This June 18th article in the Boston Phoenix is a fairly extensive takedown of Mark Steyn, one of the most artful of the current batch of rabid right-wing commentators, and a prominent feature of the Hollinger stable, his column regularly appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post. To adapt Woodrow Wilson, Steyn is idiocy written with lightning.
For a good example, check out this column, written a few weeks ago, in which he gloats over the vindication he claims the UK Parliament's Butler Report grants him. Now that David Sirota and Christy Harvey have published in these pages a rather thorough account of what Bush administration officials knew and when they knew it, perhaps the time is right to address Steyn's column which, echoed by (and echoing) most of the conservative punditry, alleges that Bush was right after all when he said, in his State of the Union speech, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Steyn begins by citing the Butler Report which says, he claims, that "the British Government did learn that Saddam Hussein did seek significant quantities of uranium from Africa." (his italics) On the narrow point of whether or not the Butler Report says what he claims it says, Steyn is right: the Report comes to four conclusions, one of which says, "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 evidence was credible." Never mind that none of the "several different sources" are cited in any way that would allow us to examine their credibility: the report makes reference to "further and separate intelligence", "further intelligence from additional sources" and "intelligence assessments available at the time."
The Report does discuss two further "assessments", however. It first states that "the UK consulted the US. The CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that there was evidence that it had been sought." This must be a different CIA from the one that had doubts about the claim strong enough to compel it to stop the White House from making the claim in public.
The Report then mentions that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after interviewing the Iraqi Ambassador who had gone on the trip in question, and after reviewing documents associated with the trip, concluded that Iraq did not seek to buy uranium in Niger. Though the IAEA says it can't prove that Iraq never sought to purchase the uranium, "it had 'no indication that Iraq attempted to import uranium since 1990' but it would 'follow up any additional evidence, if it emerges, relevant to efforts by Iraq to illicitly import nuclear materials.' So far no such additional information has been obtained by the Agency."
On one side, then, we have "several different sources" agreeing that Iraq sought uranium from Niger, plus a CIA that supposedly agreed with that assessment. On the other, we have an IAEA that has yet to find any evidence of Iraq's guilt, despite presumably having access to most of the same intelligence, and a CIA that thought the claim so shaky that it erased any mention of it from one of the President's speeches. Some resounding affirmation.
Mark Steyn isn't through, however. After trumpeting the Butler Report as reason for John Kerry to eat "humble yellowcake", he goes after the CIA for disagreeing with the British. Apparently, because the CIA screwed up the identity of a Sudanese aspirin factory, and failed to spot 9/11 coming, they can never be trusted again, at least not when they disagree with James Bond's employers.
And let's not forget, crows Steyn, that by the CIA's own admission, its human intelligence capabilities have been on the wane recently. Of course it must have had this one wrong; it had no one on the ground, and when it finally decided to send someone, it sent "a narcissistic kook [Joe Wilson] from a Saudi-funded think-tank on vacation for a week to sip mint tea with government stooges." In fact, Wilson was a career diplomat for 22 years, specializing on Africa (including a former posting in Niger). One of his last posts was to the US embassy in Baghdad, where he was the last US diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein. After defying one of Hussein's many "warnings" (to not house foreigners, in this case), Wilson appeared before journalists wearing a hangman's noose, claiming the message to Hussein was: "If you want to execute me, I'll bring my own [expletive] rope."
Perhaps the British intelligence services will one day be proven right, and with them Mark Steyn. But until their sources are exposed to the light of day and examined by the public at large, the IAEA, the CIA and Joe Wilson make a pretty persuasive case.