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Caveat lector

IGNORED AND NEGLECTED! Biden says the nuclear intel was bunk. But the press? They prefer Perfect Storms:


WHAT WE AREN’T GETTING: A Wednesday e-mail helps define what we haven’t 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 view—uranium-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, Biden—who still generally supports the war in Iraq—repeated this claim on last Sunday’s 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 didn’t need them to win the war, but as I said—Dick Lugar and many others said at the time, we don’t need these forces going in with us to win the war, we need these forces going in with us so they’re there when we try to win the peace. It cost us two things. It cost us support in winning the peace—hyping the intelligence and going prematurely—and 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 I’m paraphrasing, the Iraqis have reconstituted their nuclear capability. There was no hard evidence of that, that I’ve ever seen, that I’ve 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 I’ve ever seen, that I’ve seen,” Biden said.

We agree with our e-mailer’s 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 Biden’s claim? No, you haven’t, and no, you won’t. 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 judgment—the 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 Biden’s larger claim correct? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t really know, and as the press corps entertains itself on the Niger side road, there’s little chance we will ever find out.

Biden’s 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 there’s 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 corps—lolly-gagging on that Niger side road—has 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 murk—the 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, we’d 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, we’ll never see a real investigation. Clinton had it right on Larry King Live—this 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 spin—and they allow a lazy press to ignore “much larger patterns.”

WHY COULDN’T STATE DO THAT: From this morning’s e-mail:

My name is Engineer chuko okonji, The director of public works Niger delta development commission (NDDC) established by the present government. Please your assistance is highly solicited for an urgent business transaction. The commission rounded off the year’s operation in December in the year 2002 fiscal year and just as account were been balance, the sum of U.S.D $25.2million dollars. This sum of part of the budget allocation…
Our 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 couldn’t?

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 Bush’s 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 administration’s clumsy efforts to explain how a statement based on disputed intelligence ended up in the president’s 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 Iraq’s 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 morning’s “Style” section. Using a stronger term which really can’t be defended, Achenbach refers to “the president’s 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 Bush’s statement as a “falsehood,” although no one has shown that the statement was false. Indeed, here’s what Colin Powell—he’s never wrong—said about Bush’s 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 they’re wrong and we’re 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 won’t 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 Raspberry—and the press in general—keep 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.