John Leo
In a surprising editorial, The Washington Post deviated from the conventional anti-Bush media position on two counts. It said President Bush was right to declassify parts of a National Intelligence Estimate to make clear why he thought Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons. And the editorial said ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson was wrong to think he had debunked Bush on the nuclear charge because Wilson's statements after visiting Niger actually "supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium."

In the orthodox narrative line, Wilson is the truth-teller and the Bush is the liar. But Wilson was not speaking truthfully when he said his wife, Valerie Plame, had nothing to do with the CIA sending him to Niger. And it obviously wasn't true, as Wilson claimed, that he had found nothing to support Bush's charge about Niger when he (Wilson) had been told that the Iraqis were poking around in that uranium-rich nation.

Testifying before the Senate intelligence committee, Wilson said that the former prime minister of Niger told him he had been asked to meet with Iraqis to talk about "expanding commercial relations" between the two countries. Everybody knew what that meant; Niger has nothing much to trade other than uranium.

Christopher Hitchens made the latter point last week in a muscular column subtitled "Sorry, everyone, but Iraq did go uranium shopping in Niger." The "Sorry, everyone" phrase indicates the strength of the reigning orthodoxy -- that Bush simply lied when he uttered the famous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union speech: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Hitchens made these points: Saddam Hussein had already acquired a large amount of uranium from Niger once before, in 1981, so he knew where to go. Amid suspicions that Saddam was trying to revive his nuclear program, Iraqis made a 1999 visit to Niger. The head member of the visiting Iraqi team was Saddam's senior public envoy for nuclear matters. Hmmm.

Defenders of orthodoxy have a fair point to make here. They say that the alert French, who were in total control of Nigerian uranium, would never have allowed it. Maybe, but the alert French turned out to be the payoff-oriented French on a very large scale in the oil-for-bribes scandal.

Hitchens made another point. The forged documents claiming an Iraq-Niger connection were so crude that they could never have fooled the CIA or British intelligence for very long. Who would do this, and do it so badly? Nobody knows. But if the forgeries were meant to distract from other evidence that Bush was right, then they certainly worked. Look around in American journalism, and you will find great certitude that the forgeries destroyed Bush's claim.

That certitude can only be founded on the belief that Tony Blair, the U.S. Senate intelligence committee and the special investigative team of Parliament were all liars when they said there was substantial non-forged evidence backing Bush's claim. The investigative team was headed by the highly regarded Lord Butler, who served as a Cabinet minister under five prime ministers. It concluded that Bush's 16 words about Iraq's uranium shopping were "well-founded."

Actually, there is one other way to discount the Butler report: Either muffle or don't mention it in your news columns. The New York Times opted for muffling. A database search finds no mention of "well-founded" in the Times reporting, and only one barely scrutable paragraph about uranium in the Butler report, way down in the 11th paragraph of a story buried well inside the paper.

For you collectors of embarrassing journalism, here is paragraph 11: "It (the report) also defended British officials in the case of an apparently erroneous British report on Iraq's nuclear ambitions that made its way into President Bush's State of the Union speech last year claiming that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Niger. The Butler report confirmed that Iraqi officials had visited Niger in 1999, and the British government had several different sources insisting that the purpose was to buy uranium. But it added, 'the evidence was not conclusive that Iraq had actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium, and the British government did not claim this.'"

Note the Times' careful denial of something nobody had claimed -- that Iraq had recently bought, not sought, uranium in Africa.

In truth, Bush handled the issue badly. He dithered, couldn't find the words to explain himself, and weirdly withdrew the 16 words when the pressure came. And it is surely arguable that the uranium-in-Africa charge was too flimsy for the weight Bush gave it in his speech.

But as columnist Robert Novak once argued, the burgeoning "Bush lied" mantra was heavily dependent on the uranium claim. So the liar label was most firmly attached on an issue Bush was right about. Go figure.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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