Yellowcake Rising

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 10, Colin Powell explained why he’d cut what he called the “bullshit” uranium claim from his U.N. presentation: It hadn’t passed “the test of time” (i.e., one week).

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.

Yet, just like the top congressional Democrats, most mainstream media outlets weren’t about to risk offending the public by appearing skeptical or un-American during the run-up to war. They gave the merest olé-sweep of their capes at Bush’s charge toward Baghdad and then hopped on his back for the ride.

Of course, such capitulation seemed natural back in March and April, when we were crushing a Third World army. It’s now mid-July, and each day we wake to news of more American casualties (33 American soldiers have been killed, and 81 have died altogether, since Bush landed on that aircraft carrier). The weapons of mass destruction haven’t been found. While Saddam makes his basement tapes, American GIs are complaining about being targets in midsummer Iraq (imagine wearing a flak jacket in the 110-degree heat) on a mission they’ve come to think impossible, even crazy. To top it all off, Rumsfeld last week revealed that the occupation of Iraq will cost nearly $100 billion over the next two years. Predictably, people have begun comparing Iraq to Vietnam (although this is a grievous insult to both Ho Chi Minh and millions of Iraqis who didn’t exactly see Saddam as their George Washington).

Emboldened by this turn of events, the Democrats and the so-called liberal media have finally begun going after Bush’s arguments for the war, albeit in a way that gives them a safe foothold. That is, they aren’t yet going after his mistaken geopolitical presuppositions or the other whoppers (like Saddam’s links to 9/11) that he used to push the country into war. Instead, they’ve fixated on those 16 words (hardly Bush’s worst) precisely because such microscopic analysis appears factual, not ideological. It was precisely this sort of lie that took down Nixon, and if you listen closely, you can already hear the familiar lyrics of that boomer hit “The Ballad of Bob and Carl.” With dreary inevitability, bloggers are writing of “Nigergate,” Howard Dean has begun asking, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” and I sit waiting, gun in hand, for the first TV pundit to complete the trifecta by solemnly informing me that it’s always the cover-up that gets you. It was 30 years ago, folks, 30 years.

There is, of course, enormous pleasure in watching the Bush team squirm, yet I fear that the Democrats (and the media) will overplay their hand. On KCRW’s Left, Right & Center the other day, Roberto “Che” Scheer was already blaring about impeachment. Now, granted Scheer specializes in tone-deaf stridency (hasn’t he learned anything from the charming Ms. Huffington?), yet he’s not alone. Many of my Bush-hating friends express their own anger in these same terms; I myself am happy to have the idea out there. Still, before we get too ecstatic at the vision of a manacled Bush in The Hague, we should remember that the Republicans blew it by demanding Clinton’s impeachment when his approval ratings were the same as Bush’s are now.

At the moment, it’s far from clear that the majority of Americans think there’s a cover-up, let alone a crime — or give a damn about the yellowcake story at all.

In fact, Bush is far more likely to be done in by the steady drip-drip-drip of casualties in Iraq than by his lies in the State of the Union address, however reprehensible they may be.

The media may not like this, but most Americans accept the fact that presidents bend the truth, just as they know that even the most clean-cut young NBA star might well cheat on his wife with a blond 19-year-old, even one who’s not entirely willing.

John Powers’ e-mail address is

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