THURSDAY, JULY 24, 2003
WHAT WE ARENT GETTING: A Wednesday e-mail helps define what we havent been getting. Why does uranium-from-Africa matter? Many mailers have expressed views like the one below. The quoted excerpt was preceded by a good deal of well-stated evidence:
E-MAIL: When seen in this larger context, the State of the Union sentence referencing a British report that Iraq has tried to obtain uranium from Africa, while technically correct, was part of a much larger pattern of behavior in which the Administration exaggerated and/or cherry-picked available intelligence to support a position they had settled on in any case. It seems to me that there was an intent to deceive the public, trying to make us believe that the threat from Iraq was more serious and more imminent than it actually was.Many mailers have stated this viewuranium-from-Africa is part of a larger pattern, they have said. And this may well be accurate. For example, this e-mailer says: Many people whose opinion I trust (e.g., Joe Biden) have publicly claimed that the pre-war intelligence that the administration shared with the Congress was one-sided and overly-dramatic. Indeed, Bidenwho still generally supports the war in Iraqrepeated this claim on last Sundays Meet the Press:
BIDEN: The problem with hyping the intelligence was they hyped it, in my view, to create a sense of urgency and a threat. We moved faster than we should have, we went without additional forces. We didnt need them to win the war, but as I saidDick Lugar and many others said at the time, we dont need these forces going in with us to win the war, we need these forces going in with us so theyre there when we try to win the peace. It cost us two things. It cost us support in winning the peacehyping the intelligence and going prematurelyand secondly, it cost us credibility around the world.I believe the intelligence we got, and I said it at the time, was selective, Biden continued. It did not show the significant disagreement within the intelligence community, and I said at the time, as far back as August 4 on your show and every day since then, that I thought that in fact it was not accurate in the sense that it was offered as a certainty. According to Biden, the nuclear claims were especially hyped:
BIDEN: I mean, on your program, we had a discussion, and many did, about these aluminum tubes, remember? Well, half the [intelligence] community said the aluminum tubes were for artillery shells, half of them said it was for gas centrifuge for nuclear capability. But the way it came across when the vice president was on your show and talked about it, he said, and Im paraphrasing, the Iraqis have reconstituted their nuclear capability. There was no hard evidence of that, that Ive ever seen, that Ive seen.Like our e-mailer, we have found Biden to be quite authoritative in his discussion of these matters. And he made a startling claim on this show. Was it true, what many in the Bush Admin said? Had the Iraqis reconstituted their nuclear capability? There was no hard evidence of that, that Ive ever seen, that Ive seen, Biden said.
We agree with our e-mailers spirit. There may well be a larger pattern here, the pattern which Biden seems to allege. But readers, there has been no investigation of that larger pattern as we drive the Niger road, and we always lose out in this way when the press corps creates Perfect Storms. In recent weeks, have you seen any real attempt to explore Bidens claim? No, you havent, and no, you wont. When the press corps creates a Perfect Storm, it gets to wallow in that one piece of trivia. Perfect Storms replace real probes. If you want to a real review of that larger pattern, you should walk off the Niger road too.
What does the Niger side road mean? It means what we told you just last week. It means that the press corps has made a global judgmentthe Bush Admin misled on Iraq. (The press corps complicity in that effort will not be discussed, of course.) And having reached its global judgment, the press corps is ginning a pleasing example, designed to convince you of its global belief (and designed to entertain). But the focus on the Niger matter is taking the place of an actual study. Is Bidens larger claim correct? Here at THE HOWLER, we dont really know, and as the press corps entertains itself on the Niger side road, theres little chance we will ever find out.
Bidens claim should seem quite striking. That October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate states a directly opposite view. [I]n the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, the NIE says. Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them. And theres more: If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year. Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009. But Biden, who has seen this material, says he has seen no hard evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. Basically, Biden is saying that the intel was bunk. And the press corpslolly-gagging on that Niger side roadhas made little effort to probe that.
Uranium-from-Africa? The item was chosen for its high drama; it has those entertaining crudely forged documents (although no one seems to be asking who forged them), and it has that stirring honest ambassador. And Niger was chosen for its murkthe story is driven by several conflations in which the press corps has taken delight. Here at THE HOWLER, we stand with that mailer; without prejudging what a probe would show, wed like to see a real probe of these matters. But if we let the press corps play with the facts, and if we let them dawdle on that side road, well never see a real investigation. Clinton had it right on Larry King Livethis Niger matter is just no big deal. An American president cites British intelligence, and that is supposed to be a Big Scandal? But then, Perfect Storms are built on spinand they allow a lazy press to ignore much larger patterns.
WHY COULDNT STATE DO THAT: From this mornings e-mail:
FROM THE DESK OF:CHUKO OKONJIOur question, which is semi-serious: How come we can see through these phony documents from Africa, but for five solid months, from October through March, the State Department says that it couldnt?
The Daily update
BALZ GETS IT RIGHT: And yes, this Storm is built on hype and spun facts. With that in mind, we sang high praise to Dan Balz and Walter Pincus for their opening paragraph this morning:
BALZ AND PINCUS: If President Bushs White House is known for anything, it is competence at delivering a disciplined message and deftness in dealing with bad news. That reputation has been badly damaged by the administrations clumsy efforts to explain how a statement based on disputed intelligence ended up in the presidents State of the Union address.Omigod! They got it right! They said that the intel in question was disputed, not that it was wrong. Quickly, the pair scored again:
BALZ AND PINCUS: But the dominant forces appear to have been the determination by White House officials to protect the president for using 16 questionable words about Iraqs attempts to buy uranium in Africa and a fierce effort by the Central Intelligence Agency to protect its reputation through bureaucratic infighting that has forced the president's advisers to repeatedly alter their initial version of events.Omigod! They did it again! But then, how hard can it be for professional writers to use accurate terms to describe the Bush statement? Answer: Once a Perfect Storm starts to build, it can be very, very hard. For example, Joel Achenbach engages in conventional overstatement on page one of this mornings Style section. Using a stronger term which really cant be defended, Achenbach refers to the presidents use of incorrect information about Iraq in his State of the Union address. But this, of course, has been the norm; like many others, William Raspberry described Bushs statement as a falsehood, although no one has shown that the statement was false. Indeed, heres what Colin Powellhes never wrongsaid about Bushs statement:
PINCUS (7/11/03): Powell noted yesterday that the British government continues to believe in the information it produced. I would not dispute them or disagree with them or say theyre wrong and were right, because intelligence is of that nature, Powell said. Some people have more sources on a particular issue. Some people have greater confidence in their analysis.State was the biggest skeptic on uranium-from-Africa, but even Powell wont say that the Brits are wrong. Yes, the intel has been disputed. And yes, that 16-word statement was questionable. But Perfect Storms require hype and embellishment, and so Raspberryand the press in generalkeep misspeaking, calling it false. After that, they knock off for the day, and that larger pattern many mailers have noted goes completely unremarked and unexplored.