Published on Sunday, July 20, 2003 by the New York Times
How Powerful Can 16 Words Be?
by Christopher Marquis
WASHINGTON — Words matter. Even in Washington, with its nattering nabobs and chattering classes. They matter, even when it comes to a famously tongue-tied president.
Few speeches are as pored over as the State of the Union address. Delivered with all the pomp a no-nonsense capital can muster, it gives the president the chance to share his vision for the nation and the world. The best addresses go beyond bland budgeteering to become a rallying cry for a scattered people.
On Jan. 28, President Bush by most accounts gave a humdinger. He was telling the American people why they needed to fear Saddam Hussein and why he had to be replaced. It was a case for war: the most momentous and fearsome decision a president can make.
Mr. Bush portrayed the United States as under an imminent threat from Iraq. In 16 words, he passed along this chilling information: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
A nuclear Iraq? That carried so much freight with ordinary Americans. Concerns about biological or chemical weapons, the possibility of a Baghdad alliance with Al Qaeda — these worries paled when compared with the prospect that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program and might share weapons with terrorists.
"That was a very scary thing for the administration to be saying," said David Wise, an intelligence historian. "If it now turns out that was based on forged documents and bad intelligence, that's very disturbing."
The speech was followed eight days later by a detailed presentation at the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell who omitted the uranium charge, which he had discounted as unreliable. The speeches worked. Public opposition to the war, never fierce, began to melt, polls show, and by mid-March, when hostilities began, more than 60 percent agreed that ousting Mr. Hussein was worth spilling American blood.
Today, those 16 words haunt the administration. They are the best-remembered flourish in a portrait of Iraq that today seems unrecognizable. They are a leading rationale for a war that has resulted in the death of 224 Americans. And they are either unsubstantiated or based on a lie.
"We did not go to war because of mustard gas or Scuds," said Joseph Cirincione, senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We went to war because President Bush told the nation that Saddam had, or might already have, a nuclear bomb, and we could not afford to wait. Now it's obvious that's not true and there was no solid evidence it was true at the time."
"Would we have gone to war if the president hadn't uttered those 16 words?" he asked. "Clearly, the answer is yes." But, he added: "We wouldn't have gone to war without the nuclear threat. The president's case for war was centered on the nuclear threat."
Administration officials counter that they went to war for a host of reasons. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, said that the president's warning about nuclear weapons was part of "a very broad case" against Iraq.
At root in the debate is how intelligence has been used. Administration officials say they are basing their judgments on sensitive, sometimes imperfect data. Critics charge that the administration has it backward. The White House was determined to go to war and selected intelligence that would bolster its plan.
"Instead of using intelligence as evidence on which to base a decision about policy, we used intelligence as the basis on which to justify a policy on which we had already settled," said Robin Cook, a British minister who resigned from the cabinet over the war.
Not since President Clinton urged his interrogators to define the word "is" have so many people in Washington debated a simple declaration by a president, which turned out to be anything but. Mr. Clinton was discussing his personal behavior, however indiscreet; Mr. Bush was talking about the security of the nation.
Sixteen words. The parsers licked their pencils. Mr. Bush began by citing a source, the British government. The British are America's best friends; their prime minister, Tony Blair, addressed Congress last week. The British have risked it with the United States in Iraq; intelligence flows freely between the two countries.
"Has learned": That means President Bush believes it, too, otherwise he would have used "said" or, more dubiously, "claimed." "That Saddam Hussein recently sought": It's been more than a decade since Iraq's nuclear program was mothballed, but this problem is current. "Significant quantities of uranium": Enough to build a bomb. "From Africa": A big continent, though the State Department ultimately confirmed that the nation under discussion was Niger.
In one sentence, Mr. Bush had conveyed an ambitious, secret and continuing effort to acquire the materials for the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
He needed a strong punch. For months, the case for war had foundered. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations had challenged the administration's assertions that Iraq had resumed nuclear activities, that imported aluminum tubes could be used as nuclear centrifuges and that Iraq was hiding stores of biological and chemical weapons.
Today, many such claims and others aired by administration officials are yet to be proved. American troops have found no terror weapons; virtually no one believes Mr. Hussein could have hidden tons of such materials prior to the invasion without being detected. American officials estimated that Iraq had as many as two dozen Scud missiles; none have been found.
The fallout from the uranium charge hung over Mr. Bush and his entourage during their recent African tour. The president and White House officials initially pointed fingers at the C.I.A. over their vetting of the speech; George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, took responsibility, though it was soon disclosed that he had removed the same charge from a presidential speech just three months earlier. Mr. Tenet told lawmakers last week that he had not even seen the final draft of Mr. Bush's State of the Union speech.
Some administration officials stand by the 16 words as "technically correct," and the British continue to insist they are substantively true — but Bush advisers now concede that the president should never have included the charge. Meanwhile, a Whodunit parlor game has emerged to locate the mystery inserter, as columnist Michael Kinsley noted: "Was it Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with a candlestick?" Or perhaps "Condoleezza Rice in the Situation Room with a bottle of Wite-Out." The White House is mum.
President Bush responded with folksy defiance, saying he receives "darn good intelligence," and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, dismissed speculation that the White House had distorted an intelligence report as "a lot of bull." But the story did not go away.
By backing down from its most explosive claim, the administration has cast a cloud over its intelligence capabilities at a time it is seeking international support.
"It's hugely important that people aren't in a position to say, last time you cried wolf," said Christopher Patten, the European Union's commissioner for external relations, "why are we to believe you this time?"
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company