Saturday, January 14, 2006

It's interesting, the way things shake out. Recently, I was involved in yet another discussion about Bush's famous 16 words during his 2003 State of the Union.

The person I was talking to was insisting that Bush did not lie. The Iraqis were seeking uranium.

Well... let's dig a bit deeper.

President Bush was making a case for a war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, the lives of over 2000 US soldiers, the wholeness of many thousands more, and the lives of scores of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Of course, we didn't know then that the cost would be so high, but we did know he was pushing for war, and war is always a terrible thing. It would be terrible to invade Iraq, if there was any other rational choice.

So, Bush said that British intelligence "learned" that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

What we knew, at the time, was that there was a foreign intelligence report regarding a possible uranium sale from Niger. Joseph Wilson had investigated, and found that the controls and accounting on the uranium produced were tight, so it would be very difficult for such a sale to have taken place. It would have been so difficult that he decided the matter must have been settled by his report.

The CIA wasn't willing to dismiss the report yet. Part of Wilson's report included a trade minister saying that an Iraqi trade delegation came to speak about expanding trade relations. "Expanding trade relations" was clearly a code phrase for "selling us uranium". Niger had no interest in violating UN sanctions, and closed off the discussion.

Of course, the CIA is suspicious about stuff like that. Would the Niger trade officials tell Wilson (who admitted upfront that he was working on behalf of the US government) that, sure, they'd discussed selling uranium? No. So they continued to consider a uranium sale possible.

That's what we knew: the Iraqis were asking questions, getting a solid "no" (at least publicly) and the CIA wasn't willing to state that uranium sales were impossible. British intelligence had similar, slightly stronger suspicions, but they had no more proof than the CIA had.

Were the sixteen words a lie?

I don't care, because it doesn't matter.

If Bush had shaken the CIA down, and gotten the whole story, then using those sixteen words in his speech would have been dishonest. Even if you wouldn't call it a lie, it certainly would leave Congress and the American people with a misleading picture.

But what if he hadn't? What if he'd been a little too trusting, a little too naive, to order the full shakedown that he'd need to get all of the facts?

Well, then he was willing to build a case for war without having all the facts. While this would leave him innocent of lying, it would mean he made a terrible mistake about a vitally important issue. A mistake that played into a decision to invade Iraq, at terrible cost to both Iraq and the United States.

It's not the kind of mistake that we can afford to make.

These days, President Bush is calling for a civil discourse, and respectful disagreement, saying that we shouldn't accuse his administration of "misleading" the nation into war. He might be correct, in one narrow sense.

It wouldn't be right to say that his administration deliberately deceived the country in building the case for war. We can't be completely sure that it was deliberate.

We only know that his administration led us to war, based upon misleading information that they could have corrected, if they'd dug deeply enough. Mistake or malice, it's long past time we start holding people to account.

I'm bored...
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