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Undeleted Uranium and the "Highest Standard"
July 29, 2003
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 and objective:

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 blockbuster.

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 posed this 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 enrichment.)

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 stated 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 as yellowcake."

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 at home.

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'" and "The Disinformation Age". He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu

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