- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

President Bush’s critics are overreacting a bit when they accuse him of “lying” in his now-famous 16 words of questionable Iraqi weapons claims. He did not lie. He simply told half of the truth, the half that helped him make his case for going to war against Iraq.

Lying is not the same thing as telling a convenient half-truth. Remember Bill Clinton?

Mr. Clinton’s critics excoriated him for telling half-truths to wriggle his way out of personal embarrassment. It must be amusing for him to see many of his tormentors now defending the half-truths Mr. Bush told in order to wriggle this country into a war.

The 16 words in the president’s State of the Union address in January went like this: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

On its face, that statement is not false. But the president did not reveal the other half of that statement’s story: that our own CIA disbelieved what the British had “learned.”

The use of the word “learned” is a cleverly journalistic touch, as if the president is First Reporter giving us a hot scoop. It lends a touch of credibility, implying Saddam’s uranium shopping is an established fact that only had to be “learned” by our buddies the Brits.

In fact, the word “believed” would have been more appropriate. Intelligence analysis is simply that, analysis, based on one’s faith in one’s own knowledge and the judgment of one’s sources as much as on cold, hard, indisputable facts.

Of course, “believed” sounds like a weasel word, compared to “learned.” It would have lacked punch in a mighty State of the Union address. Who cares what another country’s spy service “believes”? We want to know what our country’s spies know.

Not many people paid much attention in March, when the International Atomic Energy Agency found the only public documentation for the uranium claim to be forgeries. But the big stuff hit the media fan on July 6 when Joseph Wilson, a U.S. emissary who had been sent to Niger to check out the claim disclosed in the New York Times that he had told the U.S. government more than a year ago that “it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”

Still, overstating the case against Saddam is not materially the same as lying about it. That’s Mr. Bush’s story, and he’s sticking to it.

And British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government continues to stand by its allegations of Saddam’s nuclear shopping. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the British had documents and sources other than those possessed by U.S. intelligence to back up their claims, but “cannot share them with us.”

So, our jolly good British pals don’t trust the White House enough to share their most sensitive intelligence on this matter? That’s too bad, since the White House trusted the British enough to use them as a source for Saddam’s alleged nuclear shopping spree.

In hindsight, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday, Mr. Bush and CIA chief George Tenet now believe “referencing another country’s intelligence as opposed to your own” was probably the wrong thing to do in a speech as important as the State of the Union.

But the wrong thing got into the speech anyway, even though, according to Miss Rice, Mr. Tenet successfully intervened to delete a reference to Iraq trying to buy uranium from Niger from a speech Mr. Bush delivered in Cincinnati last October. In January, the CIA chief allowed the line to get through to Mr. Bush’s lips, so long as it referenced British intelligence, not ours.

Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” Ronald Reagan said during the Iran-Contra scandal, “Mistakes were made.” Mr. Bush’s slogan might well be, “Stop me before I speak again.”

No, the collapse of the 16 words does not mark the collapse of his entire case for launching this war. But, memories of this foul-up won’t make Mr. Bush’s job any easier if he wants to wage another one, either.

One wonders what happened to the “responsibility era” Mr. Bush promised in his 2000 campaign, in which people who “have a problem” would no longer “blame somebody else.” We’re not there yet. Halfway doesn’t quite count.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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