GWB teaches us what the meaning of “is” is

You tell me: is this CBS News story the funniest thing you’ve seen this week, or the saddest?

It turns out the CIA had objected to the inclusion of the “uranium from Niger” fairytale in the State of the Union address. So the White House rewrote the paragraph; instead of saying “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” Bush told the Congress and the country that “British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

According to the postmodernist ethics now being practiced by the Bush Administration, that addition made the assertion true, even though the underlying statement about uranium purchases was false, because it was in fact the case that British intelligence had prepared an analysis containing the (false) statement about uranium purchases. He never said that the Iraqis tried to buy uranium, he only said that the British had “learned” that the Iraqis tried to buy uranium. No problem.

I suppose you could say it depends on the meaning of the word “learned.” Does “learn” mean “acquire knowledge”? If so, then coming to believe a false assertion isn’t “learning,” any more than believing a false assertion is “knowing.” That would, I think, be the standard usage. Still, it wouldn’t completely strain the language to include picking up falsehoods, as in the sentence “Most of what I learned in my high school American History courses was b.s.”

That quibble may be good enough to avoid a criminal charge. (In any case, no one really expects Bush’s aides to be charged under 18 U.S.C. 1001, which makes it a felony to knowingly and willfully “falsify, conceal, or cover up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact” … “in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States.”) But morally it’s worthless: anyone hearing that speech was intended to believe that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, not merely that the Brits had a report that said so.

Note that Colin Powell, who doesn’t seem to have objected to putting that whopper in the State of the Union, carefully avoided using it himself in his speech at the UN. His assertion how that “no one tried to mislead the American people” is what one might call a second-order falsehood.

It’s quite possible that Bush didn’t know that he was telling a whopper. It’s even possible to believe that he didn’t learn at the time he had told one: it’s possible that Tenet, having lost the fight about what should go into the speech, didn’t want to keep punching after the bell, and that Powell let the whole thing pass in silence.

But now he knows. And now he has to choose. Was telling that untruth a bug, or a feature? If it was a bug, “honor and integrity” Bush needs to fire whoever put those mendacious words into his mouth.

Don’t hold your breath.

Note to Democrats: As long as the WMD issue seems to be part of an attempt to discredit the war effort, it’s a loser politically.

Repeat after me: “Character issue. Character issue. Character issue.”

(CBS) Senior administration officials tell CBS News the President’s mistaken claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa was included in his State of the Union address — despite objections from the CIA.

Before the speech was delivered, the portions dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were checked with the CIA for accuracy, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

CIA officials warned members of the President’s National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.

The White House officials responded that a paper issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion: “Iraq has … sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” As long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections and that’s how it was delivered.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” Mr. Bush said.

The statement was technically correct, since it accurately reflected the British paper. But the bottom line is the White House knowingly included in a presidential address information its own CIA had explicitly warned might not be true.

Today at a press conference during the President’s trip to Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell portrayed it as an honest mistake.

“There was no effort or attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in the administration to mislead or to deceive the American people,” said Powell.

But eight days after the State of the Union, when Powell addressed the U.N., he deliberately left out any reference to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa.

“I didn’t use the uranium at that point because I didn’t think that was sufficiently strong as evidence to present before the world,” Powell said.

That is exactly what CIA officials told the White House before the State of the Union. The top CIA official, Director George Tenet, was not involved in those discussions and apparently never warned the President he was on thin ice.

Secretary Powell said today he read the State of the Union speech before it was delivered and understood it had been seen and cleared by the intelligence community. But intelligence officials say the director of the CIA never saw the final draft.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com