Uranium from Niger

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Mark Huband of The Financial Times reveals in two different stories that Niger really did have uranium deals with Iraq, and British claims to have had legitimate intelligence for that claim are vindicated. There was a good deal of intelligence on this, and the forged letters that were highly publicized were just the only ones people were talking about. As I said at the time, showing that one source for a piece of intelligence is faulty doesn't disprove the information. Other sources standing behind it may have been involved but classified. That seems to have been the case. For some people, the whole "Bush lied" campaign rests on this one item. Outside the Beltway and The Bellgravia Dispatch have more. Thanks to One Hand Clapping for posting the first I saw on this.


While I was reading the two FT articles, I was already thinking to myself, "I'm going to need to write a pre-emptive comment to defend Wilson." Then I got to the end to the post and read the belgraviadispatch post and realized I was too late--I now needed to write a post-emptive defense of Wilson. So here goes:

As the FT notes in the fourth to last paragraph, "US sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to assess the credibility of separate US intelligence information that suggested Iraq had approached Niger." In other words, Wilson was sent to determine the validity of the documents which turned out to be forgeries. He successfully did so by showing that they were indeed forgeries.

To now claim, as Gregory Djerejian does, that Wilson botched the Niger mission by failing to prove the validity of documents that he did not even know the existence of (not did anyone else in the US intelligence community for that matter [note Tenet's admission that he should not have allowed the famous "17 words" to have made it through to the final draft of the SOTU address] is going too far.

In addition to that, Djerejian seems to think that the FT articles contradict Wilson. They don't. Wilson claims that "it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place". In context, it is clear that "transaction" refers to the transfer of Uranium from Niger to Iraq. Neither of the FT articles even imply that Uranium was transferred. They only indicate that "Niger officials [were] referring to possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq". In the best case for Bush defenders, the FT articles show that Niger and Iraq were in discussions for the sale and transfer of Uranium. This in no way contradicts Wilson nor does it indicate that Wilson botched his mission.

Now that's the best case. I don't know if is was against the UN resolution to be in discussions about the transfer of Uranium. That seems about as likely as the UN resolution prohibiting programs related to the production of WMDs. But OK. Let's just say that that is bad. It still doesn't discredit Wilson.

Now for the worst case. The worst case isn't all that bad for Bush defenders, it simply doesn't help them either. The final paragraph of this FT article reads: "However, the European investigation suggested that it was the smugglers who were actively looking for markets, though it was unclear how far the deals had progressed and whether deliveries of uranium were made." A very cynical person could note that Iraq might not have been involved at all. Both FT articles are consistent with the scenario that Niger was looking for ways to sell Uranium and was considering approaching Iraq as a possible buyer, but that Iraq had never approached them. And it is even possible that the "discussions" that are mentioned in the articles were all internal to Niger as part of the process of "actively looking for markets", i.e. that Iraq was not involved in any of those discussions. It is possible, because "it was unclear how far the deals had progressed", that Iraq had not even been contacted yet. Admittedly, this is unlikely, but these two FT articles are hardly vindication of Bush's SOTU address.

Indeed, any revelations at this point in time cannot vindicate the SOTU address. Tenet already claimed that the US intelligence community had no good basis to make the Niger/Uranium claim. Bush at that point did not insist that the info was solid, he punted responsibility to the US intelligence community saying that his decisions are only as good as the info he receives. He has a point about that. (Though it could be argued that he was too eager to believe.) Having made that line of argument, it is too late to go and say that the so-called-faulty info turns out to be correct and thus vindicates Bush. For this to vindicate Bush, he needed to have defended that info all along, despite Tenet's claim.

As it stands right now, where Bush "knew" that Iraq had acquired Uranium from Niger based on justified true belief in forged documents which by happenstance correlated with reality, this "knowledge" that Bush had seems more to be a Gettier case than actual knowledge. [This is of course leaving aside the issue of whether or not Iraq had actually acquired the Uranium or if Niger was merely discussing it which is all that the FT articles assert.]

