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Those 16 Words Still Smell

A Close Look at Bush’s Techniques of Deciet in State of the Union

by DENNIS HANS

We are now told that the controversial 16-word sentence in the January 28, 2003 State of the Union address (hereafter “SOTU”) about alleged Iraqi efforts to procure unenriched uranium from Africa was “truthful” (William Safire) and “well-founded” (Britain’s Butler Committee report). Alas, it is neither.

An examination of the entire SOTU paragraph that includes those 16 words illustrates a few of the many “techniques of deceit” the Bush team has mastered: deception through juxtaposition, unsupported “certitude” and, most importantly, deception through omission.

Here is Bush’s description of the Iraqi nuclear threat:

“The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] 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. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.”

If you’re a parent watching at home with your kids, and you just happen to lack expertise on Iraq and nuclear-weapons technology, like 99.99 percent of your fellow citizens (including me), that’s a very frightening picture.

Not only did Bush put the fear of Saddam into viewers, he did so by citing sources that fence-sitters and skeptics would likely consider credible: the British government and the IAEA. For citizens who didn’t know the IAEA from Adam or what to think of it, Bush wisely included this comment earlier in the address: “We’re strongly supporting the [IAEA] in its mission to track and control nuclear materials around the world.”

What Bush didn’t include was the IAEA’s assessment — issued the day before the SOTU — of the current Iraqi nuclear “threat.” So far, the agency had found “No evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities” nor “signs of new nuclear facilities or direct support to any nuclear activity. . . . The IAEA expects to be able, within the next few months, barring exceptional circumstances and provided there is sustained proactive cooperation by Iraq, to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons programme.”

Such a program can’t be hidden in a basement or buried in a garden. It requires a vast, high-tech infrastructure. The “yellowcake” uranium Iraq was allegedly seeking in Africa would have to be enriched to become weapons-grade. A nuclear consultant quoted on July 20, 2003 in the British newspaper The Independent estimated the enrichment plant would be “the size of 30 football pitches” — i.e., 30 soccer fields. Such a plant could not go undetected in a country spied on from satellites and swarming with inspectors, as was the case in January 2003.

What the preparers of the SOTU did was cherry-pick an old IAEA evaluation of no revelance to 2003, about a nuclear program that was destroyed and dismantled long ago, and paired it with (dubious) assertions about recent activity to conjure up a frightening image that bore no relation to reality.

The uranium sentence

As for the uranium sentence, in the months leading up to the SOTU the CIA alternately credited and pooh-poohed unconfirmed reports that Iraq had been seeking uranium from Niger and possibly other nations in Africa. One thing was clear: The CIA certainly didn’t know for a fact that Iraq was pursuing African uranium.

In the days leading up to the SOTU, a CIA official and a National Security Council aide agreed that, for the purpose of a public speech, the best option was to cite a public document, Britain’s September 2002 WMD dossier, rather than the CIA’s classified National Intelligence Estimate.

As noted above, the final wording read, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

CIA director George Tenet did not review the SOTU, and he has subsequently said that such a major speech by a U.S. president should not cite a foreign intelligence service on a matter that U.S. intelligence retained doubts. But you can’t fault the NSC aide or the White House speechwriters. The CIA official had a chance to delete or alter that sentence, but instead endorsed it.

We can, however, fault all who reviewed that sentence for failing to spot the obvious flaw: The confused and untrustworthy Brits had not “learned” Saddam “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” To learn is to know, and not one Brit knew that for a fact.

The slippery source for the SOTU uranium sentence

In the British dossier’s Executive Summary, Point 6 begins, “As a result of the intelligence we judge” that, among other things, Iraq has “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it.” The phrase “we judge” does not mean “we know.”

By Chapter 3, however, the Brits profess absolute certainty. One section lays out “what we know” about the WMD programmes and includes a list of nine “main conclusions.” The fourth states that “Uranium has been sought from Africa. . . .”

The most obvious flaw in the list of “what we know” is that it presents as established fact things the Brits may suspect are true, but couldn’t possibly “know” are true. Properly interpreted, the list is evidence not of Iraq’s capabilities, actions and intentions, but of a deceitful British policy of saying “we know” when they bloody well don’t.

Later in Chapter 3, the Brits lose the certitude and pen an accurate statement: “But there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

If you’re keeping score, there’s a “we judge” judgment in the Executive Summary, a statement of fact in Chapter 3, and a vague “there is intelligence” claim in the same chapter. Guess which interpretation Blair picked for his address to Parliament on the day the dossier was published?

Blair boldly declared, “we now know the following.” He then laid out a list of everything “Saddam has bought or attempted to buy” that could be used in a uranium enrichment program. “In addition, we know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful.”

Notice how Blair lends credibility to his assertions of what “we now know” by acknowledging something “we do not know.” Who wouldn’t trust a man who’s willing to admit he doesn’t “know” everything? Back on September 24, 2002, not many. Today, 58 percent of the British public believed Blair “lied” to them about Iraq.

If the British press and politicians had done their job, Blair would have been forced to explain the discrepancies right then and there. He would have had to acknowledge that “We don’t really KNOW.” Tabloid headlines screaming “Blair Recants!” would have lessened the likelihood that, four months later, the SOTU would have referred to what the slippery Brits had “learned.” Alas, the British press and politicians are nearly as sorry as our own.

