The debate pendulum in Washington at times swings by the winds of politics, not, as it should, by evidence. Consider the quandary over President Bush’s assertion in his 2003 State of the Union Address that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy enriched uranium, “yellow cake,” illicitly from Niger. Yellow cake is required in a nuclear development program. When it was discovered last summer that some of the documents the administration had used as evidence were forgeries, the pendulum quickly swung to the opposite extreme. Never mind that British intelligence insisted, and still does, that Iraq was doing precisely what Mr. Bush had said it was. As far as Washington was concerned, the case was closed: Iraq never tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger.
As reported Monday in the Financial Times, however, senior European intelligence officials now say, “Illicit sales of uranium from Niger were being negotiated with five states including Iraq at least three years before the U.S.-led invasion” in 2003. This isn’t exactly news. A 2002 British dossier on Iraq’s weapons programs asserted the same thing, while providing evidence that an inquiring Iraqi official had visited Niger in 1999. In a follow-up story, the Financial Times reports, “three European intelligence services were aware of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. Human intelligence gathered in Italy and Africa more than three years before the Iraq war had shown Niger officials referring to possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.” The other countries were North Korea, Iran, Libya and China.
The newspaper reports the forged documents erroneously used by the Bush administration might in fact have been a “scam” to cover the real evidence that negotiations had taken place. If this is true, we must concede that it worked. Not long after the administration backed down from the State of the Union claim, Democrats were in full cry for an investigation, all but convinced that the administration had deliberately lied about uranium sales to Iraq. Sen. Ted Kennedy took a lead role in the condemnation, saying, “It’s bad enough that such a glaring blunder became part of the president’s case for war. It’s far worse if the case for war was made by deliberate deception.” John Kerry chimed in: “The Bush administration doesn’t get honesty points for belatedly admitting what has been apparent to the world for some time — that emphatic statements made on Iraq were inaccurate.” Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe huffed, too: “This may be the first time in recent memory that a president knowingly misled the American people during the State of the Union Address.”
Critics of the Bush administration have been so eager to discredit every argument used to justify war in Iraq that when evidence does come along proving the administration’s case, it has to be ignored. It’s not clear how such kindergarten logic enhances national security. Mr. Kerry was right about one thing: Mr. Bush didn’t win any points for being forthright about his mistake. We would add as well that he won’t win any points for being right all along.