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New look at Bush's `16 words'

LAST YEAR at this time, the media were in full scandal mode over 16 words that President Bush had spoken nearly six months earlier.

"The British government has learned," Bush had said in his State of the Union address in January, "that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

A furor erupted over that statement when a CIA consultant and ex-diplomat named Joseph Wilson, who had gone to Niger in 2002 to look into the matter, publicly claimed that the charge wasn't true. The White House agreed that the line shouldn't have been in Bush's speech, but far from quelling the uproar, that admission only intensified it.

Within days, Howard Dean was making comparisons to Watergate, a group of left-leaning former intelligence officers were calling for the resignation of Vice President Dick Cheney (who had taken a close interest in the uranium evidence), and the Bush-is-a-liar shrieking reached fever pitch. The Democratic National Committee cut an ad accusing Bush of deliberately lying to the American people. And the press embarked on a classic feeding frenzy, turning loose a tidal wave of coverage on what had been, by any sober estimate, only a very small piece of the administration's case against Saddam.

Upshot: Bush's credibility took a blow, support for the war in Iraq was undermined, and the idea that Saddam's regime had tried to acquire refined uranium in Africa for use in nuclear weapons was dismissed as false.

But what if it was true?

Late last month, the Financial Times reported that, according to European intelligence agencies, Iraq was one of five countries negotiating with smugglers in Niger for the illegal purchase of uranium yellowcake. "These claims support the assertion made in the British government dossier . . . that Iraq sought to buy uranium from an African country," the Financial Times reported in a front-page story on June 27. For some reason, though, the US media showed virtually no interest in that revelation. (One exception: columnist William Safire in The New York Times.)

A few days ago, the Financial Times was back with more news: An independent British commission investigating the government's use of intelligence during the runup to the war in Iraq, the paper reported on Wednesday, "is expected to conclude that Britain's spies were correct to say that Saddam Hussein's regime sought to buy uranium from Niger."

But this, too, has been largely ignored by the American press. Curious, no? Journalists couldn't get enough of this topic when the story line was that Bush and the British had lied. Shouldn't they find it just as riveting when facts point in the other direction?

Here's another fact, this one from a recent book by a one-time US ambassador: In 1999, Saddam's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf approached an official of Niger to talk about expanding trade, an approach the official interpreted as a possible attempt to buy uranium. The author of the book? None other than Joseph Wilson -- the man who accused the Bush administration last year of making up an Iraqi interest in uranium from Africa. Now, it seems, he comes close to confirming that interest. Yet except for a single story in The Washington Post, the media have had virtually nothing to say about Wilson's new account. To be sure, none of this proves that Saddam's agents sought uranium for use in nuclear weapons. What it proves is that reasonable people had good reason to believe that that's what Saddam's agents were doing. Just as reasonable people had good reason to believe that Iraq was armed with biological or chemical weapons. Remember: That was the deeply held consensus of the US intelligence community. It was affirmed by Republicans and Democrats, by Americans and Europeans, by the Bush administration and the Clinton administration, and by a unanimous UN Security Council.

Only in the wake of Iraq's liberation has it become fashionable to assert not just that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but that only a liar would have said there were. And only now have the media, in their eagerness to discredit Bush, been reluctant to cover stories that prove otherwise.

Intelligence failures are not the same thing as lies. And intelligence failures about Iraqi WMD did not begin with the Bush administration. It is worth recalling that the CIA was way off the mark in its estimates of Saddam's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs before the first Iraq war, too. It turned out then that Saddam was a much more dangerous WMD menace than the experts had realized. This time around, the experts may have overestimated the threat.

But if intelligence mistakes are inevitable, is it better to worry too much about potential threats or to worry too little? Worrying too much -- if that's what happened -- resulted in the toppling of one of the planet's most murderous tyrants. Worrying too little resulted in 9/11.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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