* Definition of knowledge = justified, true belief (barring special exceptions known as Gettier cases).

Did Bush have no contact with Tony Blair and the additional intelligence Blair had access to? Perhaps he trusted Blair more than Tenet. I would have. The 9/11 Commission hearings have revealed that throughout the Clinton Administration and into the Bush Administration the CIA, under Tenet, was underestimating and dismissing intelligence about Iraq that was legitimate in addition to producing unreliable information, so we have no reason to think they didn't know about this anyway.

Jeremy -

As I said in my comment, if that was the case, then Bush should have said, in fact needed to say, that he still believed the info despite Tenet's claims. Instead he disclaimed the info and blamed the US intel community for the "bad" intel. By doind so he implicity states that he then believed the intel to be bad too.

To claim the Niger/Uranium connection, disclaim it, and then claim it again? Bush hasn't tried this...his supporters shouldn't try it for him. It doesn't go well with Bush's "consistent straight shooter" image that he is trying to project. Sounds more like the "flip-flopper" image that he is trying to project on Kerry.

I haven't had a chance to look for the actual quotes from Bush. I don't remember any concession that there were no dealings between Niger and Iraq over uranium or that there was no good intelligence, just that there was bad intelligence.

I did think a bit about your concession that this is a Gettier case. If so, then you're admitting that Bush had justified beliefs on the matter and therefore morally absolved, since a Gettier case is one of true, justified belief that falls short of knowledge.

I'm sorry, I had some of my story wrong. I did some homework to get my chronology right.


Feb 2002, Wilson travels to Niger and reports that there is no evidence that the forged document has validity. Wilson's report is presented to the vice-president (who asked for the investigation to begin with).

Sept 2002, British intel releases whitepaper claiming that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from an African country. [The British intel community still stands by this claim.]

Jan 2003, State of the Union address, with the famous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

July 7, 2003, an unnamed senior Bush administration official formally announces, "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." Though it is not Bush himself who said it, he is clearly disclaiming the British intel.

July 11?, 2003, After Bush punts responsibility to the US intel community by saying "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services." and Rice making similar statements, Tenet takes full responsibility saying "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president. This was a mistake."


1) Bush has forgotten Wilson's report, reads the British whitepaper, believes it and doesn't look into the quality of the British intel. Verdict: Bush is sloppy and doesn't do due diligence. Might possibly be a Gettier case.

2) Bush has forgotten Wilson's report, reads the British whitepaper, looks into the quality of the British intel. The British present Bush with the forged document. Verdict: Implausible. Wilson's report would have immediately resurfaced to debunk the forged document if the administration made any serious attempt to evaluate the forged document.

3) Bush has forgotten Wilson's report, reads the British whitepaper, looks into the quality of the British intel. The British present Bush with the forged document plus other convincing evidence (including the evidence referenced by the two FT articles). (This or case 6 is what Jeremy asserts is the case.) Verdict: Implausible given the July 7, 2003 statement by the administration.

4) Bush remembers the Wilson report, reads the British whitepaper, ignores the Wilson report and doesn't look into the quality of the British intel. Verdict: Bush ignores inconvenient evidence and does not do due diligence. Tantamount to lying or intentional misleading.

5) Bush remembers the Wilson report, reads the British whitepaper, attempts to reconcile the Wilson report with the British whitepaper by looking into the quality of the British intel. The British present Bush with the forged document. Verdict: Bush lied. Or I should say that he intentionally misled, but may not have "lied" if this turns out to be a Gettier-type case. (By "Gettier-type" I mean "true by happenstance", but with neither "justified" nor "belief" entering into the "justified, true belief" formula.)

6) Bush remembers the Wilson report, reads the British whitepaper, attempts to reconcile the Wilson report with the British whitepaper by looking into the quality of the British intel. The British present Bush with the forged document plus other convincing evidence (including the evidence referenced by the two FT articles). (This or case 3 is what Jeremy asserts is the case.) Verdict: Implausible. See verdict on case 3.

