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Bush’s “16 Words” on Iraq & Uranium: He May Have Been Wrong But He Wasn’t Lying

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 Africa.” Some of his critics called that a lie, but the new evidence shows Bush had reason to say what he did.

  • A British intelligence review released July 14 calls Bush’s 16 words “well founded.”
  • A separate report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee said July 7 that the US also had similar information from “a number of intelligence reports,” a fact that was classified at the time Bush spoke.
  • Ironically, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who later called Bush’s 16 words a “lie”, supplied information that the Central Intelligence Agency took as confirmation that Iraq may indeed have been seeking uranium from Niger.
  • Both the US and British investigations make clear that some forged Italian documents, exposed as fakes soon after Bush spoke, were not the basis for the British intelligence Bush cited, or the CIA’s conclusion that Iraq was trying to get uranium.

None of the new information suggests Iraq ever nailed down a deal to buy uranium, and the Senate report makes clear that US intelligence analysts have come to doubt whether Iraq was even trying to buy the stuff. In fact, both the White House and the CIA long ago conceded that the 16 words shouldn’t have been part of Bush’s speech.

But what he said – that Iraq sought uranium – is just what both British and US intelligence were telling him at the time. So Bush may indeed have been misinformed, but that’s not the same as lying.


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 “16 Words”

During the State the Union Address on January 28, 2003, President Bush said:

Bush: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

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:

Butler Report: It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.

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: Bush’s Words “The Lie”

(From a web chat sponsored by Kerry for President Oct. 29, 2003)

*** Joe Wilson (Oct 29, 2003 11:24:53 AM)
I would remind you that had Mr. Cheney taken into consideration my report as well as 2 others submitted on this subject, rather than the forgeries

*** Joe Wilson (Oct 29, 2003 11:25:06 AM)
the lie would never have been in President Bush’s State of the Union address

*** Joe Wilson (Oct 29, 2003 11:25:14 AM)
so when they ask, “Who betrayed the President?”

*** Joe Wilson (Oct 29, 2003 11:25:30 AM)
They need to point the finger at the person who inserted the 16 words, not at the person who found the truth of the matter.

The Senate report said the CIA then asked a “former ambassador” to go to Niger and report. That is a reference to Joseph Wilson — who later became a vocal  critic of the President’s 16 words. The Senate report said Wilson brought back denials of any Niger-Iraq uranium sale, and argued that such a sale wasn’t likely to happen. But the Intelligence Committee report also reveals that Wilson brought back something else as well — evidence that Iraq may well have wanted to buy uranium.

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.

Based on what Wilson told them, CIA analysts wrote an intelligence report saying former Prime Minister Mayki “interpreted ‘expanding commercial relations’ to mean that the (Iraqi) delegation wanted to discuss uranium yellowcake sales.” In fact, the Intelligence Committee report said that “for most analysts” Wilson’s trip to Niger “lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal.”

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:

Wilson: …At that meeting, uranium was not discussed. It would be a tragedy to think that we went to war over a conversation in which uranium was not discussed because the Niger official was sufficiently sophisticated to think that perhaps he might have wanted to discuss uranium at some later date.

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:

Committee Report: He (the intelligence officer) said he judged that the most important fact in the report was that the Nigerian officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and that the Nigerian Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium, because this provided some confirmation of foreign government service reporting.

“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:”

Fleischer: Now, we’ve long acknowledged — and this is old news, we’ve said this repeatedly — that the information on yellow cake did, indeed, turn out to be 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:

Rice: What we’ve said subsequently is, knowing what we now know, that some of the Niger documents were apparently forged, we wouldn’t have put this in the President’s speech — but that’s knowing what we know now.

That same day, CIA Director George Tenet took personal responsibility for the appearance of the 16 words in Bush’s speech:

Tenet: These 16 words should never have been included in the text written
for the President.

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:

Kinsley: Who was the arch-fiend who told a lie in President Bush’s State of the Union speech? . . .Linguists note that the question “Who lied in George Bush’s State of the Union speech” bears a certain resemblance to the famous conundrum “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

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.

Senate Report: When coordinating the State of the Union, no Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analysts or officials told the National Security Council (NSC) to remove the “16 words” or that there were concerns about the credibility of the Iraq-Niger uranium reporting.

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.


Supporting Documents

Read the recent British intelligence review, the “Butler Report”

Read the recent U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report


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.

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