Bush Stonewalling Will Bring on Probe
Sunday 20 July 2003
President Bush has lost - or more accurately, discarded - the first line of defense vis-a-vis Congress for misbehaving chief executives.
By opting for a political, as opposed to evidentiary, defense for what was at least the hyping and at worst the manipulation of intelligence information about Iraq, Bush has given up the chance to forestall a relatively formal investigation of his administration's actions by laying out a full version of what happened.
Not a month ago, as the frustration about ''missing'' Iraqi chemical and biological weapons was evolving into suspicions about phony nuclear weapons information, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, a Republican, was a willing stonewaller. In helping to block hearings into prewar intelligence, Roberts declared there was no evidence of misdeeds and that holding hearings would merely imply there was.
Last week, he was singing an entirely different tune, vowing that ''we will take this where it leads us; we'll let the chips fall where they may.'' That includes the White House - accountings from Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are going to be difficult to evade.
Roberts's switch follows the expressions of other Republicans whose independence is a matter of record - especially John McCain and Foreign Relations Committee big shots Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel. In any congressional investigation the first confirming bits of political validity are provided by an administration's fellow party members. That is now occurring.
Roberts did more than switch. In pledging to let the facts lead his probe, the Kansan was opening the door to inquiry into a wide range of statements about Iraq's alleged possession of unconventional weaponry made by Bush, Cheney, and Rice, statements that make it clear that the infamous 16 words in Bush's State of the Union address were but the tip of a hyperbolic iceberg.
What tipped Roberts's hand was CIA Director George Tenet's odd appearance behind closed committee doors last week. The conventional view was that Tenet had fallen on his sword by accepting responsibility for not keeping the words out of the speech. Apparent from his testimony, however, was that this view is misleading.
According to senators from both parties, Tenet's act was anything but ritual suicide. His admission that he hadn't bothered to read the relevant sections and drafts of Bush's speech is less than dereliction and possibly no more than good taste. What is more interesting is the fact he brought a senior aide to Roberts's hearing to continue what has all the trappings of a feud with Rice's national security staff.
Even before Tenet issued his alleged declaration of responsibility on July 11, several of us in the press were aware of a conflict between the CIA and the national security staff about their discussions that preceded the insertion of the 16 words about Africa in the speech. We were also aware of the identity of the negotiators: a senior CIA expert on unconventional weapons (Alan Foley) and the anti-proliferation guy at the NSC (Robert Joseph).
Foley's basic account is that the CIA would have problems with any citation of British intelligence referring to a possible effort by Iraq to purchase additional uranium ore from Niger because of doubts about its credibility. He also said the CIA would have problems with any specific reference to Niger or to alleged efforts to acquire a specific amount of the nuclear bomb raw material. This dovetails with a successful effort last October by Tenet to get similar language out of another important presidential address.
The White House version amounts to a revealing, non-denial denial. The assertion is that no draft of the State of the Union ever contained a mention of Niger or a specific amount of uranium. For the record, Foley made no such claim. Second, White House officials other than Joseph say he does not remember any CIA concerns about credibility of intelligence before the speech was delivered. Needless to say, that hardly ends the matter; quite the contrary.
The other reason the inquiry is proceeding relates to the preposterous assertions by Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the famous 16 words were ''technically'' accurate because of the attribution to the British. This is false.
In fact, the Bush speech hyped the claim by using the verb ''learned'' instead of simply using the word ''said.'' It also fudged the significance of the allegation by saying the Iraqi effort had occurred ''recently'' when the only possible contact with Niger was in 1999. And it was simply incorrect when it used the phrase ''significant quantities of uranium'' when in fact there was no credible claim relating to quantity at all.
Some congressional investigations are driven by baloney, and Republicans in recent years have become experts. But this one is being driven by facts, especially the misstatement of them.