Five months later, the truthfulness of one claim in George W. Bush's State of the Union address has become the focus of growing media scrutiny. The attention media are paying to this single assertion should be part of a larger journalistic inquiry into other misstatements and exaggerations that have been made by the Bush administration about Iraq.
In the January 28 speech, Bush claimed that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." That assertion was similar to claims made previously by administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell (CBS Evening News, 12/19/02), that Iraq had sought to import yellowcake uranium from Niger, a strong indication that Saddam Hussein's regime was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.
In fact, the Niger story, as documented by journalist Seymour Hersh (New Yorker, 3/31/03) and others, was based on crudely forged documents. In addition, the administration's own investigation in March 2002 concluded that the story was bogus. As one former State Department official (Time, 7/21/03) put it, "This wasn't highly contested. There weren't strong advocates on the other side. It was done, shot down."
Bush's use of the Niger forgeries has received considerable media attention in recent days. Much of this reporting has been valuable, and some outlets have broadened the inquiry beyond one passage in a speech. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus (7/16/03), for example, suggests that the uranium claim remained in the State of the Union address because "almost all the other evidence had either been undercut or disproved by U.N. inspectors in Iraq."
Much media coverage, however, has focused narrowly on the Niger incident, putting the press is in danger of ignoring the most important question the story raises: Does the uranium claim indicate a larger pattern of deceptive claims made about Iraq? At minimum, the following assertions made by the Bush administration also deserve media scrutiny:
Aluminum tubes: In the State of the Union address and elsewhere, the White House has claimed that Iraq was seeking to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes to use in processing uranium, tubes Bush said would be "suitable for nuclear weapons production." But a report in the Washington Post (9/19/02) months before Bush's address noted that leading scientists and former weapons inspectors seriously questioned the administration's explanation--pointing out that the tubes, which would be difficult to use for uranium production, were more plausibly intended for artillery rockets. The Post also noted charges that the "Bush administration is trying to quiet dissent among its own analysts over how to interpret the evidence." Commendably, some reporters, like NBC's Andrea Mitchell (7/14/03), have questioned the aluminum tubes claim in recent reporting about Bush's State of the Union address.
Iraq/Al-Qaeda links: When Bush announced the end of hostilities in Iraq in a May 1 speech aboard the USS Lincoln, he said of the defeated Iraqi regime: "We have removed an ally of Al-Qaeda." While a Saddam Hussein/Osama bin Laden connection was one of the administration's early justifications for going to war, it has produced no evidence to demonstrate this link exists.
There is evidence, however, that the administration was deeply invested in proving such a tie, as former Gen. Wesley Clark attested recently on Meet the Press (FAIR Media Advisory, 6/20/03). Yet media accounts of Bush's USS Lincoln speech hardly raised an eyebrow over this attempt to keep the Iraq/Al-Qaeda link alive.
The trailers: Bush presented the discovery of two trailers in Iraq as proof that Iraq possessed banned weapons: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories," he told Polish TV (Associated Press, 5/31/03). "They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two. And we'll find more weapons as time goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them."
But serious questions had been raised within the administration about whether these trailers had anything to do with biological weapons--doubts that soon emerged in a New York Times article (6/7/03). No evidence has been put forward confirming that the trailers were designed for anything other than the production of hydrogen for artillery balloons, as captured Iraqis had said (London Observer, 6/8/03).
Weapons inspections: More recently, Bush has flagrantly misrepresented the history of the prewar conflict with Iraq over weapons inspections, telling reporters on July 14, "We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." In fact, after a Security Council resolution was passed demanding that Iraq allow inspectors in, they were given complete access to the country. The Washington Post (7/15/03), describing Bush's remarkable statement, could only say that his assertion "appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring." Joe Conason (Salon, 7/15/03) took note of "the press corps' failure to report his stunning gaffe. The sentence quoted above doesn't appear in today's New York Times report, for example."
Powell's U.N. address: Some of the current reporting over the Niger uranium forgery notes that Colin Powell was less confident about the story, as evinced by the fact that he did not include the claim in his February 5 address to the United Nations. But Powell's speech had problems of its own. As pointed out by Gilbert Cranberg (Washington Post, 6/29/03), Powell embellished an intercepted conversation about weapons inspections between Iraqi officials to make it sound more incriminating, changing an order to "inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas" to a command to "clean out" those areas. He also added the phrase "make sure there is nothing there," a phrase that appears nowhere in the State Department's official translation. Further, Powell relied heavily on the disclosure of Iraq's pre-war unconventional weapons programs by defector Hussein Kamel, without noting that Kamel had also said that all those weapons had been destroyed (FAIR Media Advisory, 2/27/03).
Other pre-war deceptions: Even when administration deceptions have been exposed by prominent mainstream outlets, the media in general tend not to recall them or draw connections. In October 2002, in a notable front-page article titled "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable" (10/22/02), Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank noted two dubious Bush claims about Iraq: his citing of a United Nations International Atomic Energy report alleging that Iraq was "six months away" from developing a nuclear weapon; and that Iraq maintained a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used, in Bush's words, "for missions targeting the United States."
While these assertions "were powerful arguments for the actions Bush sought," Milbank concluded they "were dubious, if not wrong. Further information revealed that the aircraft lack the range to reach the United States" and "there was no such report by the IAEA." But recent media discussions of Bush's credibility--including in the Washington Post--have rarely mentioned these examples.