Cheney's yellowcake diversion.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 24 2003 7:14 PM

Cheney Wraps His Glutes in the Flag

It's not unpatriotic to wonder why the president lied.

Vice President Cheney gave a speech today at the American Enterprise Institute decrying critics of the Iraq war. (Click here for the video.) "How," Cheney asked indignantly, "could any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?" This is an odd question to raise when there's growing doubt that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein posed any immediate threat to the United States (as opposed to the Iraqi people, who of course suffered horribly under his brutal regime). Cheney cited the prewar National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" (click here to learn why this catch-all phrase, and its abbreviation, "WMD," are useless propaganda terms), which contained "consensus judgments of the intelligence community" that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and would likely have a nuclear weapon within a decade. But allied forces in Iraq haven't managed to find any chemical and biological weapons. The "consensus judgments," to which even Chatterbox subscribed, appear to have been wrong. (For the most plausible explanation why the weapons weren't there, read Bob Drogin's excellent cover story, "The Vanishing," in the July 21 NewRepublic.) And while Saddam no doubt was trying to acquire nukes, it was never clear that—even without a war—he would still be around in 10 years.

Why did Cheney give the AEI speech? Chatterbox suspects Mary Matalin (a former Cheney aide who's helping the White House handle Yellowcakegate) advised him that the best defense was a good offense. By portraying curiosity about Yellowcakegate as unpatriotic, Cheney probably hoped to shake the inquiry off his tail.

Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, are suspected (and not just by Chatterbox) of being the Phantom Bigfeet who insisted that the erroneous reference to Saddam's African safari for uranium yellowcake be put into President Bush's State of the Union address. It's a logical suspicion because Cheney, a reformed Iraq dove with the fervor of a convert, has pushed the nuclear justification for the Iraq war harder than anyone else. He even said (of Saddam) on the March 16 Meet the Press, "[W]e believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Cheney was the first White House official to inquire into the yellowcake story (after reading about it in an intelligence briefing), and former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV,in a July 6 op-ed for the New York Times, wrote that the CIA sent him to Niger in 2002 to check out the yellowcake story because "Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions." Libby, meanwhile was identified by U.S. News & World Report as having written a tendentious first draft of Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council making the case that Saddam represented an imminent security threat.

This last charge isn't true, according to Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard. In an article in the July 28 issue ("The Phony Scandal"), Barnes writes that Libby merely "assembled three separate 'NSC/OVP [Office of the Vice President] working papers' on human rights, WMD, and terrorism for Powell, far more material than Powell needed." Barnes' qualification is probably correct, but it doesn't make much difference. The point is that Libby shoveled a lot of material to Powell that Powell found factually suspect and therefore left out of his speech.

Thus far, Yellowcakegate has fingered two Phantom Bigfeet in the White House. The first PB was the National Security Council's nonproliferation expert, Robert Joseph. Alan Foley, the CIA's liaison on the State of the Union, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that he'd complained to Joseph about the yellowcake reference—which at that point was something like, "We know that Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"—in a draft of the speech. This prompted Joseph to suggest attributing the allegation to British intelligence. Foley replied that this was unsatisfactory because the CIA didn't think British intelligence's information was correct. The White House disputes this version of the conversation. Communications Director Dan Bartlett says that the White House decided on its own to drop the "we know that" formulation and to cite a source instead, because that would make the yellowcake story "much more credible." According to Bartlett, Foley and Joseph agreed that it would be better to cite British intelligence, because the alternative was to cite a version of the yellowcake allegation in the National Intelligence Estimate that both thought was too "sensitive."

Perhaps sensing that Joseph wasn't sufficiently high up to be a satisfactory fall guy, the Bushies earlier this week served up the NSC deputy, Stephen Hadley, who received two memos and at least one phone call from George Tenet in early October warning him off a reference to the yellowcake story in a speech the president was to give in Cincinnati, but somehow forgot about the warning when it was inserted into the State of the Union three and a half months later. In a July 22 press briefing, Bartlett introduced Hadley as "the most senior person in the White House that is in charge of vetting for substantive purposes the President's State of the Union address" (a formulation that, at the very least, is a profound insult to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice), and offered Hadley up to reporters for questioning. Bartlett had earlier claimed that Tenet's only objection to the Cincinnati speech was its specific reference to "550 tons" of yellowcake, but Hadley now retracted that caveat. He said the "550 tons" reference was removed from an early draft at Tenet's request, but that Tenet objected more broadly to a yellowcake reference in a later draft:

[H]e asked that any reference[italics Chatterbox's] to Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium from sources from Africa to be deleted from the speech. The language he was referring to when he made that call was language that said the following—and I'll just quote it—"And the regime has been caught attempting to purchase substantial amounts of uranium oxide from sources in Africa, and a central ingredient in the enrichment process."

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Hadley also described an Oct. 6 memo from Tenet, after Hadley had removed the yellowcake reference, explaining why it was important to keep the yellowcake reference out:

The memorandum describes some weakness in the evidence, the fact that the effort was not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already had a large stock of uranium oxide in their inventory. The memorandum also stated that the CIA had been telling Congress that the Africa story was one of two issues where we differed with the British intelligence.

This memorandum was received by the Situation Room here in the White House, and it was sent to both Dr. Rice and myself.

Hadley then accepted blame for letting the faulty language into the State of the Union:

[G]iven the October 5 and 6 CIA memorandum, and my telephone conversation with the DCI Tenet at roughly the some time, I should have recalled at the time of the State of the Union speech that there was controversy associated with the uranium issue. … The President and the National Security Advisor look to me to ensure that the substantive statements in those speeches are the ones in which the President can have confidence. And it is now clear to me that I failed in that responsibility. …

Hadley added that "Condi wants it clearly understood that she feels a personal responsibility for not recognizing the potential problem presented by those 16 words," but in the context of his remarks it was clear this was merely a gracious gesture. (She was traveling, Bartlett told reporters, and therefore unavailable to elaborate.)

The White House clearly hoped that Hadley's generous mea culpa closed the book on Yellowcakegate. Maybe, along with Cheney's AEI speech, it will. But Hadley's account leaves a dangling thread. Can you spot it? Tenet's Oct. 6 memo elaborating on why it was dumb, in the Cincinnati speech, to make reference to Saddam's purported yellowcake safari, came, Hadley says, after Hadley had already agreed to take the reference out. (Hadley's exact words: "[B]y this time, by draft eight, the reference to Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium has already been deleted from the speech, as DCI Tenet asked me to do in his telephone request.") Tenet is a very busy man—too busy, we now know, to bother vetting the president's State of the Union address himself, a lapse that required him to render an elaborate and somewhat embarrassing apology. Yet Tenet was not too busy in October to filibuster Hadley by memo on the yellowcake howler after Hadley had removed the yellowcake howler from the speech. Why wouldn't Tenet let go of Hadley's lapel?

Because, Chatterbox submits, Tenet knew (or perhaps just guessed) that someone else would try to overrule Hadley and put the yellowcake howler back in. Was that someone else Cheney or Libby?

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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