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Caveat lector

FREEPER CREEP! It’s easy to pick and choose your facts. We used to mock Freepers for doing it:

FRIDAY, JULY 25, 2003

NO TECH: Does David Ignatius know his stuff? We can’t tell you with certainty. In his column in this morning’s Post, for example, he says he was probably wrong in April about that British intel. But in this morning's Post, Ignatius tries to fill in some blanks about that intelligence, and for those who are trying to judge this case, we think what he says is worth considering:

IGNATIUS: [T]he British intelligence cited by the president was almost certainly based on reporting by the French government. French intelligence sources say that their spy service closely monitors Niger’s uranium production, and France is known to be the most accurate source of information about Niger.

The British focused partly on a report that an Iraqi trade delegation had visited Niger in 1999. Because 70 percent of Niger’s exports are uranium, and because Iraq had bought more than 500 tons of uranium from Niger in the 1980s, the British concluded that the Iraqis were considering renewed uranium purchases. This view was reinforced by additional, post-1999 intelligence, which also almost certainly came from France. The British didn’t tell the United States, because sharing such sensitive information with a third country is an intelligence no-no.

Finally, neither the British dossier nor Bush’s reference to it had anything to do with documents that surfaced last year alleging that the Iraqis had actually purchased uranium from Niger. They were later branded “crude forgeries” by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who were given a copy by the United States. The British were unaware of the documents when they prepared the September dossier and learned of them only after the president’s State of the Union speech.

If Ignatius is wrong in any of these claims, we hope you’ll let us know. But his reporting tends to support a point we have made—a point which many e-mailers have misunderstood. His reporting tends to suggest that Bush’s 16-word statement may have been accurate. That is, it may be true that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.

We have cited this possibility many times, and many mailers have misread our claim. We have never said that Bush’s claim was “technically accurate;” indeed, we’re not sure what that claim would mean in this context. (When Bush said “learned,” he vouched for the accuracy of the Brit intel. We were among the first to make this pedestrian point, although readers continue to lecture us on it.) No, we haven’t said that the statement was “technically accurate;” we have said that the statement may simply be true. That is, it may be true that the Iraqi government was trying to acquire uranium in Africa.

And that’s part of the reason why we’ve said this flap is so peculiar. Clearly, there are many large questions about pre-war intelligence, and about the Bush Admin’s pre-Iraq claims. But in the case of this relatively minor item, we are talking about an American president citing British intelligence—and making a statement which may be accurate. Can this possibly be the basis on which the Admin is assailed for misconduct?

Much larger questions have arisen in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Was something fundamentally wrong with U.S. intel about Iraq? Were analysts pressured to cook the books? Did the Bush Admin knowingly make bogus claims? But largely, those questions have been swept aside as we fight our way down the Niger road. Did the Bush Admin mislead the public in the run-up to Iraq? We think that question deserves a full airing. But the 16-word statement played almost no role in the pre-war debate—and the statement may turn out to be accurate. Not technically accurate, just accurate—true, correct. We’ll try to follow the facts where they lead. But we find it hard to believe that this dusty side road is the key to the Bush Admin’s conduct.

FREEPER CREEP: Careful! Facts in these areas have been very murky, and many e-mailers are picking and choosing, selecting the facts they like. In a previous life, we mocked Freepers for that, but now it’s become common conduct. And it’s easy to find an anonymous official offering statements that “prove” your case. It’s easy to cherry-pick comments like that. We have a name for it now: Creeping Freeperism.

How reliable are anonymous officials? You have to be careful with their assertions. In April, for example, Ignatius had spoken to “western intelligence officials.” Here’s what the nameless folk had to say about those crudely forged documents:

IGNATIUS (4/10/03): The intelligence officials offered a tantalizing coda for conspiracy-mongers. They said the “crude forgery” received by U.N. weapons inspectors suggesting the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from Niger as part of their nuclear program was originally put in intelligence channels by France. The officials wouldn’t speculate on French motives.
Today, Ignatius says he was probably wrong to cite that claim; he says he doesn’t know where the forgeries came from. But others have gotten shaky info from their anonymous friends. For example, Nicholas Kristof broke the story of the honest ambassador back on May 6. He spoke to nameless officials too. And, though his story was generally accurate, he too got some bum information:
KRISTOF (5/6/03): I’m told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president’s office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
Kristof’s story is generally accurate, but as Joe Wilson has now made clear (see today’s Daily Show rerun, for example), he never even saw the documents which later were found to be forged. In the New Republic, Ackerman and Judis got the same bum info, also from anonymous folk.

Info in all these areas has been murky. As observers, we can pick and choose among the facts, but this practice may lead to lousy conclusions. Surprisingly, one of the most glaring examples of Freeper Creep can be found in the current New Republic editorial. Note the way the eds pick out an anonymous quote which they like:

THE NEW REPUBLIC: [E]ven if the president had intended to refer to Iraqi uranium purchases elsewhere in Africa, there are no grounds for believing this broader statement to be any more accurate than the specific Niger claim. The classified version of the NIE apparently does include references to possible Iraqi transactions elsewhere in Africa. But, according to a senior intelligence official quoted in The Washington Post, the intelligence about those countries is considered even less reliable than the discredited Niger claim.
For the record, the eds’ first statement is freepin’ unbelievable. There are no grounds for believing this broader statement to be any more accurate than the specific Niger claim? Really? We know the “specific Niger claim” was a hoax. Tony Blair still defends the broader statement. But more strikingly, note the use of the quote by that anonymous “senior official.” Does the NIE refer to attempts outside Niger? Oh heck, never mind, the editors say. An anonymous official has said it’s all bunk! And of course, those extra-Niger claims may be bunk. But especially after their weird dismissal of the “broader statement,” we were struck by how easy it is to toss out evidence based on anonymous quotes. After all, there are many quotes to choose from. The Post has also quoted Colin Powell, saying that the British intel may be right. And the Post has quoted at least one named intelligence expert, saying the Iraqis probably did make overtures for uranium in Niger.

We recall Roseanne Barr’s immortal words (or something like them) at the first American Comedy Awards (we think). “Isn’t this the kind of show we all used to make fun of?” she memorably asked. Sometimes, we find ourselves adapting her timeless insight: Aren’t these the kinds of slick deductions we used to mock Freepers for making?