For the second time today, I have to agree with Tom Maguire. (I figure I owe it to him for being nice enough to point out that I’d expressed my doubts about Joseph Wilson’s character long ago, something I’d actually forgotten.)
Tom is surely right to say (scroll down to the bottom of the post) that today’s big news — much bigger than the unsurprising revelation that Bush and Cheney were in the loop when it came to using classified information to trash Joseph Wilson — is the revelation that the infamous Sixteen Words about Nigerien yellowcake in the January 2003 State of the Union Address were known to be false when they were spoken.
Here’s the relevant passage from the Washington Post version of the story. (I’ve highlighted the key paragraph):
Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for denying under oath that he disclosed Plame’s CIA employment to journalists. There is no public evidence to suggest Libby made any such disclosure with Cheney’s knowledge. But according to Libby’s grand jury testimony, described for the first time in legal papers filed this week, Cheney “specifically directed” Libby in late June or early July 2003 to pass information to reporters from two classified CIA documents: an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and a March 2002 summary of Wilson’s visit to Niger.
One striking feature of that decision — unremarked until now, in part because Fitzgerald did not mention it — is that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before.
United Nations inspectors had exposed the main evidence for the uranium charge as crude forgeries in March 2003, but the Bush administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained they had additional, secret evidence they could not disclose. In June, a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair’s role in promoting the story. With no ally left, the White House debated whether to abandon the uranium claim and became embroiled in bitter finger-pointing about whom to fault for the error. A legal brief filed for Libby last month said that “certain officials at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department each sought to avoid or assign blame for intelligence failures relating to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”
It was at that moment that Libby, allegedly at Cheney’s direction, sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation. Libby made careful selections of language from the 2002 estimate, quoting a passage that said Iraq was “vigorously trying to procure uranium” in Africa.
The first of those conversations, according to the evidence made known thus far, came when Libby met with Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, on June 27, 2003. In sworn testimony for Fitzgerald, according to a statement Woodward released on Nov. 14, 2005, Woodward said Libby told him of the intelligence estimate’s description of Iraqi efforts to obtain “yellowcake,” a processed form of natural uranium ore, in Africa. In an interview Friday, Woodward said his notes showed that Libby described those efforts as “vigorous.”
Libby’s next known meeting with a reporter, according to Fitzgerald’s legal filing, was with Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, on July 8, 2003. He spoke again to Miller, and to Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, on July 12.
At Cheney’s instruction, Libby testified, he told Miller that the uranium story was a “key judgment” of the intelligence estimate, a term of art indicating there was consensus on a question of central importance.
In fact, the alleged effort to buy uranium was not among the estimate’s key judgments, which were identified by a headline and bold type and set out in bullet form in the first five pages of the 96-page document.
Unknown to the reporters, the uranium claim lay deeper inside the estimate, where it said a fresh supply of uranium ore would “shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons.” But it also said U.S. intelligence did not know the status of Iraq’s procurement efforts, “cannot confirm” any success and had “inconclusive” evidence about Iraq’s domestic uranium operations.
Iraq’s alleged uranium shopping had been strongly disputed in the intelligence community from the start. In a closed Senate hearing in late September 2002, shortly before the October NIE was completed, then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet and his top weapons analyst, Robert Walpole, expressed strong doubts about the uranium story, which had recently been unveiled publicly by the British government. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, likewise, called the claim “highly dubious.” For those reasons, the uranium story was relegated to a brief inside passage in the October estimate.
But the White House Iraq Group, formed in August 2002 to foster “public education” about Iraq’s “grave and gathering danger” to the United States, repeatedly pitched the uranium story. The alleged procurement was a minor issue for most U.S. analysts — the hard part for Iraq would be enriching uranium, not obtaining the ore, and Niger’s controlled market made it an unlikely seller — but the Niger story proved irresistible to speechwriters. Most nuclear arguments were highly technical, but the public could easily grasp the link between uranium and a bomb.
Tenet interceded to keep the claim out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, but by Dec. 19 it reappeared in a State Department “fact sheet.” After that, the Pentagon asked for an authoritative judgment from the National Intelligence Council, the senior coordinating body for the 15 agencies that then constituted the U.S. intelligence community. Did Iraq and Niger discuss a uranium sale, or not? If they had, the Pentagon would need to reconsider its ties with Niger.
The council’s reply, drafted in a January 2003 memo by the national intelligence officer for Africa, was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq.
Bush put his prestige behind the uranium story in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address. Less than two months later, the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the principal U.S. evidence as bogus. A Bush-appointed commission later concluded that the evidence, a set of contracts and correspondence sold by an Italian informant, was “transparently forged.”
No, the threat that Iraq would acquire nuclear weapons wasn’t the only reason to go to war. But it was the only reason to go to war in a hurry, or so it seemed to me at the time. So when Bush and his friends deliberately hyped bogus intelligence designed to suggest that Iraq was actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons, they did exactly what all the irresponsible, anti-patriotic, shrill, partisan Democrats said they did. They lied the country into war.
Shakespeare had it right:
…if the cause be not good,
the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make,
when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle,
shall join together at the latter day
and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’
some swearing, some crying for a surgeon,
some upon their wives left poor behind them,
some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left.
I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle;
for how can they charitably dispose of any thing,
when blood is their argument?
Now, if these men do not die well,
it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it.
— Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1.