The president’s critics are lying. Mr. Bush never claimed that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium from Niger. It is not true — as USA Today reported on page one Friday morning — that “tainted evidence made it into the President’s State of the Union address.” For the record, here’s what President Bush actually said in his SOTU: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Precisely which part of that statement isn’t true? The British government did say that it believed Saddam had sought African uranium. Is it possible that the British government was mistaken? Sure. Is it possible that Her Majesty’s government came by that belief based on an erroneous American intelligence report about a transaction between Iraq and Niger? Yes — but British Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his Cabinet say that’s not what happened.
They say, according to Britain’s liberal Guardian newspaper, that their claim was based on “extra material, separate and independent from that of the US.”
I suppose you can make the case that a British-government claim should not have made its way into the president’s SOTU without further verification. But why is that the top of the TV news day after day? Why would even the most dyspeptic Bush-basher see in those 16 accurate words of President’s Bush’s 5,492-word SOTU an opportunity to persuade Americans that there’s a scandal in the White House, another Watergate, grounds for impeachment?
Surely, everyone does know by now that Saddam Hussein did have a nuclear-weapons-development program. That program was set back twice: Once by Israeli bombers in 1981, and then a decade later, at the end of the Gulf War when we learned that Saddam’s nuclear program was much further along than our intelligence analysts had believed.
As President Bush also said in the SOTU:
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.
Since Saddam never demonstrated — to the U.S., the U.N., or even to Jacques Chirac — that he had abandoned his nuclear ambitions, one has to conclude that he was still in the market for nuclear materials. And, indeed, many intelligence analysts long believed that he was trying to acquire such material from wherever he could — not just from Niger but also from Gabon, Namibia, Russia, Serbia, and other sources.
Maybe there was no reliable evidence to support the particular intelligence report saying that Saddam had acquired yellowcake (lightly processed uranium ore) from Niger. But the British claim was only that Saddam had sought yellowcake — not that he succeeded in getting a five-pound box Fedexed to his palace on the Tigris.
And is there even one member of the U.S. Congress who would say that it was on the basis of this claim alone that he voted to authorize the president to use military force against Saddam? Is there one such individual anywhere in America?
A big part of the reason this has grown into such a brouhaha is that Joseph C. Wilson IV wrote an op-ed about it in last Sunday’s New York Times in which he said: “I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
Actually, Wilson has plenty of choices — but no basis for his slanderous allegation. A little background: Mr. Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA to verify a U.S. intelligence report about the sale of yellowcake — because Vice President Dick Cheney requested it, because Cheney had doubts about the validity of the intelligence report.
Wilson says he spent eight days in Niger “drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people” — hardly what a competent spy, detective, or even reporter would call an in-depth investigation. Nevertheless, let’s give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and stipulate that he was correct when he reported back to the CIA that he believed it was “highly doubtful that any such transaction ever took place. “
But, again, because it was “doubtful” that Saddam actually acquired yellowcake from Niger, it does not follow that he never sought it there or elsewhere in Africa, which is all the president suggested based on what the British said — and still say.
And how does Wilson leap from there to the conclusion that Vice President Cheney and his boss “twisted” intelligence to “exaggerate the Iraqi threat”? Wilson hasn’t the foggiest idea what other intelligence the president and vice president had access to.
It also would have been useful for the New York Times and others seeking Wilson’s words of wisdom to have provided a little background on him. For example:
He was an outspoken opponent of U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
He’s an “adjunct scholar” at the Middle East Institute — which advocates for Saudi interests. The March 1, 2002 issue of the Saudi government-weekly Ain-Al Yaqeen lists the MEI as an “Islamic research institutes supported by the Kingdom.”
He’s a vehement opponent of the Bush administration which, he wrote in the March 3, 2003 edition of the left-wing Nation magazine, has “imperial ambitions.” Under President Bush, he added, the world worries that “America has entered one of it periods of historical madness.”
He also wrote that “neoconservatives” have “a stranglehold on the foreign policy of the Republican Party.” He said that “the new imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our world view are implanted throughout the region, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking, smacking of hubris in the extreme.”
He was recently the keynote speaker for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a far-left group that opposed not only the U.S. military intervention in Iraq but also the sanctions — and even the no-fly zones that protected hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Shias from being slaughtered by Saddam.
And consider this: Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Wilson did believe that Saddam had biological weapons of mass destruction. But he raised that possibility only to argue against toppling Saddam, warning ABC’s Dave Marash that if American troops were sent into Iraq, Saddam might “use a biological weapon in a battle that we might have. For example, if we’re taking Baghdad or we’re trying to take, in ground-to-ground, hand-to-hand combat.” He added that Saddam also might attempt to take revenge by unleashing “some sort of a biological assault on an American city, not unlike the anthrax, attacks that we had last year.”
In other words, Wilson is no disinterested career diplomat — he’s a pro-Saudi, leftist partisan with an ax to grind. And too many in the media are helping him and allies grind it.
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.