Those 16 Words Still Smell
July 24, 2004
By Dennis Hans
are now told that the controversial 16-word sentence in the January
28, 2003 State of the Union address (hereafter "SOTU") about alleged
Iraqi efforts to procure unenriched uranium from Africa was "truthful"
(William Safire) and "well-founded" (Britain's Butler Committee
report). Alas, it is neither.
An examination of the entire SOTU paragraph that includes those
16 words illustrates a few of the many "techniques of deceit" the
Bush team has mastered: deception through juxtaposition, unsupported
"certitude" and, most importantly, deception through omission.
Here is Bush's
description of the Iraqi nuclear threat:
The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] confirmed
in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons
development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working
on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British
government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell
us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes
suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not
credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.
If you're a parent watching at home with your kids, and you just
happen to lack expertise on Iraq and nuclear-weapons technology,
like 99.99 percent of your fellow citizens (including me), that's
a very frightening picture.
Not only did Bush put the fear of Saddam into viewers, he did
so by citing sources that fence-sitters and skeptics would likely
consider credible: the British government and the IAEA. For citizens
who didn't know the IAEA from Adam or what to think of it, Bush
wisely included this comment earlier in the address: "We're strongly
supporting the [IAEA] in its mission to track and control nuclear
materials around the world."
What Bush didn't include was the IAEA's assessment - issued the
day before the SOTU - of the current Iraqi nuclear "threat." So
far, the agency had found "No evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear
or nuclear-related activities" nor:
signs of new nuclear facilities or direct support to any
nuclear activity... The IAEA expects to be able, within the next
few months, barring exceptional circumstances and provided there
is sustained proactive cooperation by Iraq, to provide credible
assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons programme.
(All IAEA quotes taken from Glen Rangwala's voluminous
work on WMD claims).
Such a program can't be hidden in a basement or buried in a garden.
It requires a vast, high-tech infrastructure. The "yellowcake" uranium
Iraq was allegedly seeking in Africa would have to be enriched to
become weapons-grade. A nuclear consultant quoted on July 20, 2003
in the British newspaper The Independent estimated
the enrichment plant would be "the size of 30 football pitches"
- i.e., 30 soccer fields. Such a plant could not go undetected in
a country spied on from satellites and swarming with inspectors,
as was the case in January 2003.
What the preparers of the SOTU did was cherry-pick an old IAEA
evaluation of no revelance to 2003, about a nuclear program that
was destroyed and dismantled long ago, and paired it with (dubious)
assertions about recent activity to conjure up a frightening image
that bore no relation to reality.
The uranium sentence
As for the uranium sentence, in the months leading up to the SOTU
the CIA alternately credited and pooh-poohed unconfirmed reports
that Iraq had been seeking uranium from Niger and possibly other
nations in Africa. One thing was clear: the CIA certainly didn't
know for a fact that Iraq was pursuing African uranium.
In the days leading up to the SOTU, a CIA official and a National
Security Council aide agreed that, for the purpose of a public speech,
the best option was to cite a public document, Britain's September
dossier, rather than the CIA's classified National Intelligence
As noted above, the final wording read, "The British government
has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities
of uranium from Africa."
CIA director George Tenet did not review the SOTU, and he has
subsequently said that such a major speech by a U.S. president should
not cite a foreign intelligence service on a matter that U.S. intelligence
retained doubts. But you can't fault the NSC aide or the White House
speechwriters. The CIA official had a chance to delete or alter
that sentence, but instead endorsed it.
We can, however, fault all who reviewed that sentence for failing
to spot the obvious flaw: The confused and untrustworthy Brits had
not "learned" Saddam "recently sought significant quantities of
uranium from Africa." To learn is to know, and not one Brit knew
that for a fact.
The slippery source for the SOTU uranium sentence
In the British dossier's Executive Summary, Point 6 begins, "As
a result of the intelligence we judge" that, among other things,
Iraq has "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,
despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could
require it." The phrase "we judge" does not mean "we know."
