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HERSH GETS IT RIGHT! The Big Story here doesn’t seem to make sense. Back in March, Hersh asked the right questions:


THE BIG PICTURE: To all appearances, the press corps has dropped the 16 words—a weak example of alleged lying that took down a larger story. Condoleezza Rice has suffered real damage, and so, to a lesser extent, has George Bush. But the press corps’ examination was always half-hearted, and when Uday and Qusay gave it up in Mosul, the press corps took a hike on this story. They had always said that the story would die if the news from Iraq improved, and it didn’t take a lot of good news to drive this tale under the boards.

And that’s too bad, because the absurdity of the larger story will now go unexplored. Here are some things we’ve been asked to believe. Most of these oddities have gone unexplored and unremarked upon by the press:

  1. The full 90 pages. We’re supposed to believe that Condi Rice didn’t read the full National Intelligence Estimate. The pundit corps—not great readers themselves—seemed unfazed by this startling claim.

  2. Who knew? Much more implausibly, we’re supposed to believe that, because she didn’t read the full 90 pages, Rice didn’t know that the State Department had serious reservations about uranium-from-Africa. This is a truly amazing claim—a statement of massive incompetence. After all, even if Rice didn’t read the NIE, there were other ways to know what State thought. Months went by. Rice was still clueless.

  3. Who forged? We’re supposed to ignore the oddest part of this story—the fact that the CIA and the State Department couldn’t see through those crudely forged documents. According to the Standard Account, the crudely forged documents were so crudely forged that the IAEA shot them down in two hours. And that was the hapless IAEA, whom the Admin just loves to disparage! But American intelligence received the docs in October 2002, and only learned that they were forged when the IAEA said so last March. Very few questions have been asked about this puzzling story.

  4. Where was Condi? According to Rice—who never seems to know a thing—she didn’t know that the State Department had serious reservations about uranium-from-Africa. And she didn’t know that the CIA had similar reservations (whatever they were—see below). But she did know that about those Niger docs, and she knew that the documents seemed to show that Iraq was seeking major uranium. Despite that, we’re supposed to believe that she never had the documents checked, or asked about the examination. October turned into January, then into March, and she still didn’t know where the matter stood. Maybe these stories make sense to some. To us, they make no sense at all.
But none of this was being examined in the half-keistered 16-word flap. The press was constructing a Perfect Storm—bending and making up facts as was needed—and when Perfect Storms blow up Gotcha Gulch, real reporting often comes to an end. Why bother seeking out actual facts when you can invent the facts you need? Readers were handed a pleasing, simplified tale: Bush made a false statement about Niger. Meanwhile, much larger stories went unattended, unresearched, unexplored, undiscussed.

Who forged those crudely forged documents? And why didn’t U.S. intelligence spot them? Yes, Seymour Hersh was bending it good as he opened his March 31 piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/03). But in the rest of that New Yorker article, Hersh did ask the obvious questions. First, he noted how crudely forged the crudely forged docs really were:

HERSH: One senior I.A.E.A. official went further. He told me, “These documents are so bad that I cannot imagine that they came from a serious intelligence agency. It depresses me, given the low quality of the documents, that it was not stopped. At the level it reached, I would have expected more checking.”
After detailing the glaring problems with the documents, Hersh raised the obvious question—how could such hapless forgeries have escaped U.S. detection?
HERSH: The forgery became the object of widespread, and bitter, questions in Europe about the credibility of the United States. But it initially provoked only a few news stories in America, and little sustained questioning about how the White House could endorse such an obvious fake. On March 8th, an American official who had reviewed the documents was quoted in the Washington Post as explaining, simply, “We fell for it.”
Writing in late March, Hersh noted the press corps’ lack of interest. The revelation of the forgeries had “provoked only a few news stories in America;” there had been “little sustained questioning about how the White House could endorse such an obvious fake,” Hersh said. But that disinterest has only deepened. Indeed, the corps sustained its massive disinterest right on through its Perfect Storm. Obvious questions went unexplored as the press tramped that Niger side road.

Hersh provides a speculation about the provenance of the forged docs; he suggests that British intelligence produced the famous forged docs. Beyond that, an anonymous source says that such obvious fakes could not have escaped U.S. detection:

HERSH: “Somebody deliberately let something false get in there,” the former high-level intelligence official added. “It could not have gotten into the system without the agency being involved. Therefore it was an internal intention. Someone set someone up.”
Is that official right? We simply don’t know. And Hersh doesn’t know who forged these documents, as he states in his piece. But he asked the obvious questions in March: Who forged the crudely forged docs, and how did the docs escape detection? Four months later, these obvious questions are still ignored. Indeed, these obvious questions were widely ignored even as the corps staged its Perfect Storm. But Perfect Storms are very much like that. This Perfect Storm was built on spun facts—and the corps was pleased to avoid bigger questions. Some readers loved this Perfect Storm. In a word, we think they settled.

POPE GEORGE’S INFALLIBILITY: Perfect Storms don’t involve real reporting. With that in mind, here’s a question we’ve never seen discussed: What were the CIA’s objections to the British intelligence? To all appearances, the agency believed that it would be hard to complete a uranium sale in Niger. That judgment may have been perfectly sensible. But what were the CIA’s objections to the broader British claims about pursuit of uranium in other African countries? We’ve never really seen that discussed.

As described, the two memos sent to Steve Hadley in October voiced a few weak objections (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/03). Is there any chance that Rice ignored these objections because she thought the CIA was all wet? And maybe the State Department too? After all, that brilliant gang at the State Department couldn’t see through those crudely forged documents, and they sent Colin Powell off to the UN to praise that purloined term paper. And, judging by the public record, the CIA seemed to flip and reverse every three days on these topics. If you replaced Bush in the White House tomorrow, would you feel bound by these agencies’ judgments? Is there any chance that Rice simply thought that the Brits knew more about this than George Tenet? As we’ve noted, we don’t think the larger story here makes too much sense. But given the story the press corps has told, why can’t we simply imagine that Rice trusted Blair more than Tenet?

Of course, Tenet has been cast as beyond reproach. That’s the way these Perfect Storms work. The CIA said it, our readers have written! How dare the White House ignore this great man? As we’ve said, we think the Big Story here makes little sense. But when did our readers come up with these theories—that the CIA is presumed to be right, and that presidents have to agree with their judgments? We’d guess that our readers came up with these theories when they fell in love with a certain Storm. But that’s the nature of Perfect Storms. When Perfect Storms roar up Gotcha Gulch, they tend to wipe out ambiguity.

The Big Story here makes little sense. That’s where we’d direct your attention. But the CIA is not always right. When did we start thinking otherwise?