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Friday, Jul 23, 2004, 9:51 am

Just 16 words, but no end in sight

By Abraham Epton
On July 9th, the Senate Committee on Intelligence released its report evaluating what government analysts knew leading up to the war in Iraq. The following week in the UK, the Butler committee released its report on pre-war intelligence to the House of Commons. And ever since, the right-wing revisionists have been working overtime to resuscitate claims that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger, and to slam Ambassador Joe Wilson for ever having had the temerity to publicly criticize the allegation.

The Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Bill Safire, Robert Novak and Mark Steyn, among others, have all hopped on the vindication bandwagon, arguing that the two recent government reports prove Wilson wrong, and Bush right in uttering during the State of the Union: "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" (his famous 16 words).

In fact, the reports do nothing of the kind. The Senate report concludes that Wilson was wrong, but tellingly, the section of the report that does so was endorsed only by the committee's Republican members, and not the Democratic ones. On the basis of a conversation Wilson had with a former Prime Minister of Niger regarding an Iraqi trade delegation's inquiries in the late '90s, the report argues that the question of whether or not Iraq sought uranium is still open. In fact, this conversation remains the only evidence that such a transaction was ever contemplated by the two countries, and Wilson found no evidence to support any other conclusion.

The Republican chorus also insists that the CIA is wrong to disagree with most of the intelligence agencies of Europe, in believing the Iraq-Niger story. What chorus omits, however, is that most of the conclusions of these agencies are based on documents, or summaries of their contents, that have been shown to be forged (as Josh Marshall chronicles here and here).

According to the Republican-endorsed section of the Senate report, "The Committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador's report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal." This is methodically refuted by a letter Wilson sent to the Committee following the report's publication (scroll down for the letter); suffice it to say that a significant number of analysts appeared to have grave reservations about the existence of such a deal.

Finally, much hay is made of allegations that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, recommended him for the mission. This ignores the fact that Wilson, who had recently returned from a similar trip to Niger investigating uranium-related issues, is a former ambassador with 20 years' experience in Africa, as well as time spent in the American Mission in Baghdad. As such, he was extremely well-qualified for the job (for which he received only money to cover his expenses). Nevertheless, the right insists that he only got the assignment because of nepotism, even though the CIA itself denies this. And, using the reputed nepotism as a justification for outing his wife as a covert agent, as Wilson's attackers implicitly do, has no basis in the law whatsoever (again, a point Marshall has covered in detail, here and here).

But perhaps the best part of this whole story is the widely-ignored fact that the private attorney with whom Bush is consulting on the matter, Jim Sharp, is no stranger himself to embarrassing presidential scandals. After all, as pointed out here, his client list includes Jeb Magruder of Whitewater fame, Richard Secord during the Iran-Contra affair, and a post-Enron Ken Lay.

I wonder if that's an omen of some sort...?
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