Bush's "16 Words" on Iraq & Uranium: He May Have Been Wrong But He Wasn't Lying
July 26, 2004
Updated: August 23, 2004
Two intelligence investigations show Bush had plenty of reason to believe what he said in his 2003 State of the Union Address.
The famous “16 words” in President Bush’s Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union address turn out to have a basis in fact after all, according to two recently released investigations in the US and Britain.
Bush said then, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from
None of the new information suggests
But what he said – that Iraq sought uranium – is just what both British and
The "16 words" in Bush's State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2003 have been offered as evidence that the President led the US into war using false information intentionally. The new reports show Bush accurately stated what British intelligence was saying, and that CIA analysts believed the same thing.
The Butler Report
After nearly a six-month investigation, a special panel reported to the British Parliament July 14 that British intelligence had indeed concluded back in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy uranium. The review panel was headed by Lord Butler of Brockwell, who had been a cabinet secretary under five different Prime Ministers and who is currently master of University College, Oxford.
The Butler report said British intelligence had "credible" information -- from several sources -- that a 1999 visit by Iraqi officials to Niger was for the purpose of buying uranium:
The Butler Report affirmed what the British government had said about the Niger uranium story back in 2003, and specifically endorsed what Bush said as well.
Butler Report: By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” was well-founded.
The Senate Intelligence Committee Report
The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported July 7, 2004 that the CIA had received reports from a foreign government (not named, but probably Britain) that Iraq had actually concluded a deal with Niger to supply 500 tons a year of partially processed uranium ore, or "yellowcake." That is potentially enough to produce 50 nuclear warheads.
Wilson reported that he had met with Niger's former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki, who said that in June 1999 he was asked to meet with a delegation from Iraq to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between the two countries.
The subject of uranium sales never actually came up in the meeting, according to what Wilson later told the Senate Intelligence Committee staff. He quoted Mayaki as saying that when he met with the Iraqis he was wary of discussing any trade issues at all because Iraq remained under United Nations sanctions. According to Wilson, Mayaki steered the conversation away from any discussion of trade.
For that reason, Wilson himself has publicly dismissed the significance of the 1999 meeting. He said on NBC’s Meet the Press May 2, 2004:
But that's not the way the CIA saw it at the time. In the CIA's view, Wilson's report bolstered suspicions that Iraq was indeed seeking uranium in Africa. The Senate report cited an intelligence officer who reviewed Wilson’s report upon his return from Niger:
"Reasonable to Assess"
At this point the CIA also had received "several intelligence reports" alleging that Iraq wanted to buy uranium from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from Somalia, as well as from Niger. The Intelligence Committee concluded that "it was reasonable for analysts to assess that Iraq may have been seeking uranium from Africa based on Central Intelligence Agency reporting and other available intelligence."
Reasonable, that is, until documents from an Italian magazine journalist showed up that seemed to prove an Iraq-Niger deal had actually been signed. The Intelligence Committee said the CIA should have been quicker to investigate the authenticity of those documents, which had "obvious problems" and were soon exposed as fakes by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"We No Longer Believe"
Both the Butler report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report make clear that Bush's 16 words weren't based on the fake documents. The British didn't even see them until after issuing the reports -- based on other sources -- that Bush quoted in his 16 words. But discovery of the Italian fraud did trigger a belated reassessment of the Iraq/Niger story by the CIA.
Once the CIA was certain that the Italian documents were forgeries, it said in an internal memorandum that "we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad." But that wasn't until June 17, 2003 -- nearly five months after Bush's 16 words.
Soon after, on July 6, 2003, former ambassador Wilson went public in a New York Times opinion piece with his rebuttal of Bush's 16 words, saying that if the President was referring to Niger "his conclusion was not borne out by the facts as I understood them," and that "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." Wilson has since used much stronger language, calling Bush's 16 words a "lie" in an Internet chat sponsored by the Kerry campaign.
On July 7, the day after Wilson's original Times article, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer took back the 16 words, calling them "incorrect:"
And soon after, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that the 16 words were, in retrospect, a mistake. She said during a July 11, 2003 White House press briefing:
That same day, CIA Director George Tenet took personal responsibility for the appearance of the 16 words in Bush's speech:
Tenet said the CIA had viewed the original British intelligence reports as "inconclusive," and had "expressed reservations" to the British.
The Senate report doesn't make clear why discovery of the forged documents changed the CIA's thinking. Logically, that discovery should have made little difference since the documents weren't the basis for the CIA's original belief that Saddam was seeking uranium. However, the Senate report did note that even within the CIA the comments and assessments were "inconsistent and at times contradictory" on the Niger story.
Even after Tenet tried to take the blame, Bush's critics persisted in saying he lied with his 16 words -- for example, in an opinion column July 16, 2003 by Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post:
However, the Senate report confirmed that the CIA had reviewed Bush's State of the Union address, and -- whatever doubts it may have harbored -- cleared it for him.
The final word on the 16 words may have to await history's judgment. The Butler report's conclusion that British intelligence was "credible" clearly doesn't square with what US intelligence now believes. But these new reports show Bush had plenty of reason to believe what he said, even if British intelligence is eventually shown to be mistaken.
President George W. Bush, “ State of the Union ,” 28 January 2003.
Chairman Lord Butler of Brockwell, “Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 14 July 2004.
“Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq,” Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate, 7 July 2004.
Walter Pincus, “ CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data; Bush Used Report Of Uranium Bid ,” Washington Post, 12 June 2003.
Mohamed ElBaradei, “ The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq: An Update ,” Statement to the United Nations Security Council by International Atomic Energy Agency Director General, 7 March 2003.
Joseph Wilson, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” New York Times, 6 July 2003.
Joseph Wilson,The Official Kerry-Edwards BLOG: "Transcript of Chat with Ambassador Joe Wilson," 29 Oct 2003.
Michael Kinsley, "...Or More Lies From The Usual Suspects?," Washington Post, 16 July 2003: A23.
Ari Fleischer, “ Press Gaggle ,” 7 July 2003.
Ari Fleischer and Dr. Condoleeza Rice, “ Press Gaggle ,” 11 July 2003.
George Tenet, "Statement by George J. Tenet Director of Central Intelligence," Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 11 July 2003.
Even the 9-11 comissioners don't agree about whether their staff contradicted the Bush administration.
Forget Weapons of Mass Destruction. Now its "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
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