The uranium sentence in the context of 2002-03

When the Brits first floated their judgment/allegation/statement of fact in September 2002, the IAEA asked them for “actionable information” — “specifics of when and where” — so it could investigate. Britain provided nothing. That’s because it had no intelligence to call its own, and it was not at liberty to share intelligence that was, in effect, “owned” by foreign intelligence services. The Brits were relying on stuff passed along by Italian and French intelligence, including summaries (not official documents) of the information in the documents that the IAEA would soon label fake.

UN Resolution 1441 required the U.S. and all nations to provide the IAEA any evidence they had on Iraq’s nuclear programs. In October 2002 the U.S. State Department acquired copies of the documents that turned out to be fake and promptly distributed them to all the national-security bureaucracies concerned with foreign policy and nuclear proliferation. No U.S. bureaucracy provided copies to the IAEA until February 2003 — strange behavior indeed for those analysts and officials who considered the documents credible. What better way to help Bush win a strong, intrusive U.N. resolution than to have the IAEA confirm that Iraq had agreed to buy 500 metric tons of yellowcake from Niger. And what a great SOTU prop for Bush to brandish!

Alas, some “evidence” is just too darn good to put to the test. That’s because once you put it to the test, you run the risk it will blow up in your face. It could have happened in October 2002, before the U.N. debate and vote. It did happen on March 7, 2003, but by then it was too late to play a role in derailing an unnecessary war.

The aluminum tubes sentence

Bush’s statement about aluminum tubes combines “deception through omission” with “implied certitude,” as he gave nary a hint that they might have a non-nuclear use. The non-expert sitting at home would have no idea that the tubes’ dimensions and technical specifications made them a perfect fit for Iraq’s stock of conventional artillery rockets, or that the IAEA’s “provisional conclusion” — presented 16 days before the SOTU — was that the tubes “were for rockets and not for centrifuges” to enrich uranium. A majority of the U.S. intelligence community disagreed with the IAEA, but our best experts, the nuclear scientists at the Department of Energy (DOE), concurred. (many of whom lacked technical expertise and were suckered by a CIA officer named Joe Nor would the non-expert viewer have learned what the IAEA reported 19 days before the SOTU: Despite Bush’s characterization of the tubes as “suitable for nuclear weapons production,” the IAEA concluded that they “are not directly suitable.”

As the IAEA and DOE knew, aluminum was a substandard metal for the demanding enrichment task. Also, the tubes were the wrong dimension and would have to be redesigned (a very difficult process) and stripped of their anodized coating. If all that were achieved, the technical experts still considered it highly unlikely that aluminum tubes would be sufficiently durable to function effectively as gas centrifuges.

What this tell us about Bush and his aides

The American public doesn’t know if Uncurious George was aware of the disagreements about the tubes. True, they were spelled out in a long, careful article in the Washington Post a few days before the SOTU, but as the article didn’t run in the sports section (the one section Bush reportedly reads with care) he might have missed it. But make no mistake, plenty of people who reviewed SOTU drafts did know about the disagreements and did know that it was misleading to give citizens the impression that those tubes only possible purpose was uranium enrichment.

Bush administration deceit is often a team effort. Make no mistake, senior officials know that Bush likes to cheat. Those who signed off on the tubes sentence and that entire graf long ago caught on that the plain-spoken straight shooter deeply committed to “restoring honor and integrity to the White House” (as Bush repeatedly reminded voters before the 2000 election) has no qualms whatsoever about misleading the American people.

I can’t imagine a senior official going up to Bush and saying, “Mr. President, for the sake of argument let’s grant that each of those sentences in the nuclear-threat paragraph is at least technically true. Nevertheless, when we string them together in that order they paint an alarming but false picture. Democracy is all about the informed consent of the governed, and we owe the citizens an honest portrayal of the Iraqi threat. We need to rewrite that paragraph.”

Deceitful close to a deceitful paragraph

Bush wrapped up the nuclear-threat paragraph with theese words: “Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.”

In fact, Iraqi officials had credibly explained the tubes to the IAEA’s satisfaction. As for Iraq’s alleged pursuit of African uranium, the burden of proof was on the accusers, who were required by U.N. Resolution 1441 to provide the IAEA any evidence of prohibited Iraqi nuclear activity. The best the accusers could come up with was a parcel of forgeries. Neither U.S., British, French or Italian intelligence was willing to put to the IAEA test any other “evidence” each claimed to possess. Clearly, the rascals who run those various intelligence agencies haven’t “credibly explained” why they didn’t step up to the plate. One might say they have “much to hide” in the way of credible explanations, but nothing to hide with respect to credible evidence. Nothing to hide and nothing to show.

Advice for lapdogs who’d like to be watchdogs

The astute reader may have noticed that there was lots of public evidence from credible sources that would have enabled competent journalists to demolish the SOTU at the very time it was delivered. (Click here — http://www.democraticunderground.com/— for my own analysis two weeks after the speech.)

That leads to our most important lessons: (1) The Bush team’s techniques of deceit are transparent and easily exposed. (2) The techniques can work only if the watchdogs — national-security bureaucrats in position to blow the whistle, members of Congress, serious journalists — allow them to work.

Alas, with relatively few honorable exceptions, the watchdogs slept, cowered or cheered on the president as he misled the nation into war. Even today, many appear eager to leap back into Bush’s good graces by giving him and his administration the benefit of any ethical doubt — benefit that the Bush team has repeatedly shown it does not deserve.

DENNIS HANS is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu