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CONDI’S NOTES! Rice didn’t read the entire report. Why shouldn’t such a slacker be fired?

MONDAY, JULY 21, 2003

HOW MUCH DID SHE READ, AND WHEN DID SHE READ IT: Last Friday, the White House released eight pages from the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraqi WMD. We congratulate the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and Dana Priest for stressing the most remarkable fact from the press corps’ Friday briefing. Their article led the Saturday Post. Headline: “Warning in Iraq Report Unread/Bush, Rice Did Not See State’s Objection.” Here was the startling first paragraph:

MILBANK/PRIEST: President Bush and his national security adviser did not entirely read the most authoritative prewar assessment of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, including a State Department claim that an allegation Bush would later use in his State of the Union address was “highly dubious,” White House officials said yesterday.
As the transcript of the session shows, the “senior official” who briefed reporters did say that neither President Bush nor Condoleezza Rice had read the entire 90-page document. Here is the Milbank/Priest summary:
MILBANK/PRIEST: A senior administration official who briefed reporters yesterday said neither Bush nor national security adviser Condoleezza Rice read the NIE in its entirety. “They did not read footnotes in a 90-page document,” said the official, referring to the “Annex” that contained the State Department’s dissent…The official said Bush was “briefed” on the NIE’s contents, but “I don’t think he sat down over a long weekend and read every word of it.”
“The president of the United States is not a fact-checker,” the briefer memorably said at one point. The briefer also clearly stated that Rice had not read the full report.

Why does this matter? In the short term, the briefer was making an improbable claim. He was claiming that, because neither Bush nor Rice read the full report, they had not seen the “footnote” in which the State Department voiced its doubts about the claim that Saddam sought uranium in Niger. The main part of the NIE included a consensus belief of the six agencies involved—Saddam probably had sought uranium in Africa, they judged. But State had lodged a vigorous dissent; the briefer was claiming that Rice hadn’t seen it because she hadn’t read the entire report.

Who was right about the uranium matter? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. (Note to readers: Neither do you!) But the notion that Rice didn’t read this entire report is, in a phrase, simply shocking. What exactly does Rice do, if she can’t be bothered to read 90-page reports—reports laying out the key intelligence which will take a nation to war? Again, the notion that Rice didn’t know what State said is, in our view, highly improbable. But if the briefer’s claim is taken at face value, Rice has committed an act of gross misfeasance. It’s bad enough that Bush didn’t read the full report. But if Rice didn’t read the full 90 pages—if Rice didn’t know what State had said—it’s clear that she ought to be fired.

But don’t worry. Though Milbank threw it in their faces, the pundit corps will know what to do—they’ll overlook this remarkable statement. Rice has long been a press corps untouchable; quite clearly, nothing she can say is so bizarre that mainstream pundits will ever take notice. (By contrast, Joe Conason did confront Condi. You know what to do. Just click here.) After 9/11, for example, Rice made a truly remarkable statement; she claimed that no one could have imagined that terrorists would hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. Although intelligence sources had warned against that very thing, the mainstream press overlooked her weird comment. Recently, she seemed to say that she only learned about Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger on June 8—although Nicholas Kristof began reporting the story in the May 6 New York Times. Now, we’re told that Rice didn’t know about State’s objection—because she couldn’t get off her ass long enough to read a 90-page report. Our question: Is there anything Rice does know? And what in the world is so hapless a person doing in so high an office?

Again, we find it hard to believe that the briefer’s claim is true. We would assume that Rice did know about State’s objection, and the White House just doesn’t want to say so. But Milbank was right to lead with the briefer’s astonishing statement, and the pundit corps should examine it hard. Is “Cliff’s Notes” the model for Rice-at-war? The Washington press corps should get off their duffs and pursue this astonishing statement.

IN PRAISE OF DUAL SOURCING: In the aftermath of David Kelly’s suicide, the BBC has said that Kelly was the source for its controversial report about British intelligence. Warren Hoge reports the story in this morning’s NYT. This is the dangerous paragraph:

HOGE: The announcement further undermined the authority of the hotly contested [BBC] report in that Dr. Kelly, 59, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq and an adviser to the Ministry of Defense, was not a senior intelligence official involved in preparing the dossier, as the network had called its anonymous source.
Did the BBC “sex up” its own report? Did Kelly somehow “sex up” what he knew? We don’t know, but Kelly’s death will move this story forward. Meanwhile, several stories have brought to mind the power of that old “two sources” rule. It’s true—news orgs put themselves at peril when they go with single sources. Take honest ambassador Joe Wilson, for example. Wilson’s judgment may well have been accurate; it may well be that oversight in Niger was so great that Iraq couldn’t have purchased uranium there. But it’s fairly clear that, in his public appearances, Wilson has stated facts that are not in evidence (he doesn’t know if his report was sent to Cheney, for example), and it’s fairly clear that Wilson’s enthusiasm has sometimes exceeded his logic. Wilson judged that Saddam couldn’t have made an actual purchase—but Bush’s SOTU statement only said that Iraq sought uranium in Africa. Wilson’s finding didn’t contradict Bush’s claim—but Wilson, apparently missing this point, told the New Republic that the Admin was “lying” when it made its SOTU statement (this was back in Wilson’s anonymous days). Single sources often get beyond what they know, which is why that old “two sources” rule provides a brilliant hedge against error. We have no doubt of Wilson’s good faith. But the press corps’ early, enthusiastic embrace of his story sometimes took them beyond what they knew.

