Detecting radioactive fraud Nicholas Kristof provides important clues to an ongoing scandal today. Discussing the failure to turn up weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (so far) and the administration's pressure on the intelligence community for "cooked" data, the Times columnist mentions those phony documents passed around by the U.S. and the British that purported to prove Baghdad bought enriched uranium from the tiny African nation of Niger.
"As Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker," he recalls, "the claims were based on documents that had been forged so amateurishly that they should never have been taken seriously."
Then Kristof tosses off the following revelation:
"I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
"The envoy reported, for example, that a Niger minister whose signature was on one of the documents had in fact been out of office for more than a decade. In addition, the Niger mining program was structured so that the uranium diversion had been impossible. The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted -- except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.
"'It's disingenuous for the State Department people to say they were bamboozled because they knew about this for a year,' one insider said."
There he drops the subject and moves on to a different example of the misuse of intelligence, namely the case of Saddam's late son-in-law, the defector Hussein Kamel. But what Kristof alleges is that the administration knew the Niger documents were fake when the president cited them in his State of the Union message. (Specifically, Bush warned, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.")
Did Bush know that the Niger story was a fraud? The choices for the White House here aren't very attractive: Either their administration was too incompetent to detect the fake, or the president lied about the gravest issues confronted by the nation. It is hard to imagine a more serious accusation than to say that the president of the United States knowingly used fraudulent evidence to foment a preemptive war.
If the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee take their oaths of office seriously, they should be investigating the Niger scandal now.
And while you're on the Times Op-Ed page, don't skip Paul Krugman on the Top Gun photo op -- and how Bush and Rove casually trashed an important American tradition. (Never skip Krugman.) Finally, the Daily Howler provides damning details of how the mainstream press covered up (and continues to cover up) Top Gun's strange "missing year" in the Texas Air National Guard.
[9:21 a.m. PDT, May 6, 2003]