Did I leave out any cases?

The best you can do here is case 1. But even that isn't terribly attractive. It makes Bush out to be sloppy (forgetting/overlooking an important report and requiring Tenet to catch any mistakes for him), and lazy (failing to do due diligence). If this turns out to be a Gettier case, then the belief is only justified because of the aforementioned sloppiness and laziness.

As to moral absolution...I'm not sure I want to go there. I'm not sure you want to either. It seems to me a rather large step to go from "justified belief" to "moral absolution". I can come up with a couple of Gettier cases where there is no moral absolution, in large part because it is a Gettier case and not true knowledge.

A Gettier case is a true justified belief that falls short of knowledge. If it's just not justified, then it's not a Gettier case. Gettier's paper was called "Is true justified belief knowledge?" His answer was, of course, no, and his paper gave two cases to show that. So what you're calling a Gettier case should just be called a true but unjustified belief.

I haven't asserted anything. I've offered possible scenarios. I don't pretend to have any idea which one of these, if any, might be true.

As for moral absolution (or better, justification), I think that's the point of saying a belief is justified, which is a normative term. There's a reason the same word is used in both ethics and epistemology. (I only wish we'd start using it in aesthetics too! Some pieces or art or music are just wrong!) If it's a real Gettier case, the belief is justified. If it's what you've been calling a Gettier case, then it isn't necessarily justified. So that's why you disagree with me on whether a Gettier case involves moral justification. It's not because we disagree on whether a real Gettier case involves justification. It's just that you'ev been including more in the category of Gettier cases than befits what Gettier was up to.

Here are couple more options:

7) Bush (or whoever wanted it in the speech) knew about the extra intel sources in January but forgot about them in July. They just remember having thought the information trustworthy and wanted to stand behind it but didn't think the question the CIA's judgment that since the letters were forgeries they shouldn't have said it. Therefore they let Tenet take the fall, since the CIA had approved it.

8) The British intel needed to be kept under wraps for security reasons, but people also weren't communicating well. Tenet didn't know about the extra info, and he really did think he'd made a mistake in allowing the speech to get through. Bush and Condi wanted to stand by the speech, but they couldn't prove that what they said was backed without declassifying the intel, and the British wouldn't do that over an American political snafu. So they decided to let Tenet take the fall for the time being, knowing that according to what he knew he shouldn't have OKed the speech. This is a little deceptive, but it's deceptive in protecting intelligence sources and in a way damaging to the president's reputation rather than deceiving people to get ahead or to make himself look ok when he'd done something wrong.

Either case is better than most of the original six, and both seem plausible to me. I also think 3 and 6 are more plausible than you do given some of what I say in the 8th case.

case 7 is identical to case 1 and has the same verdicts.

case 8 is identical to cases 3 and 6 except that the implausibility is removed by making the July 7 statement a lie.

If Bush and Rice really wanted to stand by the speech then they should have simply done so and not bothered to prove it. They could have easily said that it is backed by classified intel. I can see no reason not to do something so simple and easy and if would have fit with the "Bush is principled--he does the right thing and doesn't bow to political pressure or the whims of the masses" image he is trying to project. To do what you suggest in case 8 is both lying and playing politics--flip-flopping in order to make himself look good. (You claim that Bush made himself look bad, but really Bush made Tenet look bad, not himself.) Both perfectly "normal" behavior for politicians, but Bush is supposed to be better than that. I'm not sure that this is better than case 1.

In terms of protecting intelligence sources, I can't imagine any kind of intelligence source that could be blown simply by saying that "we have more intelligence that we cannot reveal at the moment". If case 8 were true, then Bush should have done that instead of issuing his July 7 statement disclaiming the info.

(Also, the more you speculate on classified intel, the more you get in trouble with Occam's Razor. You can make almost any scenario plausible by introducing the idea of classified intel that only Bush (and his advisors) know about but cannot reveal to anyone else. You're not in trouble with it yet in case 8, but you can't push much further. )

The difference between 1 and 7 is when Bush was sloppy. In 1, he was sloppy in constructing the state of the union speech and the justification for war. In 7, he was sloppy in defending that justification after the fact. Isn't 7 significanly less bad in its negligence?

