What price will President Bush have to pay for his 16-word scam?

By Arianna Huffington

Published July 16, 2003 6:24PM (EDT)

Poor Karl Rove. He spends close to two years meticulously staging photo ops and carefully crafting sound bites to create the image of President Bush as a take-charge, man-the-controls, land the jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier, "Bring 'em on" kind of leader. But now the latest revelations about the Misstatement of the Union fiasco are threatening to bring back the old notion of W. as a bumbling, detached figurehead in chief.

And it's the president's own people who are painting this unflattering portrait.

Take George Tenet: While robotically impaling himself on his sword, the CIA director took great pains to point out that he thought so little of the Niger/Saddam uranium connection that he and his deputies refused to bring it up in congressional briefings as far back as fall 2002. It just didn't meet his standards.

Same with Colin Powell. The secretary went on at great length about the intense vetting process -- "four days and three nights" locked up with the leaders of the CIA, working "until midnight, 1 o'clock every morning," going over "every single thing we knew about all of the various issues with respect to weapons of mass destruction" -- that went into deciding what information would be used in his United Nations presentation. A presentation that ultimately did not include the Niger allegation because it was not, in Powell's words, "standing the test of time."

Hmmm, just how hard is that test? Powell's U.N. speech came a mere eight days after Bush's State of the Union -- leaving one to wonder what the expiration date is on patently phony data. About a week after a president uses it, it turns out.

So here's the picture we're left with: When faced with using explosive but highly questionable charges in vital presentations leading up to a possible preemptive war, both Powell and Tenet gave the information they were handed a thorough going over before ultimately rejecting it. But not the commander in chief. Apparently, he just took whatever he was handed, and happily offered it up to the world. He was, therefore, little more than the guy in the presidential suit, mindlessly speaking the words that others had debated and polished and twisted and finally agreed he would say. And then when the uranium hit the fan, our stand-up-guy president decided that the buck actually stops with George Tenet.

As the Niger controversy -- Yellowcake-gate -- is turning into a political firestorm, the question should be: What didn't the president know -- and why didn't he know it? And why does he know less and less every day?

After all, it's becoming clearer by the day that just about everyone else involved knew that the president was using a bogus charge to alarm the nation about Saddam's nuclear threat. Whatever the opposite of "top secret" is, this was it.

The U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, knew: She had sent reports to Washington debunking the allegations. Joe Wilson, the envoy sent to Niger by the CIA, knew: His fact-finding trip quickly confirmed the ambassador's findings. The CIA knew: The agency tried unsuccessfully in September 2002 to convince the Brits to take the false charge out of an intelligence report. The State Department knew: Its Bureau of Intelligence and Research labeled it "highly dubious." Tenet and Powell knew: They refused to use it. The president's speechwriters knew: They were told to remove a reference to the Niger uranium in a speech the president delivered in Cincinnati on Oct. 7 -- three months before his State of the Union. And the National Security Council knew: NSC staff played a key role in the decision to fudge the truth by having the president source the uranium story to British intelligence.

The bottom line is: This canard had been thoroughly discredited many, many times over, but the administration fanatics so badly wanted it to be true they just refused to let it die the death it deserved. The yellowcake lie was like one of those slasher movie psychos that refuse to stay buried no matter how many times you smash a hatchet into their skull. It had more sequels than "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween" combined.

Cherry-picking convenient lies about something as important as nuclear war is bad enough, but the administration's attempts to spin the aftershocks have been even worse. They just don't seem to grasp the concept that when you're sending American soldiers to die for something, the reasons you give -- all of the reasons -- should be true.

Instead of a sword for Mr. Tenet, somebody should get this bunch a copy of "All the President's Men." The slow drip, drip, drip of incremental revelations and long-overdue admissions is not the way to stem a brewing scandal.

Condoleezza Rice has been the worst offender. Now that we know that Tenet personally warned Rice's deputy, Steve Hadley, not to use the yellowcake claim back in October, and the role NSC staffers played in manipulating the State of the Union, Rice's widely publicized claim that at the time of the State of the Union, "maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery" has been revealed for what it is: A bald-face lie.

And even now as the truth comes flooding out, Rice continues to play fast and loose with the facts -- and stand by her man. "The statement that he made," she said on Sunday, speaking of the president, "was indeed accurate. The British government did say that."

Joining the still-don't-get-it unit were Don "Haldeman" Rumsfeld, who termed the president's speech "technically correct," and Ari "Ehrlichman" Fleischer who offered up this classic bit of spinsanity: "What we have said is it should not have risen to the level of a presidential speech. People cannot conclude that the information was necessarily false."

Watergate gave us the nondenial denial. Yellowcake-gate is giving us the nonadmission admission.

And that's not the only parallel. In July 1973, at the height of the Watergate hearings, Richard Nixon announced: "What we were elected to do, we are going to do, and let others wallow in Watergate." George Bush seems to be taking the same head-in-the-sand approach, letting it be known that, with Tenet taking responsibility for the Niger snafu, he considers the matter closed. "The president has moved on," said Fleischer over the weekend. "And I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on as well." Let others wallow in Yellowcake-gate, right, Ari? But wishing doesn't make it so, either for phantom uranium transfers or the evaporation of skepticism.

In the spirit of Tricky Dick, let me make myself perfectly clear: I'm not saying that Yellowcake-gate is the equivalent of Watergate. I'm saying it's potentially much, much worse.

At its core, Watergate was all about trying to make sure that Nixon won an election. Yellowcake-gate is much more than a dirty trick played on the American public. It's about the Bush administration's pattern of deception as it pushed and shoved this country into a preemptive war -- from the much-advertised but nonexistent links between Iraq and al-Qaida to the sexing up of Saddam's WMD.

No one died as a result of Watergate, but more than 200 American soldiers have been killed and a thousand more wounded to rid the world of an imminent threat that wasn't. To say nothing of the countless Iraqis who have lost their lives. And those numbers will only rise as we find ourselves stuck in a situation Gen. Tommy Franks predicts will continue for at least another four years.

With the events of the last week, George Bush has come across as very presidential indeed. Like his dad, he's been out of the loop; like Clinton he's become a world-class word weasel; and like Nixon he's shown a massive propensity for secrecy and dissembling. Not exactly the role models Karl Rove had in mind.

President Clinton was impeached for seven words he should never have uttered: "I never had sex with that woman." What price will President Bush have to pay for his 16-word scam?

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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