanted. Sorry, our mistake. Then it would reappear, again, in a memo the next week. The CIA held firm; the meeting in Prague between Atta and the Iraqi agent didn't occur.
Miscek was no fool. She understood what was going on. It wasn't about what was true, or verifiable. It was about a defensible position, or at least one that would hold up until the troops were marching through Baghdad, welcomed as liberators.
A few days before, when she had sent the final draft over to Libby and Hadley, she told them, emphatically, This is it. There would be no more drafts, no more meetings where her analysts sat across from Hadley, or Feith, or the guys in Feith's office, while the opposing team tried to slip something by them. The report was not what they wanted. She knew that. No evidence meant no evidence.
"I'm not going back there, again, George," Miscek said. "If I have to go back to hear their crap and rewrite this goddamn report... I'm resigning, right now."
She fought back tears of rage.
Tenet picked up the phone to call Hadley.
"She is not coming over," he shouted into the phone. "We are not rewriting this fucking report one more time. It is fucking over. Do you hear me! And don't you ever fucking treat my people this way again. Ever!"
They did not rewrite the report.
And that's why, three weeks later, in making the case for war in his State of the Union address, George W. Bush was not able to say what he'd long hoped to say at such a moment: that there was a pre-9/11 connection between al Qaeda and Saddam.
One down. But two salient points—wobbly, but still standing—on the heart-stopping issue of nuclear weapons remained in the text: "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
Both statements were crafted to carry the clarion ring of proof, and both were known, by people inside the CIA and the White House, to fall short of that standard.
(pp.189-191, hardcover edition)
Then there's all of Plamegate. This was not some innocent, bureaucratic snafu, and that's the one aspect of this article I don't trust — not that bureaucratic gaffes might not have complicated matters. There are dozens of stories and incidents like the one Suskind relates, but the key element never changes: the Bush administration acted in bad faith. They never sought an objective threat analysis on Iraq. They wanted to go to war, and dug and scrounged for justification, not proof. They didn't care if Iraq was an imminent threat or not (or, for some, they were so certain it didn't matter). They were interested in what would sell. Iraq was never a challenge of national security for the Bush administration. It was a challenge of PR.
There are folks out there that know this material backwards and forwards, and I'll be interested to see what they make of this new article. Yet to my mind, its main value is that this is The Washington Post, front page, confirming earlier reports and filling in some details. Even more importantly, more people seem willing to speak out now. This is nothing for the Bush administration to celebrate. These sort of issues tend to build up a critical mass (witness all the peripheral scandals the Attorney scandal has started to flush out). As the saying goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant, and with this administration, there can't be enough of it.
Update: It's no surprise that TPM weighed in on the Eisner article, and they offer a valuable perspective.
Also today, Eisner discussed the article online with readers, and clarified several points. Apparently, he's got a book coming out on this whole deal.