8 doesn't involve a lie so much as an unwillingness to express the truth for reasons of protecting intelligence sources. Most people believe this kind of witholding information is perfectly fine for a government to do. Since it's not protecting himself from an embarassing lapse but protecting classified information, and it's not giving a false justification for war, it's not anywhere near the kind of deception the Bush Administration has been accused of. That's why I think it's better than 1, which involves negligence in the justification for war.

(Your last point is why I didn't go further. I had imagined some more complex situations, each bit seeming plausible enough but together seeming less so.)

I just reread case 7. I misunderstood it before. Now I see it as preposterously unlikely. Bush, after getting being accused of being a liar after the documents were shown to be forgeries was sure to go to Blair for an explanation (given how close Bush and Blair are). The additional intel would surely have been brought up then. Case 7 then reduces to a case 3/6/8.

[Case] 8 doesn't involve a lie so much as an unwillingness to express the truth for reasons of protecting intelligence sources.

As I said before, I cannot even conceive of an intelligence source whose cover could be blown by replacing the July 7 statement with the following statement: "We stand by our original assertion regarding Iraq/Niger/Uranium. Our evidence for this is not the documents which have been shown to have been forged, but on intelligence which remains classified and that I am not at liberty to discuss." Therefore, I cannot in any way see the July 7 statement as somehow "protecting intelligence sources". This makes case 8 (at least in my mind) implausible.

Also, as I said before, this statement has the benefit (if case 8 is to be believed) of being completely true. Plus, it does not involve any admission of error in the SOTU address. And it would be consistent with the ideal of Bush having integrity, being a straight shooter, and not bowing to political pressure.

However, if case 8 is true, then the July 7 statement is a lie which admits error told in order to relieve political pressure. These other factors make case 8 even more implausible.

Basically, what it comes down to is this: for the SOTU address to be vindicated, Bush needed to have stood by his statement unswervingly. He has repeatedly said that that is the kind of man he is, a man of integrity who will not bow to public opinion or political pressure. However, the July 7 statement is a clear disclaim of the statement made in the SOTU address. Therefore, the SOTU address cannot be vindicated (unless you are willing to do severe damage to the image of integrity that Bush wants to present).

Another issue that hasn't been included in any of these cases is deception on the part of the British intelligence agencies. They obviously had all this information, or we wouldn't be finding out about it now. Perhaps the Bush Administration just took Blair's word for it, and Blair, when presented with the evidence that the letters were forgeries, didn't bother to tell Bush anything other than that they stand by their intelligence without going into further details. Bush then would have falsely concluded that the information was bad. Tenet, not knowing any of this, would have stood by the earlier assessment. There's still no explanation why Tenet would have OKed the line in the speech to begin with, but he has agreed that he shouldn't have, and that's a problem for any of these possible cases. So I guess this would be case 9.

case 9 is just an expanded version of case 1. Verdict: sloppy...due diligence was not done. Remember, the Bush administration had possesion of the Wilson report at this time.

Case 10: Bush read the Wilson report. It said that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, as Wilson had indeed learned. Wilson then lied to the press, saying that Bush contradicted his report in the State of the Union speech.

Wink: In response to almost all of the cases that seemed better to Bush, your response has been to question why Bush would have given in and allowed the false information to say there was an intelligence failure. You then dismiss the scenario as implausible.

Well, we now know something like those scenarios to be true, and it's one that vindicates the State of the Union speech even more than the ones in our list. Yet we still have no explanation for the thing that made you think all these cases implausible. It really seems to have happened, if the bipartisan Senate committee is to be believed, and I see no reason not to.

I have no idea what to say at this point. Did he forget? Did he think it was hopeless to argue it even if he still thought it true? Was he wrongly convinced that what Wilson was saying was true?

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