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WHAT PROBABLY HAPPENED! How did uranium make the State of the Union? Here’s what probably happened:
FRIDAY, JULY 23, 2004

COPY CATS: Several readers wrote to say that the jury’s still out on the matter of Sandy Berger’s “copies.” Many news orgs have said that Berger only worked with copies of documents, not the originals. Readers have said that this isn’t clear yet. As far as we know, they are right.

Meanwhile, add the National Archives to the list of deeply dysfunctional agencies. Apparently, they only keep close watch on their documents after they think that some are missing. Would it kill them to number and monitor documents before they think that some have been swiped? Let’s see—could they actually keep track of the documents a person takes, then make him return them before he leaves? That’s how it works at our public library. Any chance that Archives staff could check out this complex arrangement?

WHAT PROBABLY HAPPENED: It hasn’t been a good week for Kerry, with one adviser—Sandy Berger—getting outed for conduct that is, at best, inexcusable, and another adviser—Joseph Wilson—becoming a partisan punching-bag. Readers keep writing in Wilson’s defense; we’ll offer one last general overview below. But in the meantime, with Nexis down and stopping work on planned topics, let’s move on to a different question. How did uranium-from-Africa end up in Bush’s State of the Union Address to begin with? Incomparably, we’ll suggest what probably happened, a rumination that will take us back to that famous meeting described in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack—the meeting where George Tenet told a skeptical president that WMD in Iraq was a “slam dunk.”

As we have noted, that “slam dunk” meeting is almost surely the most cited anecdote from Woodward’s book. As typically presented, it shows an alert president challenging the quality of the intelligence, then being (falsely) reassured by a dopy CIA chief. But the story, while pleasing, makes little sense as presented (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/04). Main problem: Why was this meeting even being held? As Woodward shows, Bush and Cheney had been pushing WMD since August 2002; but the “slam dunk” meeting occurred four months later, on December 21, 2002. Why was Bush getting briefed at this late date? Woodward simply doesn’t say. And he fails to say what happened next. If Bush expressed doubts on the WMD, what sort of follow-up occurred? This seems like an obvious question—and Woodward fails to address it.

Here’s what probably happened:

We would guess that the 12/21/02 meeting was being held to plan the WMD portions of Bush’s upcoming State of the Union Address. (Nothing wrong with that.) And we’d guess that, when Bush expressed concern about CIA honcho John McLaughlin’s presentation, he was mainly suggesting that the proffered evidence wouldn’t make a convincing public presentation. Woodward doesn’t say why this meeting was held, but there are hints that this is the subtext. Here’s Woodward’s description of Bush’s reaction:

WOODWARD (page 249): When McLaughlin concluded, there was a look on the president’s face of, What’s this? And then a brief moment of silence.

“Nice try,” Bush said. “I don’t think this is quite—it’s not something that Joe Public would understand or gain a lot of confidence from.”

Bush’s statement about “Joe Public” suggests that he was mainly concerned about the way this presentation would strike average citizens—when they watch the State of the Union, for example. Andrew Card also seemed to be watching McLaughlin with this thought in mind:
WOODWARD (continuing directly): Card was also underwhelmed. The presentation was a flop. In terms of marketing, the examples didn’t work, the charts didn’t work, the photos were not gripping, the [taped telephone] intercepts were less than compelling.
Card also seems to be wondering how the presentation would strike Joe Public—how it would work as a bit of “marketing.” The conclusion of Woodward’s short treatment also suggests that this meeting was held to plan some sort of public presentation:
WOODWARD (page 250): “Needs a lot more work,” Bush told Card and Rice. “Lets get some people who have actually put together a case for a jury.” He wanted some lawyers, prosecutors if need be. They were going to have to go public with something.
Maybe they should have called John Edwards! At any rate, we’d suggest that this meeting was probably held to plan the presentation on WMD that would soon be coming in the State of the Union. Bush and Card felt that McLaughlin’s examples would make a less-then-compelling public case. Joe Public would be underwhelmed.

Our guess? This failed presentation produced a search for more compelling examples. This may be why the White House returned to the shaky example of uranium-from-Africa. One month later, Bush delivered the SOTU, and he included this item—but he had to source to British intelligence, intelligence the US says it has never seen. Five months later, Wilson’s New York Times op-ed challenged Bush’s claim on uranium-from-Africa. The White House said, the very next day, that this claim—based on unreviewed foreign intel—shouldn’t have been in the speech.

We’d guess that this is what probably happened. This explains why that December meeting was being held, and why the White House went back to uranium—went back to a claim which they couldn’t prove, a claim they had to source to the British.

WHAT WILSON SAID: That said, readers continue defending Joe Wilson, often saying, quite correctly, that his original New York Times op-ed was balanced, nuanced and fair. We agree with that proposition. Here’s what the Honest Ambassador said in that important piece:

WILSON (7/6/03): I met with Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick at the embassy [in Niger]. For reasons that are understandable, the embassy staff has always kept a close eye on Niger's uranium business. I was not surprised, then, when the ambassador told me that she knew about the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq—and that she felt she had already debunked them in her reports to Washington. Nevertheless, she and I agreed that my time would be best spent interviewing people who had been in government when the deal supposedly took place, which was before her arrival.

