A president's State of the Union address is a solemn rite, an opportunity for our nation's leader to speak directly to the assembled members of Congress and to his fellow citizens. The occasion takes on an even heavier burden when a president uses the speech to press for war against another nation.
But this year, when President Bush used his State of the Union address to make his case for war on Iraq, a central claim in his argument was false. And he had every reason to know it was false.
Contrary to what the president told the American people, the Iraqi government had not recently attempted to acquire uranium from Africa. But that false assertion was fundamental to backing the president's larger claim that Iraq posed a nuclear threat to the United States, which we now know it did not.
The question then arises: Did Bush make an honest mistake, or did he and his administration intentionally deceive the American people, in effect leading us into war under false pretenses?
The evidence so far suggests -- but does not prove -- that some officials, perhaps officials high in the administration, knew the report was false but allowed it to be included in the speech anyway. We do know that the president based his claim on documents that we now know to have been forged. At first glance, that might seem reassuring: After all, even the most sophisticated intelligence agencies can be fooled by a sufficiently clever forgery.
Unfortunately, all parties in this case concede that the forgeries were crude and easily exposed. For example, U.N. officials were able to state unequivocally that the documents had been forged, a finding that has never been challenged, after investigating for less than two days.
By the time the president made his speech in January, the CIA had possessed those same documents for more than a year.
Furthermore, 11 months before the president's speech, U.S. officials had dispatched a retired ambassador to Niger to investigate whether the documents in question were valid. That official, Joseph Wilson, quickly and easily determined that they were not, and he reported that finding to the CIA. According to Wilson, his mission had been instigated by questions from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, and the results would have been reported back to that office.
"The office of the vice president, I am absolutely convinced, received a very specific response to the question it asked and that response was based upon my trip out there," Wilson now says.
The Bush administration's subsequent handling of the issue has served to compound suspicion. It had earlier tried to defend the president's statement by suggesting that it was also backed by some unspecified evidence in addition to the forgeries, a line it abandoned only this week. Even then it did so grudgingly, only after it had been cornered by Wilson's decision to go public.
Furthermore, it seems rather odd that the administration has demonstrated no curiosity whatsoever about how such a misleading statement could have made its way into such an important speech. If the CIA knew that the documents were frauds but failed to share that data with the White House, Bush officials ought to be outraged by that incompetence and should be scrambling to trace exactly how such an embarrassment could have occurred.
But they are not.
"Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech," an unidentified senior Bush official conceded this week.
But that's just the point. What they know now, many of them also knew back in January.
"It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war," notes Wilson, a career diplomat whose reputation for discretion is best illustrated by the fact the administration selected him to go to Niger in the first place.
"It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution