Joe Conason's Journal

U.N. bombshell: More evidence against Iraq turns out to be phony. Plus: Did Bush make a big booboo during his speech to the nation?

Published March 7, 2003 3:04PM (EST)

More faked "intelligence"?

Excuse me, but did I hear correctly what Mohammed El-Baradei said this morning? According to Reuters, I did: The chairman of the International Atomic Energy Authority told the UN Security Council that the documentary evidence of Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger in 1999 is "not authentic." Or to use a ruder term, the proof of this allegation provided by British intelligence last fall  and repeated by the US State Department last December -- was faked.

As El-Baradei continued his polite but thorough debunking of alarms about Iraqi nuclear capability spread by the Bush and Blair governments, he quickly passed over that little bombshell. (He dwelled longer on the question of those aluminum tubes and magnets supposedly intended for uranium enrichment centrifuges, stating again, with near-certainty after additional probing, that those items were obtained for other purposes.) What the IAEA apparently established is that letters or other documents purporting to show an Iraqi bid for uranium from Niger were forged. Among other things, he noted that handwriting on those documents had been checked by "outside" experts.

So much for the vaunted Iraqi bomb (a topic conspicuously omitted by President Bush from his war-preview press conference last night). Assuming that El-Baradei's accusation about the Niger uranium hoax is correct, what remains to be discovered is where the phony documents originated and why it was created. Like the plagiarized "intelligence report" put out by the British and cited by Secretary of State Powell at the UN last month, this is a matter for investigation by the appropriate committees of Parliament and Congress. Or it would be, if those honorable legislatures possessed the necessary independence for intelligence oversight.

The report by El-Baradei's colleague Hans Blix offered no new support for the Bush-Blair position, as the White House no doubt knew when the president's press conference was scheduled to pre-empt him. The clear implication of Blix's analysis, however, is that "accelerating" Iraqi cooperation under threat of force justifies continued inspections rather than immediate resort to war.

After hearing Blix and El-Baradei, the Security Council will have to decide whether to give them days or months to complete their task. Neither Powell nor his colleague Jack Straw offered a compelling argument for an invasion within the next two weeks -- when a larger and far more united alliance is likely to back the ultimate resort to force two months from now, if necessary.

[12:25 a.m. PST, March 7, 2003]

The questions that weren't asked

When the president calls an unusual prime-time press conference, in the days leading up to a probable war, it is fair to assume that he has something important to say. George W. Bush did tell us that he will seek the approval of the U.N. Security Council, but that he will strike Iraq with or without that approval. He told us again (and again and again) that Saddam Hussein is a "threat" to our security, but that wasn't new. What he didn't explain is what he has consistently failed to explain, as exasperated commentators could not help noting afterward.

He didn't explain why. Why Iraq, why now, why inspections can't be allowed to work, and why this war at this time is worth ruining our traditional alliances and our international prestige.

There was no lack of rhetorical exhortation in the notes guiding the president's performance on the podium, as he glanced down from time to time. He stayed on message about the awfulness of Saddam and the perilous state of American security after Sept. 11. Yet he would not or could not offer a serious response to questions about the divisions between America and friendly nations in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Instead, Bush resorted to the propagandistic mode that has already brought discredit on him and his administration. "I believe Saddam Hussein is a threat to the American people. I believe he's a threat to the neighborhood in which he lives. And I've got a good evidence to believe that ... He has trained and financed al-Qaida-type organizations before, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations." That latter charge, although somewhat garbled, sounded new to me. Has Saddam trained and financed al-Qaida -- or "al-Qaida type organizations," whatever that may mean?

Not according to the State Department's most recent annual report on international terrorism, which was issued last year. That presumably authoritative document describes Iran as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism," and accuses the Tehran regime of providing significant assistance to such al-Qaida-type (meaning Islamist) outfits as Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. The report also fingers Sudan and Syria for providing "safe haven" and other aid to Islamist terror organizations.

But until now the U.S. government lodged no such accusation against Iraq. While the report says Baghdad continues to assist "numerous terrorist groups," the organizations specifically named by the State Department are all secular, not Islamist. The groups with ties to Iraq are "Marxist" or "socialist" in orientation, making them "infidels" like Saddam in the eyes of the Islamists. The State Department report on Iraq doesn't mention any links to al-Qaida at all. It also points out that the "main focus" of Saddam's support for terrorism "was on dissident Iraqi activity overseas."

The subdued, formalist style of the press conference permitted no follow-up questions, so nobody asked Bush to explain his reference to Saddam's alleged assistance to al-Qaida. Nor did anyone pose certain other highly relevant questions. He bluntly refused to reveal how much this war is estimated to cost, even though his aides are preparing a supplemental budget request that must include the approximate numbers.

Speaking of costs, the president repeatedly emphasized his personal commitment to minimizing civilian deaths in the event of war. While he surely has no idea how many civilians will be killed in this conflict, it would have been worth inquiring whether he knows how many civilians died in the last Gulf War. Has he asked any of his aides to find out? As I've discussed here before, that is one statistic about Iraqi suffering that the government has tried to suppress.

Another topic unmentioned by either Bush or his interlocutors was nuclear weaponry -- except with regard to North Korea, which actually has them and is probably building more. Did nobody in the White House press corps recall that Iraq's supposedly imminent nuclear status was the president's chief concern as recently as last September? Back then, both the president and the British prime minister warned that Iraq's nuclear program was "the real issue." Now, after a few months of inspections have established that such a threat scarcely exists, the subject isn't even worth mentioning anymore.

The performance of the journalists was less deferential and more challenging than the norm for this White House. But someone should have asked the president why his reasons for this war keep changing.

[7:05 a.m. PST, March 7, 2003]

For your regular Joe, bookmark this link. To send an e-mail, click here.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------