Joe Conason's Journal

The White House finally comes clean on one devastating WMD deception -- but it is still spinning the full story.

By Salon Staff
Published July 8, 2003 6:29PM (EDT)

Fleischer's modified limited hangout
Even in the Bush White House, the truth will seep out -- but only when the preferred lie can no longer be sustained. From last March, when the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed documents supposedly proving Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Niger as "crude" forgeries, until yesterday, the White House resolutely ignored the growing evidence that the president had misled the public about this crucial issue.

Perhaps when he first mentioned the alleged attempted uranium purchase in his State of the Union address, that was an honest if inexcusable error; since then, no such excuse has been plausible. And over the past few days, two things happened that forced a strangled confession from the White House press office.

On July 6, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV revealed in a New York Times Op-Ed essay that he is the previously "unnamed" envoy dispatched to Niger last year by the CIA -- and that he reported upon his return in February 2002, nearly a year before Bush's State of the Union speech, that the uranium story was false. "Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," wrote the respected career diplomat.

Almost immediately following Wilson's devastating account came the release of the investigative report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which cast additional doubt on the British government's promotion of the Niger uranium story last September (and much more).

Yet as of early yesterday morning, Ari Fleischer was still attempting to "contain" the embarrassing truth. "There is zero, nada, nothing new here," he told Times reporter David Sanger. In his blandly deceptive way, Fleischer claimed that "we've long acknowledged" that the Niger uranium tale "did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect." He went on say, "We see nothing that would dissuade us from the president's broader statement." Hours later, after the president and his entourage had left Washington for Africa, the White House issued " a statement in Mr. Fleischer's name that made clear that they no longer stood behind Mr. Bush's statement."

Around the same time, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus received a similar statement from a "senior Bush administration official." As "authorized" by the White House, it said: "Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech."

"Knowing all that we now know"? What about the facts they knew last spring, long before Bush, Cheney and Rice uttered all their frightening, baseless statements about the Iraqi nuclear threat? What about the facts they've known since no later than the eve of the war, when the IAEA informed them that the Niger documents were fake?

Yesterday's feeble admissions constitute what an earlier White House used to call a "modified limited hangout." The Bush crowd, improving on what they learned from the Nixon gang, has consistently excelled at lowering expectations of all kinds -- and this occasion is no different. Now even the briefest, most grudging and partial acknowledgment of an obvious fact qualifies as extraordinary candor.
[1:32 p.m. PDT, July 8, 2003]

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