By Chapter 3, however, the Brits profess absolute certainty. One
section lays out "what we know" about the WMD programmes and includes
a list of nine "main conclusions." The fourth states that "Uranium
has been sought from Africa..."
The most obvious flaw in the list of "what we know" is that it
presents as established fact things the Brits may suspect are true,
but couldn't possibly "know" are true. Properly interpreted, the
list is evidence not of Iraq's capabilities, actions and intentions,
but of a deceitful British policy of saying "we know" when they
bloody well don't.
Later in Chapter 3, the Brits lose the certitude and pen an accurate
statement: "But there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply
of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
If you're keeping score, there's a "we judge" judgment in the
Executive Summary, a statement of fact in Chapter 3, and a vague
"there is intelligence" claim in the same chapter. Guess which interpretation
Blair picked for his address
to Parliament on the day the dossier was published?
Blair boldly declared, "we now know the following." He then laid
out a list of everything "Saddam has bought or attempted to buy"
that could be used in a uranium enrichment program. "In addition,
we know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of
uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful."
Notice how Blair lends credibility to his assertions of what "we
now know" by acknowledging something "we do not know." Who wouldn't
trust a man who's willing to admit he doesn't "know" everything?
Back on September 24, 2002, not many. Today, 58 percent of the British
Blair "lied" to them about Iraq.
If the British press and politicians had done their job, Blair
would have been forced to explain the discrepancies right then and
there. He would have had to acknowledge that "We don't really KNOW."
Tabloid headlines screaming "Blair Recants!" would have lessened
the likelihood that, four months later, the SOTU would have referred
to what the slippery Brits had "learned." Alas, the British press
and politicians are nearly as sorry as our own.
The uranium sentence in the context of 2002-03
When the Brits first floated their judgment/allegation/statement
of fact in September 2002, the IAEA asked them for "actionable information"
- "specifics of when and where" - so it could investigate. Britain
provided nothing. That's because it had no intelligence to call
its own, and it was not at liberty to share intelligence that was,
in effect, "owned" by foreign intelligence services. The Brits were
relying on stuff passed along by Italian and French intelligence,
including summaries (not official documents) of the information
in the documents that the IAEA would soon label fake.
UN Resolution 1441 required the U.S. and all nations to provide
the IAEA any evidence they had on Iraq's nuclear programs. In October
2002 the U.S. State Department acquired copies of the documents
that turned out to be fake and promptly distributed them to all
the national-security bureaucracies concerned with foreign policy
and nuclear proliferation. No U.S. bureaucracy provided copies to
the IAEA until February 2003 - strange behavior indeed for those
analysts and officials who considered the documents credible. What
better way to help Bush win a strong, intrusive U.N. resolution
than to have the IAEA confirm that Iraq had agreed to buy 500 metric
tons of yellowcake from Niger. And what a great SOTU prop for Bush
Alas, some "evidence" is just too darn good to put to the test.
That's because once you put it to the test, you run the risk it
will blow up in your face. It could have happened in October 2002,
before the U.N. debate and vote. It did happen on March 7, 2003,
but by then it was too late to play a role in derailing an unnecessary
The aluminum tubes sentence
Bush's statement about aluminum tubes combines "deception through
omission" with "implied certitude," as he gave nary a hint that
they might have a non-nuclear use. The non-expert sitting at home
would have no idea that the tubes' dimensions and technical specifications
made them a perfect fit for Iraq's stock of conventional artillery
rockets, or that the IAEA's "provisional conclusion" - presented
16 days before the SOTU - was that the tubes "were for rockets and
not for centrifuges" to enrich uranium. A majority of the U.S. intelligence
community disagreed with the IAEA, but our best experts, the nuclear
scientists at the Department of Energy (DOE), concurred.
