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The Uranium Meltdown

“The President has moved on,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said to reporters at a news conference on Saturday when asked about the continuing attention being given to false intelligence information used in President George W. Bush’s January State of the Union Address. I take Fleischer at his word–the president really, really wants to stifle any scrutiny directed towards the administration’s use of intelligence information before occupying Iraq. I do not think, however, moving on is going to be so easy for President Bush, Vice President Cheney or senior White House officials. Even though a statement released last Friday by CIA Director George Tenet takes responsibility for allowing information about uranium sales between Africa and Iraq to appear in the State of the Union Address, I think the Bush administration’s problems are just beginning.

Three large problems still face the Bush administration and no statement by any top official near the White House can entirely obscure these problematic situations.

The first issue is Tenet’s own statement. Without a doubt, as the BBC’s description of Tenet’s statement suggests, he is the one falling on his sword for the president and the White House. The Washington Post reported on Saturday the statement itself “had been in the works for two days” before being released. So clearly, shocking as it may sound, the whole affair seems rather programmed. A key word is used in Tenet’s statement and I have a hunch it will not go unnoticed by critics. In explaining how investigations regarding the alleged uranium sales were handled Tenet states: “Because this report, in our view, did not resolve whether Iraq was or was not seeking uranium from abroad, it was given a normal and wide distribution, but we did not brief it to the president, vice president or other senior administration officials.” The word to contemplate is “brief.” Just because the president, the vice president and other senior administration officials were not briefed, does not mean they didn’t know the information was false. If these people didn’t know, then Tenet’s statement should have said–they did not know. Remember, when the U.S. military hits civilian targets or the Al-Jazeera network offices in Baghdad the Pentagon explains those places aren’t “being targeted”. That doesn’t mean, however, those same locations aren’t being smashed to bits by the U.S. military. The nuance of language and words matter a great deal when establishing culpability.

Problem two is in the United Kingdom. Tony Blair and his government have been left to drown by the White House. The BBC reported last week the CIA told President Bush the Africa story was bad information and by extension opened deeper questions about Blair’s use of British intelligence on the same subject. Now the White House has said the British intelligence was wrong in its entirety. Suddenly, and without warning, the White House is telling the citizens of the United Kingdom their government is lying. Blair and his ministers are standing by their intelligence on uranium sales to Iraq, albeit alone and under heavy scrutiny in Parliament. John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, has also apologized over the weekend to his country for using the same intelligence in his speeches. Most damaging to Blair were comments carried by the BBC on July 9 from senior officials within Blair’s own government saying weapons of mass destruction are “unlikely to be found.” All of these problems leave Blair and his Labor Party one option when speaking to the public–to blame the United States and President Bush for their problems. I doubt Blair would ever, say, turn Britain’s back on an ally when accusations regarding governmental policy emerge, but it may be his only chance for re-election. Adding to the fire Blair is already under are two U.K. citizens, Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, being held in Guantanamo Bay by the United States as illegal combatants. Both men now face the newly established military tribunals orchestrated by the Pentagon. Members of the British Parliament across the board are demanding these men be repatriated and given a trial in the U.K.

The third problem faced by the Bush administration, and it’s a big one, is the sheer volume of journalistic reports regarding heavy-handed uses of information by the Pentagon. In the March 31 issue of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh wrote an extensive story about how the uranium intelligence information was fictitious and manufactured. More recently, on June 19, The New Republic posted an even longer story by John Judis and Spencer Ackerman about the problems with the Bush administration’s intelligence gathering by the Department of Defense. Finally, on July 6 former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV published an opinion piece in The New York Times about his February 2002 trip to Niger examining reports of the uranium sales. Wilson’s trip, it should be noted, was undertaken at the request of the CIA and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. The piece by Wilson has been widely distributed but one key portion regarding his trip to Niger suggesting an important paper trail has been given far too little attention. Wilson states: “Although I did not file a written report, there should be at least four documents in U.S. government archives confirming my mission. The documents should include the ambassador’s report of my debriefing in Niamey, a separate report written by the embassy staff, a CIA report summing up my trip, and a specific answer from the agency to the office of the vice president (this may have been delivered orally). While I have not seen any of these reports, I have spent enough time in government to know that this is standard operating procedure.”

Even though President Bush is ready to move on, I have a feeling the problems are just beginning for his administration–I didn’t even touch on the occupation of Iraq or problematic domestic issues. While I am not a fan of the word scandal, the really interesting shake-ups in Washington take time to unravel. From start to finish, Watergate plagued the Nixon administration for roughly two years. The irony of the situation is the classic distraction used by previous presidents during bad times, namely bombing Iraq or the Middle East writ large, isn’t possible now–too many Americans are in the way. So, move on Mr. President–I want to see where you end up going.

JOHN TROYER is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at troy0005@tc.umn.edu

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