Two facts bring perspective to bear on what some are now calling Yellowcakegate.
1) Democrats who are serious about national security — e.g. Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman — all voted in favor of the use of military force in Iraq, and none is saying he now regrets that vote. They should be commended for courage because, as CNN’s Bill Schneider has pointed out, they are all feeling intense heat from the far left of their party, a faction that was vehemently opposed to intervention in Iraq and is highly active during this primary season.
2) Everyone who is serious about national security — British intelligence, U.S. intelligence, even Dominique de Villepin — recognizes that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He used chemical WMDs against his own people; he admitted to having biological WMDs; and he intended to reconstitute his nuclear WMD program. To do that, uranium was required. Where does a rogue dictator shop for uranium? Impoverished African countries are recommended. The British believe that’s why Saddam sent a “trade delegation” to Niger in 1999. That may even explain the forged documents: Apparently, an African official understood that there were Europeans and Americans who would pay good money for documentary evidence that Saddam’s trade delegation had successfully completed its mission.
One more pertinent fact: Human Rights Watch estimates there are 300,000 people missing in Iraq. New mass graves containing thousands of bodies are being found virtually every day. It is not a misuse of the English language to say that Saddam himself was a WMD.
None of this should imply that President Bush is beyond criticism — by Democrats or even by those who generally support his policies on fighting terrorists and terrorist masters. None of this should imply that there are no questions that deserve inquiry by members of Congress. Let me start with three:
1) The 16 words in Bush’s State of the Union speech were hardly “infamous” as so many journalists have been reporting. (Actually, those who use such adjectives are not reporting — they are editorializing.) But Bush should not have said that the British government “has learned” that Saddam sought uranium from Africa. He should have said that the British government “believes” or “strongly suspects” that Saddam sought uranium in Africa. As far as we know, the evidence on which the British relied isn’t certain enough to use a word as conclusive as “learned.”
I don’t really expect Bush to be a wordsmith. That’s hardly his strong suit. But there are wordsmiths on the White House staff, and they deserve to be scolded for their imprecision.
2) Bush has said that the intelligence he’s been receiving is “darned good.” Distressingly, that is not true. It needs to be candidly acknowledged that since the end of the Cold War our intelligence services have not responded effectively to the threat of jihadist terrorism. For example:
We did not have reliable human-intelligence assets inside Saddam’s regime, either before the first chapter of the Gulf War or over the past 13 years leading up to the most recent phase of the conflict.
Our intelligence has not been able to discover what Saddam did with his stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Did he hide them, transfer them, or destroy them?
We did not have intelligence assets in the radicalized European mosques where many terrorists were being recruited.
In the 1990s, it appears our intelligence analysts didn’t grasp how dangerous it was that tens of thousands of terrorists were being trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. (I assume they at least knew that such training was taking place.)
Our intelligence experts did not know that even as we were paying North Korea billions of dollars in exchange for not building nuclear weapons, they were building them anyway.
President Clinton bombed an aspirin factory in the Sudan based on what was apparently faulty intelligence.
President Clinton bombed suspected WMD sites in Iraq — did he hit any?
Our intelligence services didn’t predict or prevent the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania or on the USS Cole.
Our intelligence services still haven’t been able to determine whether those Iraqis implicated in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center were doing so on Saddam’s orders, as researcher and former Clinton adviser Laurie Mylroie has long maintained.
Our intelligence services failed to respond to increasing terrorist threats from the Middle East and Central Asia by recruiting and training a sufficient number of agents and analysts fluent in such languages as Arabic, Urdu, and Pashtun.
Our intelligence didn’t predict or prevent 9/11.
I could go on, but you get the point. It is not President Bush’s fault that our intelligence-gathering and clandestine capabilities are today insufficient for the challenges of the 21st century, but it is his responsibility to fix the problem. If he believes George Tenet is the man to accomplish that, fine. But it has to get done and the president is responsible for making sure that happens as quickly and effectively as possible. If not, this will be a legitimate issue for the Democratic presidential candidate.
3) What may be the biggest mystery in this melodrama has been missed by all the major media as far as I’m aware. Early in 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney had questions about reports of Saddam buying uranium from Niger. So he asked the Central Intelligence Agency to find out the truth. Consider: Here’s a request from the White House on a vital national-security issue. Does the CIA put their top spies on the case? No. Who do they put on the case? No one. Instead, they apparently decided to give the assignment to a diplomat.
I assume they contacted the State Department. Even so, they didn’t get the Foreign Service’s most talented ambassador, someone with investigative skills and broad experience in nuclear proliferation and related issues. No, the assignment went to a retiree who is far to the left of the Bush administration. Why?
That retiree was Joseph C. Wilson IV, former ambassador to Gabon, and one-time deputy to ambassador April Glaspie in Iraq. (You’ll recall she was the U.S. official who reportedly told Saddam: “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.”)
Wilson’s investigation, according to his recent New York Times op-ed, consisted of his spending “eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people.” He added: “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction [sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq] had ever taken place.”
Wilson’s conclusion was probably correct. It’s likely that no such transaction occurred — which begs the question of whether Saddam attempted to complete such a transaction, as the British believe and as Bush said in his SOTU.
But let’s imagine for just a moment that one of the officials with whom Wilson met had accepted a million-dollar bribe for facilitating the transfer of uranium to Saddam’s agents. What is the likelihood that that information would have been disclosed to Wilson over sips of sweet mint tea? Not huge, I’d wager.
When did the vice president learn that this was the manner in which his orders had been carried out? Is there an explanation for such dereliction of duty by CIA and, possibly, by State as well? Was anyone held accountable?
Inquiring minds should want to know.
— 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.