Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Yellowcake, Yellowcake, Fakers, Man

First off, I should point out that this is Jon writing, not Mike. Thus the massive drop-off in quality.

Uh... so... hola, amigos. It's been a long time since I rapped at you. But I've had some heavy-duty text-intake to perform lately.

Anyway. I was reading a
Frank Rich op-ed piece that claims that the Bush Administration's handling of the Iraq war in general and the Valerie Plame leak in particular is worse than Nixon's handling of Watergate, and it reminded me of Bush's Jan. 2003 State of the Union claim about Saddam Hussein trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Turned out, of course, that the uranium claim was a crock of crapola based on bad evidence. Bush attributed the claim to the British intelligence services, presumably in large part because the American intelligence services had raised a bunch of red flags about the reliability of that evidence (which turned out to be poorly forged documents).

One of those flag-raisers was Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador assigned to analyze the uranium claim. Wilson is also, as we know thanks to Bob Novak's intrepid blabbing, the husband of now-outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. A lot of people, including Wilson, think that somebody at the White House (evidence points increasingly to Karl Rove having a hand) leaked Plame's name as retribution for Wilson's public criticism of Bush's doomsday interpretation of the uranium docs. Other people suspect that it was (also) done in an effort to discredit Wilson by making it sound like he only had that analyst's job because his wife had pulled strings. (Wilson, btw, was deputy chief of the US embassy in Iraq from 1988 to 1991, when he became acting ambassador until Gulf War I. From 1997-98 he was special adviser to President Clinton and National Security Council Senior Director of African Affairs. In the 1970s and 1980s, he worked for the State Dept. throughout Africa, including a stint in Niger. He must be so embarrassed to be riding his wife's coattails like that.)

Anyway, the Niger story made me think of Dan Rather's 60 Minutes II piece on the memos that supposedly proved that Bush had received special treatment during his time in the Air National Guard. That story also turned out to be a crock based on forged documents.

What struck me is the difference between CBS's reaction and the White House's. When it became obvious that the national guard memos were fakes, Rather and CBS did what responsible newsfolk do: they retracted and apologized. It would've been nice if they'd, you know, been responsible newsfolk the first time around and looked at the memos more skeptically, but at least they 'fessed up that they'd effed up.

In contrast, when it became obvious that the British uranium documents were fakes, the White House did what any stonewalling political administration would do: they pretended that the problem with the claim was bibliographical rather than factual. In July 2003, Rumsfeld told Meet the Press that Bush shouldn't have mentioned the yellowcake uranium not because the claim was, you know, wrong but instead because it was "probably" a mistake to "referenc[e] another country's intelligence, as opposed to your own."

But the Bush administration doesn't seem to have had any (positive) intelligence of its own to reference. If it had, why would it have cited the British report in the first place? I mean, if you're the President of the United States and you're giving a State of the Union address and you have good intel from the CIA and from the British--and for some weird bar-bet reason you have to choose between them rather than citing both--which would you pick, your own agency's intel or a foreign government's? Remember, this is the same President who doesn't believe the scientific intel about global warming that dozens of leaders of important countries--including Great Britain--keep sending him. This isn't a President who cites foreign evidence because he loves foreigners so much.

And it's not just that Bush can't admit when he screws up. It's the consequences of his screw-ups.

Rather's story came out a couple of months before the 2004 election, so it might have swayed the race if it hadn't been corrected. Evaluation: a potentially big error.

Bush's claim came on Jan. 28, 2003, less than two months before we invaded Iraq. The Niger claim itself didn't start the war, and omitting it wouldn't have stopped the war. But a lot of the evidence about Saddam's huge stockpiles of WMDs--remember those?--turns out to have been about at reliable as the Niger forgeries. If Bush had been more honest with us and maybe with himself, would he have been able to lead the country to war?

But he did lead us into war. In that war, we've spent hundreds of billions. (You want a social security fix? energy independence? health care? balanced budget? fifth-grade numeracy in fifth-grade classrooms? Too bad. We spent the money for that kind of thing opening Iraq's borders to al-Qaeda trainees.) In that war, 1,700+ US soldiers and anywhere from 15-25,000 Iraqis (most of them non-combatant civilians) have died.

Evaluation: an actual huge error.

Dan Rather and his producer apologized for messing up a potentially important news story. Is there any way for Bush and his advisers to apologize for 20,000 deaths?

A SIDEBAR: When the Plame leak story broke in Sept. 2003, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said that if a White House staffer had leaked Plame's name, the staffer would get fired. On June 10, 2004 Bush himself said he stood by that claim. Let's see what happens if it turns out Rove did leak it.


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