We wish we had thought of it ourselves, but political satirist Al Franken beat us to the punch: he’s calling his next book Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. What a splendid title for a book—and what a perfect description of the intrigue that followed President George W. Bush wherever he went during his recent trip to Africa. There he was in Nigeria, plagued with those 16 little words from his January State of the Union address referring to Niger: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Although there’s been plenty of speculation about those bogus claims—as the International Atomic Energy Agency described them last March—it was the recent New York Times op-ed by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson that finally prodded the mainstream U.S. media to come alive. “Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war,” Wilson wrote, ” I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” He explained that at the request of Vice President Cheney’s office the CIA had dispatched him to Africa to check the veracity of the reported sale of a form of lightly processed uranium ore. He quickly determined that the purported Iraq-Niger-uranium connection was false. “They knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British white paper and the President’s State of the Union address,” he said when interviewed on NBC’s Meet the Press, referring to the September report from British intelligence service.
You can see how this sort of thing would get in the way of an extended photo op designed to show a kinder, gentler President of the United States—particularly since just last month, Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “The intelligence community did not know . . . or at levels that got to us, that there were serious questions about this report.”
Soon after Wilson published his op-ed, CBS reported that CIA officials had warned members of the President’s National Security Council that “the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.” But, the White House argued that “as long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence . . . it would be factually accurate.” So much for NSC allegations that “the intelligence community did not know.”
Nevertheless, the designated fall guy turned out to be CIA Director George Tenet. In a curiously worded statement, Tenet—who has always managed to toady up and do whatever it took to keep his job in both the Clinton and Bush administrations—said he accepted responsibility for inclusion of the Niger uranium connection to Iraq. But at the same time, he said that he never saw the final draft of the President’s speech.
The President accepted his mea culpa and said that all was forgiven—end of story. Considering that the Bush White House is full of control freaks, that’s a curiously generous thing to say.
We now know that three months before the State of the Union, the CIA managed to convince the White House to remove any reference to Niger and uranium from a speech the President delivered in Cincinnati. But, as a July 13 Washington Post article noted, “White House officials, particularly those in the office of Vice President Cheney, insisted on including Hussein’s quest for a nuclear weapon as a prominent part of the public case for war in Iraq. Cheney had made the potential threat of Hussein having a nuclear weapon a central theme of his August 2002 speech that began the public buildup toward war with Baghdad.”
The day the Washington Post article appeared, Rice and Rumsfeld worked the Sunday talk shows, saying that all the fuss over 16 words was irrelevant. In fact, the President had been “technically correct,” in his State of the Union address, said Rumsfeld, “because the source was Britain.” In other words, if at first you don’t like what your own intelligence agencies are telling you, shop around until you find something you like.
Which brings us back, in an admittedly circuitous way, to Al Franken, lies, and the liars that tell them. The subtitle of Franken’s book is “a fair and balanced look at the right.” Lying about evidence used to wage war is not about Left, Right, front, or center. “The Vice President’s office asked a serious question,” wrote Joseph Wilson. “I was asked to help formulate the answer. The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leadership. If this information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.”
And so we did. The question now is: what are we going to do about it?