Meanwhile, how many “senior” sources did Dana Priest have for her report in yesterday’s Post? We suspect she only had one source, but given the way her piece is written, it could be as many as three. Because we hate being played for fools, we’re always annoyed when professional writers obscure the number of sources this way. If Priest was only quoting one source, she should have just come out and said it.

The Daily update

NOAH’S MARK: Last Tuesday, we issued an incomparable warning. With the press corps suddenly turned against Bush, basic facts would soon be spun about the uranium story. Two days later, Harold Meyerson made us look like geniuses, posting a bizarrely inaccurate column in the Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/17/03). By the way, the Post has behaved very badly in failing to correct Meyerson’s howling misstatements. When will this newspaper tell its readers that they were grossly misinformed?

Yep! Meyerson’s poppycock made us pure prophets. But in fact, another odd presentation turned up in Slate just hours after we posted. Last Tuesday afternoon, Tim Noah began his “Chatterbox” report with these surprising remarks:

NOAH (pgh 1): Chatterbox is gratified that the country has come to share his enthusiasm for dissecting the lies uttered by or on behalf of President Bush. Or rather, for dissecting one lie: Bush’s assertion, in this year’s State of the Union address, that Saddam had “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This information, the Bushies now concede, was based almost entirely on documents that the CIA and the White House knew to be false. (Pedants’ corner: Bush actually said that British intelligence had “learned” about Saddam’s yellowcake safari, but the attribution amounted to a lie because you can’t “learn” something that isn’t true.) [Noah’s emphasis]
What made that paragraph so surprising? Noah’s claim about the Bushies’ concession. According to Noah, Bushies “now concede” that Bush’s 16-word statement “was based almost entirely on documents that the CIA and the White House knew to be false” at the time of Bush’s address. That would, of course, be a stunning concession. And Noah provided a source for his claim. In his article, the words “now concede” were an underlined link. Presumably, the item to which his posting linked would show the Bushies’ concession.

But that’s what’s so strange about Noah’s statement. Noah links to the White House transcript of Condoleezza Rice’s July 11 press availability. But in that session, Rice doesn’t “concede” that the White House knew the docs were fake; in fact, she says exactly the opposite. Believe it or not, this is Noah’s idea of the Bushies “conceding” that they knew the Niger documents were false:

RICE: Now, the sentence in question comes from the notion the Iraqis were seeking yellow cake…What we’ve said subsequently is, knowing what we now know, that some of the Niger documents were apparently forged, we wouldn’t have put this in the President’s speech. But that’s knowing what we know now.

The President of the United States—we have a higher standard for what we put in presidential speeches. The British continue to stand by their report. The CIA’s NIE continues to talk about efforts to acquire yellow cake in various African countries. But we have a high standard for the President’s speeches. We don’t make the President his own fact witness; we have a high standard for them. That’s why we send them out for clearance. And had we heard from the DCI or the Agency that they didn’t want that sentence in the speech, it would not have been in the speech. The President was not going to get up and say something that the CIA—

QUESTION: Dr. Rice, it sounds as if you’re blaming the CIA here.

RICE: No, this is a clearance process. And a lot of things happen. We’ve said now we wouldn’t have put it in the speech if we had known what we know now…I can assure you that the President did not knowingly, before the American people, say something that we thought to be false. It’s just outrageous that anybody would claim that. He did not knowingly say anything that we thought to be false. And, in fact, we still don’t know the status of Saddam Hussein’s efforts to acquire yellow cake. What we know is that one of the documents underlying that case was found to be a forgery.

As she continued, Rice vouched for the CIA’s good faith. “We wouldn’t put anything knowingly in the speech that was false,” she said. “I’m sure they wouldn’t put anything knowingly in the speech that was false.” According to Noah, this was how the Bushies “conceded” that they knew the Niger documents were phonies.

Why did Noah make his odd claim? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But we’ll remind our readers of what we said: With the press corps suddenly on the prowl against Bush, many basic facts will be spun. We’ll offer one more point tomorrow about this Noah piece.

Meanwhile, our incomparable insight is being confirmed each day. A Standard Story is developing about uranium-from-Africa, just as we predicted. For example, here is William Raspberry opening paragraph in this morning’s Post:

RASPBERRY: The flap over how the falsehood about uranium purchases from Niger made it into the president’s State of the Union message should not obscure what for me is the most troubling fact: Key members of the Bush administration, convinced in their hearts that America needed to destroy Saddam Hussein, thought it reasonable to exaggerate the threat and deliberately stretch the facts in order to sell the American people on that necessity.
For the record, we don’t necessarily disagree with Raspberry’s larger assessment. But The Razz is exaggerating and stretching facts too! According to Raspberry, Bush’s statement was “a falsehood” (no one knows that) “about Niger” (the claim involved three African countries). Raspberry omits a third claim that has been appearing, as with Noah—the Bushies knew the Niger docs were fake at the time. The Perfect Storm tale is spreading fast, based on facts which no one has demonstrated.

Readers, the press corps always behaves this way. We reported it when it was done to Gore. We’re reporting it now, when it’s done to Bush. But suddenly, your opinion has changed. Suddenly, the press corps’ conduct is perfectly fine, and you are writing troubled e-mails about our puzzling “motives.”