Patching Things Up

The press gets a second chance on the CIA leak case

The White House tweaked the speech and sent it back. The sentence was still there. The only thing removed was the uranium's tonnage. So the CIA pressed its case again, and the sentence was dropped from the draft of the speech. But just to make sure it would stay dropped, the agency sent yet another message to the White House. This one repeated the earlier points, stressing that "the Africa story is overblown" and adding: "The evidence is weak. One of the two mines cited . . . as the location of the uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine . . . is under the control of the French authorities." The president delivered the speech on October 7—minus the uranium sentence.

Yet nearly four months later, on January 28, 2003, Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address, and to defend his war plans, he told the uranium story again, in what are now his infamous "16 words": "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Another five months passed before the issue rose to the surface again, when Wilson's Times op-ed piece ran on July 6, 2003, challenging the White House assertions about Iraq's seeking uranium in Africa. The press soon pointed back to Bush's State of the Union speech. The White House tried to defend the 16 words, but the differing stories from Bush officials wobbled and swerved all over the place. Bush himself said that the CIA hadn't made its doubts known about the yellowcake story until after his speech—which obviously wasn't true, given the earlier ruckus over the speech in Cincinnati.

And the record also shows that the U.N.'s nuclear inspection arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, had reported in March 2003 that the documents involved in the Niger story had been unmasked as forgeries. That story didn't draw much attention, nor did an IAEA official report a month later that said: "Based on its analysis, the IAEA concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents were in fact forged documents. The IAEA therefore concluded that these specific allegations were unfounded."

This was the evidence the White House gang brushed aside as they waged their smear campaign against Wilson and outed his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, as a CIA undercover agent.

And this was the evidence that Libby, a key Bush-Cheney insider, sought to turn reporters away from as he joined in the smear campaign. Eventually he also apparently spun yarns to the prosecutor's grand jury investigating the leak of Plame's identity, for he now faces trial for obstructing justice and other felonies. Others in the gang may follow.

Their worst act, not listed in the penal code, was to betray the public. At his press conference last week, the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, said: "You're asking, do these charges vindicate a serious breach of the public trust? Absolutely."

And as for those reporters back in 2003 who took stenography from the storytellers and failed to examine the contrary evidence that was on the record, they too betrayed the public trust.

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