Three years later: It’s still news!

Today’s New York Times page-one, joint-byline story by David Sanger and David Johnston is “Bush ordered declassification, official says.” The story of course refers to the declassification and release of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimage consensus “key judgments” in July 2003.

Referring to the same document, on July 20, 2003, the AP headlined Tom Raum’s story: “Declassified CIA documents on Iraq show divided intelligence community.” Here is Raum’s story in its entirety:

The White House declassified portions of an October 2002 intelligence report to demonstrate that President Bush had ample reason to believe Iraq was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program.

But the material also reflects divisions and uncertainties among intelligence agencies as to Saddam Hussein’s activities.

The State Department, for instance, expressed deep skepticism over claims that Saddam was shopping for uranium ore in Africa to use in making atomic bombs – an allegation that wound up in Bush’s Jan. 28 State of the Union address but which administration officials have since repudiated.

“Claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are … highly dubious,” said a State Department addendum included among the declassified material.

The administration released the documents – a sanitized version of the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the president – on Friday as it sought to shield Bush from rising criticism that he misled the public in making his case for war with Iraq.

Administration aides suggested that the eight pages of excerpts, out of 90 in the document, demonstrate the notion that Saddam was trying to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program permeated the U.S. intelligence community – and was not just based on a suspect British report that relied in part on forged documents.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the documents show “the clear and compelling case we had for confronting the threat that Saddam Hussein posed.”

McClellan and other administration officials emphasized the report’s assertion of “compelling evidence” that Iraq was seeking to rebuild its nuclear-weapons program.

But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the anti-nuclear Arms Control Association, suggested the release of the declassified documents showed the exact opposite. “It further undermines the White House case that the Iraqi nuclear program was active and that it posed an immediate threat,” he said.

Kimball said the State Department’s reservations – included both in the footnote and on the front page of the excerpts released by the White House – were particularly damaging to the administration’s case. “Those are fighting words,” he said.

In the declassified documents, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded: “The activities we have detected do not … add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing … an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.”

In his State of the Union address, Bush asserted, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell had voiced skepticism about such allegations. For that reason, he told reporters recently, he did not include the material in his lengthy presentation to the U.N. Security Council in early February.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by the Africa claim during a visit to Washington on Thursday, although U.S. officials, including CIA Director George Tenet, have recently challenged it.

Tenet has said he should have insisted the offending sentence be removed from a draft of Bush’s speech sent to his agency for review.

Bush has only said that the speech was cleared by intelligence agencies. White House officials vowed to do a better job to prevent questionable material from winding up in his speeches.

Democrats and other administration critics have suggested that the Iraq-Africa assertion was an attempt to exaggerate the rationale for overthrowing the Saddam regime without broad international support.

The overall findings of last October’s intelligence “estimate” served as the foundation for many of the general assertions made by Bush and other administration officials in the run-up to the war: that Saddam was making chemical and biological weapons, was rebuilding his nuclear-weapons program and had illegal long-range missiles that could reach as far as Israel.

None of those assertions has been validated by postwar findings in Iraq.

Also referring to the same document, Knight Ridder ran a shorter story on the same subject by Ron Hutcheson on July 19, 2003: “Bush releases excerpts of top-secret Iraq report.” Here is the shorter Knight Ridder story in its entirety:

Hoping to quell the controversy over President Bush’s use of questionable intelligence to help make the case for war with Iraq, White House officials on Friday released portions of a top-secret report from last year that concluded that Saddam Hussein was actively seeking nuclear weapons.

But that finding in the classified National Intelligence Estimate, prepared for the White House last October, came loaded with reservations that reflected deep divisions in the intelligence community over Iraq’s weapons programs and were at odds with the certainty expressed by Bush and his top aides.

The report even quoted intelligence experts at the State Department as describing assertions that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa as “highly dubious.” Bush nevertheless repeated the assertion in his State of the Union speech in January while arguing the need for war. Uranium is a key component of nuclear bombs.

Although the report concluded that Iraq was seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, it acknowledged the scarcity of solid information. If the excerpts accurately reflect the full report, Bush reached the decision to go to war by assuming the worst about Iraq’s capabilities and Hussein’s intentions.

White House officials held a 75-minute briefing Friday on White House contacts with the CIA during the drafting of the speech. A senior administration official, insisting on anonymity, said the CIA approved the wording of Bush’s speech without “any flag raised about the underlying intelligence.”

The official disputed suggestions that White House officials pressured the CIA to sign off on the speech despite misgivings in the agency. CIA director George Tenet has acknowledged that the intelligence agency should have deleted the assertion.

Note that these stories show what we all know: the release of the NIE report was part of an attempt to quell the political uproar that was starting to build over what Bush did and did not know before the war. The stories also show that the “leak,” while criticized for being “selective,” included the State Department minority opinion — material more than sufficient for most MSM stories written after the briefing to be negative!

The only new element of the story that was added last week via Patrick Fitzgerald’s brief is that President Bush, according to Cheney according to Libby, authorized the release of the NIE report ten days earlier than the July 18 briefing that was widely reported, and that they disclosed it to Judith Miller, who didn’t write about it. On the contrary, however, today’s New York Times story reports that Bush only authorized the declassification and release of the NIE report, not the manner of its disclosure specifically to Judith Miller on July 8. Nevertheless, Kenneth Bazinet’s representative New York Daily News story that I wrote about here on Saturday reports, for example, that Fitzgerald’s probe uncovered Bush’s role in the “leak” of the NIE. Yet it bears repeating that the Knight Ridder headline on July 19, 2003 was: “Bush Releases Excerpts of Top-Secret Iraq Report.”

The correspondent who forwarded this material to us comments: “That Fitzgerald is one helluva digger, able to ferret out this stuff that was in the headlines [three] years ago…” And don’t these reporters deserve credit for making everything old new again?

JOHN adds: They also deserve credit–or, more properly, blame–for distorting the conclusions of the NIE beyond recognition. By emphasizing footnotes, they deliberately convey the impression that the document is one of “division” and “uncertainty.” No such division or uncertainty was expressed, however, in the Consensus Intelligence Estimate’s conclusions:

Confidence Levels for Selected Key Judgments in This Estimate

High Confidence

Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.

We are not detecting portions of these weapons programs.

Iraq possesses proscribed chemical and biological weapons and missiles.

Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons grade fissile material

Moderate Confidence

Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009.

If President Bush had ignored the consensus of all of America’s intelligence agencies, expressed with “High Confidence,” and based the administration’s policies on a minority, dissenting view held by an analyst or two and expressed in a footnote, it would have been a real scandal.

UPDATE: Jim Hoft has identified the real scandal in the eyes of the mainstream media: “Media appalled that George Bush dare defend himself.”

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