I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

Wilson’s conclusion? “It was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place,” he judged. But Bush hadn’t said that a transaction had actually occurred—only that Iraq had sought uranium. Clearly, Wilson’s article helped display the weakness of Bush’s claim, based as it was on (unreviewed) foreign intel. But in his original New York Times piece, Wilson didn’t claim to have shown that Bush’s statement was actually false. Wilson’s original piece was nuanced and fair. He didn’t go beyond what he knew.

Over time, that changed. Consider Wilson’s piece in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times. The Honest Ambassador now made a larger claim about what he found in Africa:

WILSON (7/21/04): For the last two weeks, I have been subjected—along with my wife, Valerie Plame—to a partisan Republican smear campaign...

This is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2002 when I was asked by the CIA to investigate a report that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase several hundred tons of uranium yellowcake from the West African country of Niger in order to reconstruct Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

I went to Niger, investigated and told the CIA that the report was unfounded.

If Wilson’s words mean what they say, he is now making a larger claim. He says he told the CIA that “a report that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase several hundred tons of uranium yellowcake” from Niger was “unfounded.” Originally, Wilson only said it was “highly doubtful” that a purchase had been made. Now, he often makes it sound like he showed something larger—that there had not even been an approach.

Nit-pickers of the world, unite! You will now start parsing hard, proving that Wilson’s claims are consistent. But Wilson often claims, or seems to claim, that he showed that Iraq made no approach. This represents an overstatement—an overstatement he didn’t make in his original piece.

Over the last year, Wilson’s presentations have foundered on a simple fact—a fact he has never seemed able to grasp. Here it is: Joe Wilson doesn’t know if Iraq sought uranium in Africa. Two weeks ago, Lord Butler looked at the British intelligence, and he said that the intel was good on this point. What was Wilson supposed to say? He doesn’t even know what is in it!

Furious partisans will shake their fists and insist that none of this really matters. But it does really matter, in one key way. Wilson has overstated so many things that the Republican Party’s current attacks have a measure of truth to them. For example, he has persistently called Bush’s statement a “lie,” although he doesn’t know if the statement is true or false. He seemed to acknowledge that fact in his original piece, but slowly slid into overstatement.

Bush didn’t know if Iraq sought uranium. For that reason, he shouldn’t have said that he did, and he took a load of heat for his 16-word statement. But Wilson doesn’t know if Iraq sought uranium either. He is now starting to take some heat for acting as if he did.

Furious partisans will shake their fists and insist that none of this really matters. And of course, it doesn’t matter—unless you care about the truth, and unless you want Kerry to win.

PARSE THIS: Wilson was careful and accurate—back at the start. Now, he’s often disingenuous. Here he is again in the LATimes, spinning one of the charges against him:

WILSON (7/21/03): [I]t has been suggested that my work for the CIA, rather than debunking the Niger claim, supported it. Although some analysts continued to believe that the Iraqis were interested in purchasing Niger uranium, that is a far cry from Bush’s claim in the State of the Union: “British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” My report said there was no evidence that such a thing occurred in Niger.
It has been “suggested” that his report supported the Niger claim? In fact, in their recent report, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously stated that “for most analysts, the information in the report lent more credibility to the original CIA report on the uranium deal.” Indeed, this is one of the committee’s formal conclusions, agreed to by all the committee’s eight Democrats. Yes, Wilson’s statement above, if carefully parsed, can be defended as technically accurate. But it’s also self-serving and plainly misleading. So was this prior paragraph:
WILSON (7/21/03): [M]y enemies claim I based my conclusions about the Niger claim on documents that the Senate report now suggests I couldn’t have seen. But the truth is that I made it clear in the New York Times article that I had never seen the written documents concerning the alleged sale between Iraq and Niger. By then, however, as I wrote, news accounts had already "pointed out that the documents had glaring errors—they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government—and were probably forged.”
Wilson doesn’t specifically say who these “enemies” are. But the Senate report is quite clear on this point; it says that Wilson misled the Washington Post in June 2003, leading the paper to think that he had seen and debunked those famous forged documents. Wilson did make it clear—in his New York Times piece—that he hadn’t seen the documents. But the unanimous committee raised a different complaint; it specifically said that he had misstated this matter several weeks earlier, when he dealt with the Post’s Walter Pincus. (Wilson now seems to say that the Post misquoted him.) But L. A. Times readers won’t have to know that. Instead, Wilson shoots down a less serious claim, one made by unspecified “enemies.”

Wilson was measured and fair—at the start. Now, he often seems to misstate. Some readers keep saying it doesn’t matter. And they’re right—it doesn’t matter. Unless they want John Kerry to win. Unless they want change in the White House.