Friday, July 25, 2003

Yet more words on "16 words"

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Is there anything new to say about those 16 words in President Bush's State of the Union address? Perhaps.

In a column published in today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius claims the president's words were misleading, but not in ways most critics have suggested. Ignatius complains that the president was not disclosing new British intelligence, that the British intelligence was "almost certainly" based upon French intelligence, and that the information was not based upon the documents that were exposed as crude forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

I suppose readers are to figure out for themselves how any of the above considerations show Bush was misleading. I confess that I cannot. How could it be misleading to make a claim that actually had better support than it was subsequently, and erroneously, believed to have?

Well, did Bush speak the truth? Some commentators take it as obvious that his remarks, taken literally, are true. Matthew Miller writes: "those 16 words (citing British suspicions on Iraqi activity) for which Bush staffers keep apologizing were literally true." Kevin McCullough argues in a similar vein: "Let's be clear here – all the 16 words say is: 'This is what the Brits have learned.' In order to be able to prove the veracity of the statement, one must simply ask the British."

This defense of Bush's statement fails to be clever by at least a half. Learned is what philosophers call a "success verb." If Iraq did not seek to buy uranium ore from Africa, then the Brits could not have learned that they did. In this respect, Learn is like know and not like claim or allege. You can make a mistaken claim, but you cannot learn -- or know -- what isn't so.

All right, but did British intelligence learn that Iraq sought African uranium ore, so called yellowcake, or did they not? Alas, there is not enough information in the public domain to know, but the widely held impression that the British claim was based upon the forgeries looks to be plainly false. Reports have surfaced just this past week that the British based their claim on French intelligence that, in turn, was based on human intelligence and not upon the fraudulent documents (Nick Fielding, "French Uncovered Niger 'Link'" Sunday Times, July 20, 2003).

If we should come to learn that Bush was mistaken, does it follow that Bush lied? Of course not. One can speak a falsehood and not be lying. For, if one thinks one has good and sufficient reason to make a claim, then one does not lie, even if one turns out to be wrong. Unless we have reason to think Bush did not believe what he claimed – and we do not -- then we have no reason to say he was lying.

So, why all the hubbub? It is no mystery why those wishing to extract some partisan advantage would try to keep this story alive. But why did the Bush administration concede that the sixteen words should not have been in the speech, and why have they helped keep the story alive by bringing forward people –first George Tenet, and now, Stephen Hadley -- to take the blame? Why should there be any blame? Why didn't the claim belong in the speech in the first place?

Ignatius only comes close to the answer. He points to the wide technological gap that separates merely having uranium ore on hand from possessing the fissile material required for nuclear weapons. In order to make nuclear weapons using uranium ore, one needs to have the highly sophisticated capabilities required to enrich uranium. One method involves the use of gas centrifuges. Ignatius points out that the British estimated in their September dossier that Iraq was at least five years away from producing fissile material indigenously.

So, essentially, Ignatius thinks Bush was misleading, not in what he said, but in what he didn’t say. He thinks Bush should have also said that the Iraqis were years away from being able to manufacture fissile material from uranium ore. Yet, perhaps that too would have been misleading. We know the Iraqi regime was very close to having the conversion technology in 1991. Ignatius himself concedes that Bush's larger concerns about Iraqi nuclear ambitions and capabilities were vindicated by the Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeide's disclosure last month of his orders to bury plans and equipment for gas centrifuges beneath his backyard garden in Baghdad.

Yet, even if the Iraqis were not close to converting uranium ore into fissile material, that would not have rightly alleviated the legitimate concern regarding their capability to build nuclear weapons, should they have proven able to purchase weapons-grade uranium itself. The threat that would have been posed by any purchase of fissile material would have greatly exceeded the danger of their having attempted to procure uranium ore from Africa or anywhere else.

In any event, should much have been made of an attempt to get uranium ore? Perhaps not. Edward Jay Epstein observes that if the Iraqis had only needed uranium ore to build bombs, they would have found it far handier to look to their own phosphate deposits, near the Syrian border, in Al Qaim.

So, at long last, we have come upon a slight reason why perhaps too much should not have been made of any alleged Iraqi attempt to obtain uranium ore. Obtaining uranium ore is a lot easier than refining it into weapons-grade material. Yet, that is public knowledge. Politicians cannot claim they were misled about the relative importance of uranium ore procurement without admitting that they didn’t know what they should have known. So, ironically, perhaps the best reason why the 16 words should not have been in a State of the Union speech is a reason that cannot be readily exploited for partisan advantage.

Finally, and most importantly, if the essential mistake was one of emphasis, if in a mere 16 words the president gave the British allegation more prominence than it deserved, then that relatively trivial overemphasis is no match for the unwarrantedly excessive coverage this matter of the 16 words has subsequently received.

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|| headland, 6:41 PM


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