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SAME OLD GAME! Some readers swear that the press has reformed. But they’re playing the same tired game:


EXTRA! MUST-READ NYT: Another must-read piece from Michael Winerip about Florida high-stakes testing. Try to believe that you actually read it: According to Winerip, Florida third-graders attending summer school must score in the 51st percentile on the Stanford 9 standardized test to get promoted to fourth grade. In other words, they must surpass 51 percent of third graders nationally to move ahead to fourth grade! We thought we’d seen sheer stupidity before, but in Florida, they keep improving the strain. This piece should be read—every word.

The bitter-enders keep writing in, insisting that Niger is Highly Important. They know it’s important because it’s been on TV; they don’t yet see that it’s the latest trivial, dumb-ass example, chosen for its cinematic qualities (Crudely forged documents! The honest ambassador!) and for its relentless conflation potential. (It helps a great deal that the honest ambassador is half a step slow in his logic.) Was Bush’s 16-word statement a “hoax?” We don’t have the slightest idea, but you sure can’t prove it from the known record. Indeed, to judge from the current record, the statement may be perfectly accurate! But readers have seen it pimped on TV, and don’t see that the press is hoaxing them. Meanwhile, Matthews and Mitchell keep churning conflations, gunning for “Scooter” and Cheney.

Today’s excitement involves those new memos—two memos sent from the CIA to Rice aide Stephen Hadley last October. But before you start making excited assertions, it’s important to see what those memos said. The White House hasn’t released the memos, so we don’t yet know exactly what they said. But here is Dana Milbank’s description of Memo 1 in this morning’s Post:

MILBANK: The CIA memo, dated Oct. 5 and addressed to Gerson, Hadley and others, objected to a sentence that the White House included in a draft of Bush’s upcoming [October 7] speech, saying Hussein’s “regime has been caught attempting to purchase” uranium in Africa…Hadley said the CIA—the memo was not signed—noted that the amount was in dispute and that it was not clear the material “can be acquired from the source.” The CIA also pointed out that Iraq already had its own supply, 500 tons, of the “yellowcake” uranium ore it was accused of seeking.
By the way, note the deftly clipped quote from Bush’s draft speech, a sure sign that mischief is brewing. At any rate, the memo, as described by Milbank, has little to do with what Bush said in his January State of the Union address. First objection: “The amount was in dispute.” This suggests that this memo referred to the specific allegation that (we quote the October 2 National Intelligence Estimate) “Niger planned to send several tons of pure uranium (probably yellowcake) to Iraq.” It has long been known that the CIA warned against crediting that shaky report, the one that turned out to be based on forged documents—but Bush did not allege that this transaction occurred when he gave his SOTU. In fact, he didn’t allege any transaction. Second objection: It wasn’t clear that uranium could be purchased “from the source.” Presumably, this refers to Joe Wilson’s judgment that it wouldn’t be possible to buy uranium in Niger. But again, Bush didn’t claim in his SOTU that any such purchase had occurred. Third objection: Iraq already had lots of yellowcake. Presumably, this is meant to suggest that Saddam would have no need to acquire more. On its face, this is the only objection that is even relevant to Bush’s SOTU statement, but this objection seems to be highly speculative. For an apparent refutation of this objection, see actual language from the NIE, quoted in today’s “Daily update.”

Second memo? Here is Milbank’s description:

MILBANK: The second memo, dated Oct. 6 and sent to Hadley and Rice, was brought to the White House’s attention yesterday by the CIA, the officials said. In response to another draft of the [October 7] speech that had already deleted the uranium reference, the memo included fresh CIA objections to the charge, saying there was “weakness in the evidence” and that the attempted purchase “was not particularly significant,” Hadley said.
Milbank doesn’t say what the “weakness in the evidence” was supposed to be, or if any specific new weakness was cited. And again, the “attempted purchase” is presumably that several-ton purchase from Niger. But Bush’s State of the Union address only alleged attempts to buy uranium. Did any such attempts occur? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But the Brits still say that there were such attempts, and as described, these CIA memos produce very weak evidence to the contrary. We don’t know if Saddam sought uranium, but readers, you don’t know this, either. We have a long way to go before that 16-word statement can be turned into Big Screaming Scandal. As described, these memos don’t help. (In today’s “Daily update,” note a January 2003 CIA memo which said Saddam did seek uranium.)

But readers, some of you continue to write us on this topic, praising old journalistic foes for their new-found integrity. Andrea Mitchell is finally telling it straight, you say, with your own straight faces. But Mitchell hasn’t been telling it straight, and Chris Matthews—pushing this story on Hardball—hasn’t reported a straight fact in weeks. He spun the facts for years about Gore. Now he’s spinning the facts about Bush. Eager to believe his current spin, you insist that he’s telling the truth.