Nor would the non-expert viewer have learned what the IAEA reported
19 days before the SOTU: Despite Bush's characterization of the
tubes as "suitable for nuclear weapons production," the IAEA concluded
that they "are not directly suitable." As the IAEA and DOE knew,
aluminum was a substandard metal for the demanding enrichment task.
Also, the tubes were the wrong dimension and would have to be redesigned
(a very difficult process) and stripped of their anodized coating.
If all that were achieved, the technical experts still considered
it highly unlikely that aluminum tubes would be sufficiently durable
to function effectively as gas centrifuges.
here for an outstanding article on the astounding level of CIA
deceit from 2001 to 2003 to persuade other departments, agencies
and lawmakers that the tubes were up to the enrichment task and
were not suitable for Iraq's stock of conventional rockets.)
What this tell us about Bush and his aides
The American public doesn't know if Uncurious George was aware
of the disagreements about the tubes. True, they were spelled out
in a long, careful
article in the Washington Post a few days before the
SOTU, but as the article didn't run in the sports section (the one
section Bush reportedly reads with care) he might have missed it.
But make no mistake, plenty of people who reviewed SOTU drafts did
know about the disagreements and did know that it was misleading
to give citizens the impression that those tubes only possible purpose
was uranium enrichment.
Bush administration deceit is often a team effort. Make no mistake,
senior officials know that Bush likes to cheat. Those who signed
off on the tubes sentence and that entire graf long ago caught on
that the plain-spoken straight shooter deeply committed to "restoring
honor and integrity to the White House" (as Bush repeatedly reminded
voters before the 2000 election) has no qualms whatsoever about
misleading the American people.
I can't imagine a senior official going up to Bush and saying,
"Mr. President, for the sake of argument let's grant that each of
those sentences in the nuclear-threat paragraph is at least technically
true. Nevertheless, when we string them together in that order they
pain\t an alarming but false picture. Democracy is all about the
informed consent of the governed, and we owe the citizens an honest
portrayal of the Iraqi threat. We need to rewrite that paragraph."
Deceitful close to a deceitful paragraph
Bush wrapped up the nuclear-threat paragraph with theese words:
"Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He
clearly has much to hide."
In fact, Iraqi officials had credibly explained the tubes to the
IAEA's satisfaction. As for Iraq's alleged pursuit of African uranium,
the burden of proof was on the accusers, who were required by U.N.
Resolution 1441 to provide the IAEA any evidence of prohibited Iraqi
nuclear activity. The best the accusers could come up with was a
parcel of forgeries.
Neither U.S., British, French or Italian intelligence was willing
to put to the IAEA test any other "evidence" each claimed to possess.
Clearly, the rascals who run those various intelligence agencies
haven't "credibly explained" why they didn't step up to the plate.
One might say they have "much to hide" in the way of credible explanations,
but nothing to hide with respect to credible evidence. Nothing to
hide and nothing to show.
Advice for lapdogs who'd like to be watchdogs
The astute reader may have noticed that there was lots of public
evidence from credible sources that would have enabled competent
journalists to demolish the SOTU at the very time it was delivered.
here for my own analysis two weeks after the speech.) That leads
to our most important lessons: (1) The Bush team's techniques of
deceit are transparent and easily exposed. (2) The techniques can
work only if the watchdogs - national-security bureaucrats in position
to blow the whistle, members of Congress, serious journalists -
allow them to work.
Alas, with relatively few honorable exceptions, the watchdogs
slept, cowered or cheered on the president as he misled the nation
into war. Even today, many appear eager to leap back into Bush's
good graces by giving him and his administration the benefit of
any ethical doubt - benefit that the Bush team has repeatedly shown
it does not deserve.
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; he's also a basketball shooting
instructor. His essays have appeared in the Miami Herald,
Washington Post, New York Times, National Catholic
Reporter, Slate and HoopsHype.com, among other outlets. Prior
to the Iraq war, Hans published the prescient essays "Lying
Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His 'Techniques of Deceit',"
Disinformation Age." He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.