Senate Democrats have dug up additional explosive evidence over the past week that they say will help prove the Bush administration deliberately manipulated pre-war Iraq intelligence that was used to convince Congress and the public to support a pre-emptive strike against the Middle East country in March of 2003.
Specifically, Carl Levin, the senior Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is interested in permanently debunking the administration’s assertion that it ‘mistakenly’ included the 16-word reference in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address claiming that Iraq tried to purchase yellowcake uranium – the key component to building an atomic bomb – from Niger. Levin’s aides said the administration knew months before that the veracity of the allegations was dubious because it was based on forged documents.
Many critics of the war cite those 16 words in the State of the Union address as the silver bullet that convinced Congress and the American public to back the war against Iraq. The Niger uranium allegations are also at the heart of a federal probe into the outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was the envoy sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the uranium rumor and reported back to the CIA that there was no truth to it. The leak of Wilson’s wife’s identity and undercover CIA status was an attempt to muzzle Wilson, a vocal critic of the war, who had accused the Bush administration of citing the phony Niger uranium documents to dupe Congress into supporting the war.
The probe has so far resulted in a five-count criminal indictment against I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, who resigned from his position last month following the indictment for lying to prosecutors about his role in the leak.
Since Libby’s indictment, the Bush administration has launched a full-scale public relations campaign to shore up Bush’s sagging poll numbers. In doing so, senior officials at the White House and the National Security Council have publicly attacked Democratic critics of the war, as well as the bipartisan investigation into pre-war intelligence, claiming Democrats saw the exact same intelligence as those in the White House and voted in favor of military action.
On Wednesday, Cheney called critics of the war ‘dishonest’ and ‘reprehensible’ and said Democrats accusing the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence were ‘opportunists.’
But aides to Sen. Levin rebutted that, saying they have smoking-gun proof that they were lied to by Bush and Cheney about not only the existence of weapons of mass destruction but also claims that Iraq had tried to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger.
In building their case against the administration, Levin, with the help of Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has obtained the December 2002 letter sent to the White House and the National Security Council by Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warning that the Niger claims were bogus and should not be cited by the administration as evidence that Iraq was actively trying to obtain WMDs.
Waxman had written ElBaradei in March 2003, inquiring about the Niger documents and the allegations that Iraq tried to purchase uranium there in order to determine if the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence it had relied upon. Waxman received a three-page response from ElBaradei on June 20, 2003, around the same time that Joseph Wilson had started to publicly question the Bush administration’s rationale for war and around the same time White House officials had disclosed his wife’s CIA status to a handful of reporters. Baradei’s response letter lays out in full detail the play-by-play in his attempt to get to the bottom of the Niger uranium story.
ElBaradei said, when the Niger claims were included in the State Department fact sheet on the Iraqi threat in December 2002, ‘the IAEA asked the U.S. Government, through its Mission in Vienna, to provide any actionable information that would allow it to follow up with the countries involved, viz Niger and Iraq.’ ElBaradei said he was assured that his letter was forwarded to the White House and to the National Security Council. ElBaradei added that he and his staff were suspicious about the Niger documents because it had long been rumored that documents pertaining to Iraq’s attempt to obtain uranium from Niger had been doctored.
The evidence that Iraq sought to purchase uranium from an African country was first revealed by the British government on September 24, 2002, when Prime Minister Tony Blair released a 50-page report on Iraqi efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This report ultimately became a significant part of the US case against Iraq.
ElBaradei had said he repeatedly requested copies of the Niger documents prior to Bush’s State of the Union address but never received anything. When he finally did receive the documents – six weeks later – on February 4, 2003, a week after Bush’s State of the Union address, his suspicions turned out to be on the money. He was the person who first revealed that the Niger documents cited by the Bush administration to win support for the war were crude forgeries.
ElBaradei told Waxman that the White House had turned over the Niger material ‘without qualification’ and provided no specific comments on whether US intelligence considered the documents to be authentic.
In conversations and correspondence with Waxman, ElBaradei said he personally had tried to contact Stephen Hadley, then Deputy National Security Adviser, and aides to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, warning them not to rely on the Niger documents as evidence of the Iraqi threat, but was continuously rebuffed. He said the White House officials pledged to cooperate with United Nations inspectors but repeatedly withheld evidence from them.
Cheney did the rounds on the cable news outlets, and tried to discredit ElBaradei’s conclusion that the documents were forged.
‘I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong,’ Cheney said. ‘[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don’t have any reason to believe they’re any more valid this time than they’ve been in the past.’
Four months later, Hadley, as well as former CIA Director George Tenet, took responsibility for allowing the Niger uranium claims to be included in Bush’s speech. Aides to Levin said that when the bipartisan investigation is complete there will be ample proof that the Bush administration, specifically, Hadley, Cheney, and other top officials, knowingly manipulated intelligence to fit their agenda in launching a war.