Readers, don’t be suckers. People who spun you for years about Gore aren’t likely to tell the straight facts now. For reasons that are completely unclear, major parts of the Washington press corps have flipped on Bush in the past few weeks. But their dysfunctional culture lives; they continue to spin the basic facts to construct a sweet story which furthers their outlook. Their reports are full of spin and conflation. Can’t you hear what they’re saying? Hey, rubes!

PROTECTING STATE: Meanwhile, other stories are being avoided. What about the State Department, for example? While pundits complain that Bush said “learned” instead of “reported,” they keep ignoring the puzzling story about those crudely forged documents. (The press has ignored this story for months, as we noted last week.) At present, the basic facts seem to change every day, but according to all the current accounts, State received those crudely forged documents in early October 2002. How crude were the documenst? Some of the docs had been drawn up in crayon, and some were just signed “Howard Stern!” Actually, the crudely forged documents weren’t quite that crude, but when the IAEA finally got them in hand, it took them about a Chris Matthews minute to see how fake and phony they were. Isikoff and Thomas present the most comic rendition in Newsweek, although Dana Priest told the same story in Sunday’s Washington Post:

ISIKOFF AND THOMAS: “Within two hours they figured out they were forgeries,” one IAEA official told NEWSWEEK. How did they do it? “Google,” said the official. The IAEA ran the name of the Niger foreign minister through the Internet search engine and discovered that he was not in office at the time the document was signed.
Fiendish! The crafty gumshoes ran them on Google! (According to Priest, they also used “books.”) But somehow, the State Department had the crudely forged documents from early October right into March without noticing how crudely forged they were. (The CIA is now claiming that they didn’t see the docs until February.) Does this story make any sense? We’re not sure, but you may notice that the straight-talking press corps which is now being honest has ignored this strange story for months. Any chance that they’re letting this go because they’re after Bush and Cheney, and because they’re working angry elements inside State and the CIA? Of course, you know the way this foolishness works. The same dumb-asses who couldn’t see through the crudely forged documents are now supposed to be the final word on what Saddam did in Niger.

Our point on this is simple. The press corps’ culture remains unchanged; they are once again crafting the stories they like, and some of our readers are running to praise them because they have turned against Bush. But readers, you’re still receiving the cock-eyed stories the Washington press corps always supplies you. We’d support a review of Bush-on-Iraq. But that isn’t what the corps is providing, and we thought that you might want to know it.

The Daily update

NAILING THAT NATIONAL ESTIMATE: As noted yesterday, the six U.S. intelligence agencies prepared a 90-page National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002, discussing security problems posed by Iraq. Last Friday, the White House released eight pages of excerpts, while noting that President Bush and Condoleezza Rice had been too busy to read the whole report. (Ninety pages! Exhausting!) Rice didn’t know what State said on page 84, we were somehow supposed to believe. (We haven’t seen a single insider pundit comment on this bizarre story.) At any rate, that eight-page excerpt is now on-line, provided here by the Federation of American Scientists. And we have to note that we disagree a tad with Newsday’s Ken Fireman, whose summary we quoted yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/22/03). “The issue of African uranium was not cited as a key finding,” Fireman wrote, “but was mentioned later in the report with no judgment offered as to its veracity.” In our view, the NIE does seem to state as a fact (on page 24) that “Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake; acquiring either would shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons.” (That latter statement undercuts the objection in Memo 1, above.) The time frame here is a bit unclear, probably due to the excerpting. But other observers have also judged that the NIE said that Saddam sought uranium. For example, here is David Sanger in this morning’s New York Times, discussing the release of those CIA memos:

SANGER: Mr. Hadley’s account, given in a meeting with reporters at the White House, raised new questions about Mr. Tenet and the C.I.A.

According to the outline of events the White House gave today, Mr. Tenet’s warnings to the National Security Council that the information was unreliable came only six days after the intelligence director published it in the “National Intelligence Estimate,” the gold-standard of intelligence documents circulated to the highest levels of the administration and to Congress.

The claim that Saddam was “vigorously pursuing” uranium in Africa was not one of the NIE’s “key findings,” but the report does seem to assert it. Campbell Brown voiced the same judgment on last night’s Hardball, getting in a couple of words while her host caught a quick breath of air.

For the record, Sanger notes another key fact. He notes that “another senior C.I.A. official, Robert Walpole,” sent Hadley a memo on January 24, just days before the State of the Union. That memorandum “again said Iraq had sought to obtain the uranium, citing the language in the Oct. 1 intelligence estimate.” But just watch! Despite the press corps’ impressive new honesty, reporters are going to deep-six that memo, eager to give you a scrubbed set of facts. We think we can hear what they’re secretly saying. Can’t you just hear them? Hey, rube!