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
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?