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Monday July 14, 2003

JUNE 25, 2003

Josh Marshall
A rose is a rose is a rose.

But a lie is, well … that’s really more an exaggeration. Unless, of course, it’s a misstatement. Except in cases involving weapons of mass destruction, when often it’s simply a matter of “over-hype.”

Actually, it’s all fairly hard for me to keep up with. All I know is that under George W. Bush the pundits who had no trouble calling Bill Clinton a liar have suddenly decided lying is a very subtle, hard-to-define, complex matter.

But let’s zoom in on one case of possible deception which is starting to look more and more clear-cut.

Last January, in his State of the Union Address, President Bush told the American people that Iraq had recently tried to purchase uranium from Niger. Later, of course, we discovered that the documents in question were forgeries — a low-budget hoax that the head of International Atomic Energy Agency’s Iraq inspections unit, Jacques Baute, was able to debunk with a few quick Google searches.

So when did the White House discover they were fakes?

On June 8th, Condi Rice conceded that the documents were fraudulent but told Tim Russert that the White House hadn’t known before the speech. “Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the Agency [i.e., the CIA], but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery.”

But Rice wouldn’t have had to look too far down into the “bowels of the Agency” since just about everyone in the intelligence community — and at least some people on her own National Security Council staff — had known the documents were phonies for almost a year.

Vice President Cheney had first asked the CIA to look into the matter. And in February 2002 the CIA sent an as-yet-unnamed former US Ambassador to Niger back to the country to investigate.

His report back was unambiguous: the story was bogus.

The White House first claimed that the CIA just hadn’t told them about its findings.

But in the last several weeks lots of people from the national security and intelligence apparatus have been coming forward to say that’s just not true.

First there was Nick Kristof in The New York Times on June 13th. His sources told him that while CIA head George Tenet may not have told President Bush himself that the documents were fakes, “lower C.I.A. officials did tell both the vice president’s office and National Security Council staff members.”

And that wasn’t all. The State Department’s intelligence arm (the Bureau of Intelligence and Research) came to the same conclusion. A recently retired I&R staffer, Greg Thielmann, told Kristof he was “quite confident” that that judgment was passed all the way to the top of the State Department — presumably to Colin Powell.

Then last week in The New Republic, the unidentified former ambassador to Niger confirmed to authors Spencer Ackerman and John Judis that the CIA had in fact sent his report to the vice president’s office. “They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie,” he told the magazine.

Some administration defenders now say that no one involved in writing the speech knew that the documents were forgeries. But it’s pretty hard — scratch that, impossible — to believe Cheney didn’t see the speech before it was delivered. And even though the veep is supposedly trying to build a shadow NSC in his office, it’s still not that big an operation. Could CIA have sent the report to Cheney’s office without Cheney himself getting wind of it?

On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”

At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”

The White House disputes Gjelten’s source’s account. But the upshot of the source’s accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.

I’m willing to believe the president didn’t know. Presidents, after all, rely on their top advisors. But it seems clear that many of his chief advisors must have known.

The only other explanation is extreme incompetence at the vice president’s office or a desire to believe that was so great that it overrode all the evidence.

Fifteen years ago, the president’s father was widely ridiculed for claiming he was “out of the loop” on key points about the Iran-contra affair. Now his son and all his top advisers are claiming they were similarly “out of the loop” on a key point about the centerpiece of their entire foreign policy agenda.

To paraphrase Bob Dole’s 1996 election zinger, where’s the ridicule?

Josh Marshall is editor of His column
appears in The Hill each Wednesday. Email:


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