By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennett
Last week, President Bush dropped in on Africa to remind American swing voters that he’s a “compassionate conservative” and convince the rest of the world that he wants to help people of color and not just bomb them. The trip was pure Dubya. He did a 20-minute dash around Senegal’s Goree slave island — rather like the 60-second Louvre tour in Godard’s Band of Outsiders — and came out speaking against racial injustice, although he didn’t bother to visit any poor villages or urban slums. He lectured the locals on the virtues of free trade (even as economists pointed out that U.S. farm subsidies are killing African agriculture) and told Botswana’s President Festus G. Mogae (a name worthy of W.C. Fields) that the U.S. plans to give Africa $3 billion this year to fight AIDS. The fact that the actual appropriation is only $2 billion didn’t trouble his head much, not enough to make him change his speech, anyway.
Our supine networks would normally have covered this trip precisely as Karl Rove envisioned — shots of our benevolent leader surrounded by beaming Africans in picturesque surroundings. But just when Bush was expecting a week of photo ops, his past caught up with him in the form of a single, 16-word line from January’s State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The problem was simple. This claim (about “yellowcake” uranium from Niger) was based on forged documents, and Bush administration higher-ups knew it. Oops.
Suddenly, the news cycle was whirring like a gyroscope, anchormen were pedantically referring to the country of “Nee-zher,” and for the first time since the war in Afghanistan, the Bush team wasn’t setting the nightly news agenda. Adversity always turns the president rabbity and mean, and, asked about the controversial line, he accused his doubters of “rewriting history.” (The correct term, in fact, would be writing history, but we’ll let that pass.) Bush may tauntingly say, “Bring ’em on,” when it’s only somebody else’s life that’s at stake, but bring on a tough question and he turns into his mother’s son, all ill-tempered haughtiness. In Africa, he acted as if the charges against his speech somehow concerned the depth of his convictions. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he kept saying. “There’s no doubt in my mind . . . I’m confident in the decision I’ve made.”
Meanwhile, back in Washington, his top advisers were torn between trying to score points and covering their own backsides.
On July 9, Donald Rumsfeld said he’d only learned the yellowcake reports were false “within recent days” (he’d actually heard it in March, at the very latest).
On July 11, Condoleezza Rice passed the buck, blaming the CIA for the bad information. Shortly thereafter, CIA boss George Tenet did what good CIA bosses do — he fell on the sword. Tenet accepted the blame for the 16 words, even though (as the current Time spells out) the CIA had actually warned against using the bogus story about yellowcake last October. It was likely Rice’s National Security Council team that was eager to keep it in.
On July 12, presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told the media, “The president considers the matter closed and wants to move on.”
Maybe so, but the next day Rice and Rumsfeld were telling the Sunday-morning talk shows that, while the 16 words had been technically true (you see, the British still believe the uranium hoax), such unverified intelligence should not have been in the speech.
Maybe not, but on July 14, Bush was back to declaring U.S. intelligence “darn good” (I love it when he’s folksy), and as Josh Marshall noted in his Talking Points Memo blog, Fleischer devoted his farewell press briefing to “an interesting meditation on the newfound distinction between ‘accurate’ and ‘true.’” When the briefing ended and his job was finally done, Fleischer looked like the world’s giddiest hard-boiled egg.
ALTHOUGH MOST RECENT COVERAGE has focused on the Bush administration’s attempts to hype the threat of a nuclear Iraq — could the president and his advisers, just maybe, have been trying to scare us into pre-emptive war? — this tampering with intelligence reports is only one national disgrace. The other is that most of the mainstream American media pretended to swallow the White House’s propaganda in the months leading up to the war, and now that the U.S. is stuck in Iraq, they’ve begun playing the too-late blues.
True, reporters got the obligatory “smoking gun” only a few weeks ago, when ex-Ambassador Joseph Wilson finally spilled the beans about the phony information coming out of Niger. Not that you needed his revelations to doubt the administration’s case for immediate war. When Powell dropped Bush’s claim about uranium from his U.N. presentation back in February, this absence was widely noted in European papers. Similarly, it was big international news when, in early March, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, debunked both the Niger uranium hoax and Powell’s assertion that aluminum rods found in Iraq could be used in making nuclear weapons.