Uranium and the "Highest Standard"
By Dennis Hans
Senior Bush administration officials insist that every single
sentence in the State of the Union address (SOTU) must meet
the "highest standard." To ensure that it does, the speech
goes through countless drafts and is carefully vetted by experts
throughout the government. Nevertheless, on Jan. 28, 2003,
16 imperfect words slipped through the cracks.
The administration now acknowledges that the sentence about
Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa did not meet the "highest
standard." That judgment is shared even by Condi Rice and
Donald Rumsfeld, who made the talk-show rounds after the height
of the brouhaha to point out that (1) the assertion was properly
attributed to the British, (2) the British trust in their
secret intelligence sources then and still do today, and (3)
we have faith in the British.
But Rummy and Rice also conceded that that is not the standard
for the exalted SOTU. They said the assertion should only
have appeared if U.S. experts were willing to vouch for it,
and ours weren't. Allied intelligence that the U.S. is not
privy to simply will not do.
For the SOTU, that is. The Bush administration has a sliding
"reliability standard" for the spoken and written communications
of the president and his cabinet, depending on the purpose,
occasion and location. The general rule is that the less formal
or solemn the occasion, the farther away from Washington or
the more driven the administration, the lower the standard.
For example, while the SOTU is held to the "highest standard,"
photo-op White House informals are held to the "lowest standard,"
which allows for fisherman-style tall tales. That's why no
flap followed the
statement President Bush made July 14 as he sat and posed
with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. We removed Saddam
Hussein from power, he said, after "we gave him a chance to
allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in"! And
earlier that morning, out on the Potomac River, Bush reeled
in a great white whale.
Before illustrating some of the other standards with statements
on uranium made by different officials in different settings,
allow me first to agree with those wags who've bewailed the
pathetic labels the SOTU slip-up has produced. Who wants to
read about "Nigergate"? Not me. To give this story the stature
and pizazz it deserves, I hereby dub thee "Undeleted Uranium."
First, most everyone agrees the SOTU line should have been
deleted, yet it remained "undeleted." Second, it rhymes with
a term already in popular discourse, "depleted uranium." Third,
it comes tripping off the tongue. And fourth, its acronym,
"UU," is ideal for chanting.
Try it with me. Imagine you and your fellow protesters in
Kennebunkport spot Dubya strutting to the first tee. The network
cameras are positioned to capture protesters and prez in the
same frame. With index fingers extended as if to poke him
in the chest (even though he's 50 yards away), you puncture
the air in time to this rhythmic chant: "U-U! U-U! U-U! U-U!"
Wasn't that fun? It's even better than taunting some snooty
Duke player at the Final Four.
The many UU assertions before and after the SOTU all met
a standard that was appropriate for the time, setting, audience
In a National Intelligence Estimate dated
October 1, 2002, CIA director George Tenet implied
that reports of Iraq's pursuit of uranium from two or possibly
three African nations was an established fact. He did this
by expressing doubts only about the success of these efforts,
not the efforts themselves. ("We cannot confirm whether Iraq
succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from
these sources.") "Annex A" in the back of the NIE explained
that State Department intelligence regarded the claims that
Iraq was pursuing African uranium as "highly dubious." But
NIE readers would have no doubt that the consensus of the
broad "intelligence community"was that Iraq was in hot pursuit.
Because Tenet's audience was fence-sitters in Congress unsure
whether to authorize the use of force against Iraq, the NIE
had only to meet the administration's action-oriented "whatever
it takes" standard. Tenet met it. In fact, he was so confident
the NIE had done the trick that he persuaded the deputy national
security advisor Stephen Hadley to delete uranium from the
president's upcoming October 7 speech on Iraq - a speech that
would be delivered before the congressional votes. Yes, Tenet
told Hadley he had serious doubts about the very allegations
he had no doubts about in the NIE!
On December 19, 2002, Colin Powell's State
Department put out a "fact
sheet" (!) presenting the allegation as established fact:
"The [Iraqi] Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium
from Niger. Why is the Iraqi regime hiding their uranium procurement?"
That's the same State Department whose intelligence bureau
considered it "highly dubious" that Iraq was pursuing uranium
from Niger or any other nation.
The "fact sheet" was aimed primarily at foreigners. The
administration is quite comfortable saying absolutely anything
to foreign audiences, and thus applied the "no veracity required"
standard, which Powell's team met.
On January 23, 2003, it was Condoleezza Rice's
turn to present as fact Iraq's pursuit of uranium; she did
so in a New York Times oped column titled "Why We Know
Iraq is Lying." (Rumor has it an early draft was titled "Takes
One to Know One.") Because the Times is regarded as
"liberal" (wrongly, it turns out) and "credible" (ditto),
conservative administrations favor it as the ideal outlet
for disinformation. The standard method is to persuade a gullible
superstar reporter - e.g., Claire Sterling during the Reagan
years or Judith Miller today - of the truth of the disinformation
and wish them luck in converting the stuff into a page-one
Of course, when the goal is as monumental as selling a war,
it's best to utilize both the news and opinion pages, hence
Rice's oped. She pulled no punches, stating
that the Iraqi declaration to the U.N. "amounts to a 12,200-page
lie" that "fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts
to get uranium from abroad."
The standard the White House applied to Rice's column is
called "When in Rome," which she met: She matched the 40-60
mix of fact to fancy that venerable Times columnist
William Safire aspires to - and sometimes achieves.
On January 26, two days before the SOTU, Powell
question in Davos, Switzerland to the elites at the World
Economic Forum: "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium
and the special equipment needed to transform it into material
for nuclear weapons?" (By "special equipment," Powell meant
the aluminum tubes the International Atomic Energy Agency
and his own State Department regarded as ill-suited for nuclear
Powell again easily met the no-veracity-required standard
for a foreign audience. Yet 10 days later, at the U.N., he
excluded the UU claim in order to enhance the credibility
of a large crop of highly dubious assertions he was presenting
as established fact. That is, he demonstrated his elevated
evidentiary standards - and integrity - by not repeating his
Davos and fact-sheet "fact"!
On March 4, the Voice of America's Alex Belida
filed a story that dealt in part with an earlier story. He
that the VOA "last month [February 2003] reported Niger supplied
Iraq with a key ingredient for its nuclear program two decades
ago and more recently agreed to resume those shipments. U.S.
officials said that Niger signed an agreement in 2000 to sell
Iraq 500 metric tons of a concentrated form of uranium known
The VOA's Belida did not say who those U.S. officials are,
when and where they spoke, or how they learned those precise
details. Such information had not appeared in the U.S. media.
Chances are the officials spoke overseas, in the "go-lie zones."
Still, congressional investigators might want to follow up
with Belida, if for no other reason than to recognize and
praise these unnamed propagandists.
Granted, it's disappointing when a "straight shooter" like
President Bush delivers a SOTU that doesn't meet his "highest
standard." But we can take pride in other officials who, observing
a somewhat lower administration standard, peddled "Undeleted
Uranium" as established fact. Not only abroad, but right here
U-U! U-U! U-U! U-U!
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses
in mass communications and American foreign policy at the
University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq
war he published "Lying
Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His 'Techniques of Deceit'"
Disinformation Age". He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu