Joe Conason's Journal

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's response to CIA leaks over the Niger deception still doesn't answer the public's question: Did Bush knowingly mislead us or not?

Published July 11, 2003 7:50PM (EDT)

Rice fries steamed spies
On and off the record, the level of bureaucratic warfare between the CIA and the White House over the Niger deception is becoming intense, as public pressure grows for an independent investigation of the Bush administration's justifications for war in Iraq. As I suggested yesterday, the president's advisors are trying simultaneously to pillory the CIA while keeping director George Tenet safely inside the Bush tent.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice delivered the latest salvo against the agency early Friday morning in a meeting with reporters on Air Force One, as the presidential entourage headed toward Uganda. Her message wasn't exactly subtle: "The CIA cleared the speech. The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety," she said, after suggesting minor changes to the sentence about the alleged Iraqi uranium deal. "With the changes in that sentence, the speech was cleared. The agency did not say they wanted that sentence out."

Of course, she added, "I'm not blaming anyone here." (Why would anyone think she is?) And the president "absolutely" retains confidence in the agency, she emphasized. They're just hanging the director out to dry until the media heat dissipates.

According to Rice's version of events, the CIA carefully vetted the president's speech, and nevertheless permitted him to say things that the agency's analysts knew to be false, or at best highly questionable. She told reporters to question Tenet himself if they're curious about that contradiction.

Rice was responding to leaks from the intelligence community that first appeared on CBS News yesterday under a startlingly ominous headline: "Bush Knew Iraq Info Was False". CIA sources told CBS that when agency officials objected to the inclusion of the Niger uranium line in the Jan. 28 presidential address, the National Security Council staff -- led by Condi Rice -- decided that, true or false, they could get away with using the line if it was attributed to our British allies:

"CIA officials warned members of the President's National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa ... As long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections and that's how it was delivered."

Perhaps that's how this fiasco occurred, but I doubt that's the whole story. According to the senior officials quoted by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post, the CIA actually tried to wave the Brits away from the Niger tale no later than last fall. If that's true, then why would the CIA have allowed the president to use false information based on an erroneous British source? Incidentally, the Post account notes that our intelligence services didn't receive the Niger information directly from their London counterparts, but from an unnamed third country.

The Post also knocks down Rice's assertion that the Niger story had gained credibility from its inclusion in a National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the CIA. Again, quoting Pincus:

"Although the CIA paper mentioned alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from three African countries, it warned that State Department analysts were questioning its accuracy when it came to Niger and that CIA personnel considered reports on other African countries to be "sketchy" ... The CIA paper's summary conclusions about whether Iraq was restarting its nuclear weapons program did not include references to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa."

Anyone who understands how the State of the Union address is composed will understand why Rice is now pointing at Tenet. Vetting the intelligence information in that constitutionally mandated speech is her responsibility -- and if a false statement shows up in the presidential text, as it did last January, she must explain how that happened. Realizing what the White House obviously wanted, Tenet may have permitted his political instincts to overcome his normal probity. To attribute the Niger tale to the Brits wasn't a direct lie -- just a highly misleading statement whose meaning was known to be false.

But as national security advisor, Rice is supposed to assimilate all the information pertinent to the president's remarks, from all agencies. That would mean she had been given negative information about the Niger story not only by the CIA but also by the State Department, which had been warned against this fakery by former ambassador Joe Wilson and by the current ambassador in Niger. If there was any high official in the administration who should have known the story was false, that person was Rice.

This isn't the first time that Rice has wildly exaggerated intelligence information for political purposes. She persistently pushed the "aluminum tubes" story about Iraq, since discredited by the IAEA. She also promoted the dubious tale about the targeting of the White House and Air Force One by the 9/11 attackers. Rice clearly feels no compunction about exaggerating or distorting information when that serves the wishes of her boss. So her credibility compares poorly with that of Tenet -- the man who tried in vain to convince her and the other brilliant minds in the White House about the imminent threat from al-Qaida in 2001. (That may be the most important reason that the White House will disparage but hesitate to dismiss the CIA director, whose sudden unemployment could lead to discomfiting candor).

While the Bush appointees squabble, the public is starting to demand the truth. As this new CBS poll indicates -- with all due respect to Howard Kurtz -- liberals aren't alone in doubting that the White House told the truth about Iraq's arsenal, or in wondering whether this war was worth the cost.

At the vanguard, as usual, is MoveOn, whose powerful "Misleader" ad will debut next Monday on New York and Washington TV stations. Those ads inaugurate a national campaign for an independent investigation of the alleged government deceptions that led up to the war in Iraq.

Hey, is Kissinger still available?
[12:50 p.m. PDT, July 11, 2003

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