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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Sunday, July 20, 2003



Fair And Balanced At The NY Times

The Sunday Week In Review publishes an article by Christopher Marquis titled "How Powerful Can 16 Words Be?". Powerful enough to fog men's minds, evidently, based on this excerpt:

Today, those 16 words haunt the administration. They are the best-remembered flourish in a portrait of Iraq that today seems unrecognizable. They are a leading rationale for a war that has resulted in the death of 224 Americans. And they are either unsubstantiated or based on a lie.

"We did not go to war because of mustard gas or Scuds," said Joseph Cirincione, senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We went to war because President Bush told the nation that Saddam had, or might already have, a nuclear bomb, and we could not afford to wait. Now it's obvious that's not true and there was no solid evidence it was true at the time."

"Would we have gone to war if the president hadn't uttered those 16 words?" he asked. "Clearly, the answer is yes." But, he added: "We wouldn't have gone to war without the nuclear threat. The president's case for war was centered on the nuclear threat."


Well, as to whether they were the "best-remembered flourish" in January 2003, I don't know. They certainly have become famous in the last two weeks.

But I know this bit, "We went to war because President Bush told the nation that Saddam had, or might already have, a nuclear bomb, and we could not afford to wait", is false. Journalists and bloggers have scoured the public record, and the most incendiary quote out there seems to be Dick Cheney's famous mis-statement on Meet The Press "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons".

Now, the Times reporter must know this. I suspect that Joseph Cirincione, in the cold light of day, realizes he was misquoted, or else mis-spoke. So, my question is, why did Mr. Marquis of the Times not get a correcting quote from and Administration official, or simply note his own inability to find such a statement attributable to President Bush?

Gee, I have no idea. But some will suspect that it is more of the old Times bias, more of which is on display elsewhere in the story:

The fallout from the uranium charge hung over Mr. Bush and his entourage during their recent African tour. The president and White House officials initially pointed fingers at the C.I.A. over their vetting of the speech; George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, took responsibility, though it was soon disclosed that he had removed the same charge from a presidential speech just three months earlier.

False again. As Tenet made quite clear, he did not remove the same charge from the Cincinnatti speech; the proposed allegation in that speech was much more specific, and deemed to be unverified. Granted, it was a similar charge, but it was most certainly not the same charge.

Here is the long explanation from a White House Press Briefing:

Q You referred to it, Ari, as a minor element, but it was important enough to delete in the October speech, a reference to this.

MR. FLEISCHER: A reference to what?

Q A reference to Iraq's alleged attempt to get the uranium from Niger. In that case, the CIA Director asked Mr. Hadley to delete it, and it was deleted. Should that not have raised all kinds of red flags come January, when a similar reference pops up in the speech? Should not Mr. Hadley or someone from the White House made sure to check this out with the CIA?

MR. FLEISCHER: It was a different reference in the State of the Union speech.

Q Well, it was similar.

MR. FLEISCHER: But it was different. And it's similar in the fact that it's Iraq and Iraq pursuing weapons -- that's similar, of course. What is dramatically and markedly different and makes the Cincinnati speech different from the State of the Union speech, is the Cincinnati speech had a sentence in it about Iraq pursuing a specific quantity of weapons from one country -- Niger. The Director of Central Intelligence suggested to the White House that that statement should be removed. It was removed.

The State of the Union address had different language, and it was that Iraq is pursuing uranium, seeking uranium from Africa. That's because there was additional reporting from the CIA, separate and apart from Niger, naming other countries where they believed it was possible that Saddam was seeking uranium. So it's an apple in Cincinnati and an orange in the State of the Union. The two do not compare that directly.

Q Well, but it's an African country versus Africa. I'm just saying, should that not have raised red flags for someone in the White House to double check?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's why it was double-checked. And this is where we have acknowledged that the vetting process didn't work. Now, what did work was the vetting process in Cincinnati. And that's why the sentence specific to Niger with a specific quantity was taken out. But the broader statement about seeking uranium from Africa was vetted through the CIA. And the vetting process as it took place in Cincinnati did not take place for the State of the Union, and we've acknowledged that that is regrettable. But, again, over one issue of did he or did he not seek uranium from Africa, not whether Saddam Hussein was a threat and he needed to be removed.


retrace@nytimes.com

UPDATE: Or, Mr_Minuteman@hotmail.com. I stand by the first, and more annoying bit, about "President Bush told the nation that Saddam had, or might already have, a nuclear bomb"; however, the bit about different claims in the Ohio speech and the SOTU is looking uncertain. From Monday's WaPO:

...yesterday, a senior administration official with knowledge of the Tenet-Hadley conversation disputed the White House version. "The line he asked to take out wasn't about 500 tons of uranium or a single source. It was about Africa and uranium," the official said. Even the broader assertion about Africa "wasn't firm enough. It was shaky."

I could have stopped with one strong item. But no, I had to dilute it, and get sidetracked on something that may come out in favor of the NY Times. Note to self: Quit while ahead!

UPDATE 2: I try to learn something new every day. Today, I learned that George Bush siad this, while chatting with reporters on New Years Eve:

QUESTION: Sir, why should we be more worried about Saddam Hussein, who has no nuclear weapons, than Kim Chong-il, who is unstable and does have nuclear weapons?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think it's important to remember that Saddam Hussein was close to having a nuclear weapon. We don't know whether or not he has a nuclear weapon. We do expect him to disarm his weapons of mass destruction, that's what we expect.


OK, there are few slower news days than Dec. 31, Trent Lott was the buzz, I was away - blah, blah, blah. Did everyone know about this but me, or can I quit with the excuses?

And yes, it is hard to take this seriously, since it is, after all, our non-verbal President speaking, and the charge was not repeated. Still, I asked for it...

NOTE: The source for the Bush quote was Joseph Cirincione, the chap quoted above. He also corrects his quote in the Times, since I had asked him about the odd grammar. It should have been as follows:

"We went to war because President Bush told the nation that Saddam had, or soon could have, a nuclear bomb..."

Well, that is better.


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