Press Box

Follow That Story: The Nuclear Whodunit, Part 3

CIA analysts do a CYA, telling the press, Don’t blame the phony nuke docs on us!

The CIA covers its ass today in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, further distancing itself from the forged documents the Bush administration forwarded to the United Nations to support its case that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium. News that the documents were forged has given succor to Bush administration critics, who accuse the government of ginning up evidence against Iraq to justify war.

The story behind the forged documents and how they made their way from the United States to U.N. inspectors is important because it suggests the Bush administration is 1) incompetent; 2) stupid; 3) corrupt; or 4) all of the above.

Both the Post and Times stories sympathize with the CIA. Both portray the agency as bullied by the Bush administration but still having the balls to convey its doubts about the docs as they moved up the chain of command. The Post, which broke the early ground in this story,provides a more complete account of the documents’ provenance and the paper trail they wended. One of the discredited documents was a forged letter dated July 2000 “apparently signed by the Niger president, discussing Iraq’s agreement to purchase 500 tons of uranium oxide.” A Nigerien diplomat gave the documents to Italian intelligence, which sent summaries of the them to the United States and Britian. (All news stories are mum about which agencies in Washington and London first fielded the summaries.)

The Post story, written by Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung, continues:

Two weeks after the Sept. 24 British publication, the Niger story appeared in a classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate, a summary of U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, although the report noted that the information had not been verified and the CIA had not confirmed that the uranium sale had gone through. [Emphasis added.]

The Times doesn’t have anywhere near the goods the Post has, but packs its column inches with plenty of complaints from CIA analysts about administration meddling. The TimesJames Risen isn’t any more successful than the Post at getting anybody from the CIA on the record. He writes:

Analysts at the agency said they had felt pressured to make their intelligence reports on Iraq conform to Bush administration policies.For months, a few C.I.A. analysts have privately expressed concerns to colleagues and Congressional officials that they have faced pressure in writing intelligence reports to emphasize links between Saddam Hussein’s government and Al Qaeda.”A lot of analysts have been upset about the way the Iraq-Al Qaeda case has been handled,” said one intelligence official familiar with the debate. …”Several people have told me how distraught they have been about what has been going on,” said one government official who said he had talked with several C.I.A. analysts. None of the analysts are willing to talk directly to news organizations, the official said.

Disputation over the forged documents isn’t to end here, of course. With CIA analysts accusing the Bush administration of coercing them, the administration is likely to volley back in this internecine war fought on the battlefields of the nation’s dailies. A glimmer of that coming clash appears in the last paragraph of the Post story, where a State Department spokesman flings the dead cat back over Foggy Bottom’s fence toward Langley. The Post reports:

The State Department’s December fact sheet, issued to point out glaring omissions in a declaration Iraq said accounted for all of its prohibited weapons, said the declaration “ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger.” Asked this week to comment on the fact sheet, a CIA spokesman referred questions on the matter to the State Department, where a spokesman said “everything we wrote in the fact sheet was cleared with the agency.”

Still unanswered are these urgent questions: Who forged the documents? Given the documents’ transparent inauthenticity, why were they given such credence? Who in the administration pushed the CIA to validate them (if it did)? Why didn’t the CIA push back?


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