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Caveat lector

DESPERATELY SEEKING URANIUM? Condi doesn’t read reports—and Andrea keeps on conflating:

TUESDAY, JULY 22, 2003

NAILING DOWN THE ESTIMATE: It’s hard to think of a more insulting statement that the one that White House briefer made. Speaking to the nation’s press, the “senior official” said that neither President Bush nor Condoleezza Rice read the National Intelligence Estimate which was prepared last October (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/21/03). According to the briefer, Rice didn’t read the full 90 pages, and so she didn’t know about State’s objections to some of the intelligence on which Bush was working. Amazing, isn’t it? Just drink in the depth of that screaming insult, an insult to every American. Soldiers are being killed every day in Iraq, and we’re supposed to nod our heads when we’re told that the National Security Adviser didn’t bother finishing a 90-page report. The president—“not a fact-checker,” we’re told—didn’t read it either. Quite correctly, the Washington Post put these startling remarks right at the top of Saturday’s front page. And the Washington press corps—no great readers themselves—have chosen to ignore them completely. Ignoring the stunning claim about Rice’s alleged sloth, they have preferred to keep spinning the facts of their latest semi-embellished mini-scandal. Larger matters are being ignored as we head down that Niger side road.

How odd has the latest Perfect Storm been? We saw one of its oddities acted out on last night’s Hardball. Ralph Reed came on the show to defend Bush—and he gave a fairly accurate account of known facts. In our view, Reed actually gave a more balanced account than many big scribes have been doing:

REED: What is clear is that in October of 2002 there was a National Intelligence estimate, an official document that reflected the consensus views of the six major US intelligence agencies, and that document concluded that, within ten years, without intervention, Saddam Hussein would have a nuclear weapon. It also concluded that Saddam Hussein had been seeking to obtain uranium from three African nations. So this particular reservation that you’re talking about was only about the Niger evidence, where it later turned out there were forged documents. It was not about the broad conclusion that the president made.
We never thought we’d see the day when we endorsed Reed’s account of a set of facts, but that strikes us as a fairly concise (if imperfect) account. In fact, the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 did at least discuss reports that Saddam was seeking uranium in three African nations—Somalia, Congo and Niger. Here was George Tenet’s account of the matter in his July 11 statement:
TENET: In October, the intelligence community produced a classified, 90-page National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs…[T]he report contained three paragraphs that discuss Iraq’s significant 550-metric-ton uranium stockpile and how it could be diverted while under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguard. These paragraphs also cited reports that Iraq began “vigorously trying to procure” more uranium from Niger and two other African countries, which would shorten the time Baghdad needed to produce nuclear weapons…With regard to reports that Iraq had sought uranium from two other countries, the estimate says: “We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.”
According to the quoted language, US intelligence couldn’t confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium. But Bush only said in his speech that Iraq sought uranium in Africa. In his statement, Tenet also noted that British intelligence “publish[ed] an unclassified dossier [in the fall of 2002] that mentioned reports of Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa.” When US intelligence questioned the claim, “our colleagues said they were confident in their reports and left it in their document.”

What did the NIE actually say about the pursuit of uranium? At this point, it’s hard to say; although the White House gave reporters eight pages of excerpts, those excerpts haven’t been published (as far as we know), so we have to rely on press corps accounts. According to Ken Fireman in last Saturday’s Newsday, the NIE did not reach a judgment about whether Saddam sought uranium in Afrique. “The issue of African uranium was not cited as a key finding, but was mentioned later in the report with no judgment offered as to its veracity,” Fireman wrote.

We can’t vouch for the accuracy of that summary, but if it’s true, here’s where matters seem to stand. The Brits say Saddam did seek uranium. The NIE cited reports to that effect without drawing a conclusion. If Fireman’s account of the NIE is correct, then Reed overstated what the NIE said. But we’ve seen many wildly inaccurate accounts coming from members of the press, including accounts which call Bush’s statement a “falsehood.” As far as we know, no one has shown that to be the case. Tenet said the statement shouldn’t have been in the speech because the evidence “did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches.” Without question, it may turn out that Bush’s statement went beyond what he solidly knew. But when big pundits say the word “falsehood,” they move far beyond what they know. The Brits still say that Saddam sought uranium. No one has shown that he didn’t. (Josh Marshall says the Brits’ evidence may be weak. We await his further report.)

Meanwhile, as we focus on this minor point, we ignore much larger questions. We were told last week that Condoleezza Rice didn’t even read the NIE, and didn’t even know what the State Department thought. We’re told that the president didn’t read the report, either. In our view, insults so startling must be addressed. But the press corps is down that Niger road—and yes, the corps is conflating wildly. Did Bush overstate? We can’t judge that yet. But the press corps has been overstating. Keep reading for one prime example.

CONFLATION CENTRAL: Andrea Mitchell was conflating wildly on last night’s NBC Nightly News. This is one example:

MITCHELL: In fact, [Joe] Wilson was only one of three experts who warned the administration before the State of the Union that the Niger information didn’t check out.

As previously reported by NBC News, then-ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick reported it was false in February 2002. So did four-star Marine General Carlton Fulford.

So the warnings came to the White House more than a year before the State of the Union. Wilson reached his judgment without ever seeing the forged documents that led to the charge.

Mitchell implies that Wilson’s report should have knocked out Bush’s statement. But Wilson reported that, due to extensive oversight in Niger, Iraq probably couldn’t complete a uranium sale there. “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place,” Wilson said in his July 6 New York Times piece. But this has nothing to do with whether Saddam was seeking uranium in Niger, and it has nothing to do with possible transactions in Congo or Somalia. Indeed, according to Tenet’s July 11 statement, Wilson himself reported a possible attempt to buy uranium in Niger:
TENET: [Wilson] reported back to us that one of the former Nigerien officials he met…said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.
Of course, that isn’t definitive information. But if Tenet is right, even Wilson reported an apparent attempt to get uranium in Niger. At any rate, Wilson’s report doesn’t contradict the wider claim that Saddam sought uranium. Mitchell’s report conflated foolishly. But as the press corps chases its Perfect Storm, such conflations are the corps’ leading export.

The Daily update

CONDIMENTS: Some have asked for our overall view about Bush-and-Iraq. Yes, we’d assume that intelligence may have been hyped in various ways, although the press corps’ refusal to do its job in the run-up to war surely compounded the problem. But though we’re not from Missouri, we want to be shown—and we think it’s very dangerous to let the press tell us the stories it likes. We were very struck as we watched last night’s news by the conflating that ran all through Mitchell’s report. Incredibly, Reed did give a more balanced account. We have low regard for the Washington press. They shouldn’t be allowed to make up preferred stories.