Did Condi Give the Game Away?

Her Yellowcakegate alibi doesn’t add up.

Astronomers are often able to infer the existence of planets too far away to be seen through a telescope. They do this by observing a slight wobble in a visible star. The wobble is presumed to be the gravitational pull of an unseen planet. The Wobble Method is a useful tool for considering whether a key player is missing from the administration’s narrative of Yellowcakegate. Let us now apply it to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s July 30 interview with Gwen Ifill on PBS’s NewsHour, in which Rice became the fourth Bush administration official to accept full responsibility for the inclusion of erroneous information in the State of the Union address. (Five if you include President Bush, who surely neither knew nor cared whether it was true that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”) In a lengthy and skillful interrogation, Rice wobbled.

Rice’s challenge was to explain why she let Bush cite the yellowcake example in January when CIA Director George Tenet had sent a memo to her (and others) in October elaborating why the yellowcake example was no good. In accordance with Tenet’s wishes, a reference to Saddam’s yellowcake safari was removed from an Oct. 7 speech President Bush gave in Cincinnati. Yet the reference resurfaced in the State of the Union three months later.

In answering, Rice had five options:

  1. “I didn’t read the memo.”
  2. “I don’t remember reading the memo.”
  3. “I read the memo and then forgot about the yellowcake part.”
  4. “There was no reason for me to read the memo.”
  5. “I read the memo but ignored it because someone more powerful than Tenet insisted on including it anyway.”

What drives Yellowcakegate is the suspicion that No. 5 is the correct answer. Answers 1, 2, 3, and 4 are embarrassing but forgivable, whereas 5 is much harder to forgive. Given a choice of four forgivable answers, Rice, inexplicably, chose all four:

I can tell you, I either didn’t see the memo, I don’t remember seeing the memo, the fact is it was a set of clearance comments, it was three and a half months before the State of the Union.

Rice’s inability to settle on a single forgivable excuse suggests to Chatterbox that none of them felt quite right to her. Among the four, though, Rice seemed to feel most comfortable with No. 4, as the next stretch of the interview demonstrates:

Q: Should you have seen the memo?A: Well, the memo came over. It was a clearance memo. It had a set of comments about the [Oct. 7 Cincinnati] speech. [The yellowcake reference] had already been taken out of the speech, from my point of view and from the point of view of Steve Hadley. Steve Hadley runs the clearance process. And when Director Tenet says something—takes something out of a speech, we take it out. We don’t really even ask for an explanation. If the DCI, the director of Central Intelligence, is not going to stand by something, if he doesn’t think that he has confidence in it, we’re not going to put that into a presidential speech. We have no desire to have the president use information that is anything but the information in which we have the best confidence, the greatest confidence.And so when Director Tenet said take it out of the speech, I think people simply took it out of the speech and didn’t think any more about why we had taken it out of the speech.

Readers of Chatterbox’s earlier Yellowcakegate column, “ Cheney Wraps His Glutes in the Flag,” will immediately spot an inconsistency in Rice’s account. The same inconsistency surfaced in the otherwise-believable mea culpa offered by Rice’s assistant, Steve Hadley. Both Rice and Hadley state that they had already removed the offending line from the Cincinnati speech when Tenet sent them a memo urging them to remove it. Tenet had already told Hadley by phone to take it out, and Hadley had complied. If, as Rice says, it’s axiomatic that when the CIA director wants something out of a presidential speech, it comes out, Tenet would have known there was no danger that his complaint—the way Rice makes it sound, it was more like a command—would go unheeded. So why did Tenet—a man who is so busy fighting the war on terrorism that three months later he didn’t have time to read an advance draft of the State of the Union, an oversight that made him Yellowcakegate’s Fall Guy No. 1—write a superfluous memo?

Because, Chatterbox believes, it wasn’t superfluous. Tenet knew that his complaint was not a command and that somebody at the White House still needed convincing. But who would have the standing to tell the CIA director to go jump in the lake? Surely not Fall Guy No. 2, the National Security Council’s nonproliferation expert, Robert Joseph. Surely not Fall Guy No. 3, the NSC’s deputy, Steve Hadley. And surely not even Fall Person No. 4, Condi Rice, who’d have to be insane to lie, on national television, about dissing Tenet. (Tenet, she surely knows, is superb at exacting revenge.)

Chatterbox therefore posits the existence of a Fall Guy No. 5, Vice President Dick Cheney. The one person in the White House who has no patience for addressing the Yellowcakegate mystery at all and who questions the patriotism of anybody who does. Who pushed the Saddam-is-about-to-get-nukes line harder than anyone else in the Bush White House. Who has an eerie gift for making the most outrageous actions sound reasonable. (In TheNew Yorker, Nicholas Lemann likened him to an IV delivering serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.) Who, Chatterbox believes, would have been angered to learn that the yellowcake reference came out of the Cincinnati speech, and who thereafter would have made damn sure it didn’t get censored again.

This is, Chatterbox emphasizes, just a guess. The Wobble Method is not infallible. (It was, after all, the same method employed by the Bush administration to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein’s possession of chemical and biological weapons was certain, a proposition that has yet to be proved.) But it’s the only way Chatterbox knows to make sense out of Yellowcakegate.

One thing Chatterbox will say for certain: President Bush is not about to fire Rice. Asked about this yesterday, Bush said: “Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person. And America is lucky to have her service. Period.” If he’d been getting ready to can her, he’d have said, “Dr. Rice has my full support and confidence.” That’s Washington-ese for “She’s toast.”

Yellowcakegate Archive:
July 25, 2003:
“Whopper of the Week: Condoleezza Rice”
July 24, 2003: “Cheney Wraps His Glutes in the Flag”
July 17, 2003: “Is Libby the Phantom Bigfoot?”
July 16, 2003: “Why This Bush Lie? Part 2”
July 15, 2003: “Why This Bush Lie? Part 1”