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Dennis Hans: Sixteen Dishonest Words

Sixteen Dishonest Words:

And yes, they’re dishonest even if we concede all the points Rice and Rummy made on the Sunday talk shows
By Dennis Hans

If you’re scratching your head and wondering how the Bush administration had such an easy time persuading much of the news media of the necessity to wage war on Iraq, simply look at their performance over the weekend.

The big issue was those suddenly controversial 16 words from the State of the Union (SOTU) address, and many journalists proved themselves to be not only ignorant — e.g., not knowing enough about WMD evidence to expose the many other false or misleading assertions in the speech — but stupid.

Ignorance and stupidity are not the same. Ignorance means lacking in knowledge. I for one don’t know squat about stem cells, so on that topic I am happily ignorant.

Stupidity, on the other hand, suggests a poorly functioning brain. If I was fascinated by stem cells and read everything on the topic, yet none of it stuck, I’d chalk it up to stupidity.

Words are journalists’ stock in trade. If they have trouble grasping the meaning of simple ones such as “learn,” we have a brain problem — one that a cynical administration is all too willing to exploit.

Read carefully the 16 words in the January 28 SOTU address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Now read the statement in the September 24 dossier from whence the SOTU sentence came (

“Iraq’s known holdings of processed uranium are under IAEA supervision. But there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Okay, journalists, here’s your big chance to redeem yourselves. Forget for a moment the important question of whether or not the administration was trying to slyly mislead the public by citing the British as believers of an allegation the Bush team doubted. Our test strictly concerns the meaning of words:

How does the wording in the U.S. formulation differ from the Brits’?

If you said, “It’s a paraphrase with essentially the same meaning,” then I’ve got my own war I’d like to sell you.

Bush’s speechwriters, guided by officials of the National Security Council and the CIA, didn’t accurately paraphrase the passage. They IMPROVED on it.

The Brits offered a vague, weak construction: “there is intelligence.” “Intelligence” is not to be confused with “confirmation,” “airtight evidence” or “proof.” If the past year has taught us anything, it is that “intelligence” about Iraq presented by the U.K. or U.S. is not to be confused with established fact. Yet the SOTU construction — “The British government has learned” — tells the viewer that our most trusted ally KNOWS that Saddam “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The Brits knew — and know — no such thing. We can take them at their word and say they “believe” that Saddam recently sought uranium. But they no more “learned” that than they “learned” the Iraqis had missiles that could be launched in 45 minutes and deliver WMD all the way to Cyprus.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former chairperson of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, analyzed this matter at length in an essay for the July 13 edition of The Independent. Here’s her key point: “Assessed intelligence is not the same as ‘facts’ and should not be treated as such. I doubt it should be called ‘evidence.’” (

It’s possible, though not bloody likely, that the Brits’ intelligence will prove to be genuine proof. But such proof will not change the fact that Bush’s January 28 SOTU address misrepresented the dossier, and that for the next six months America’s trusting and dimwitted journalists failed to figure it out and blow the whistle.

That journalistic stupidity, coupled with naïve faith in the integrity of the president and his senior advisers, guarantees that the administration will continue its standard practice of “positive misrepresentation” and “ambiguity elimination” in the guise of accurate paraphrasing.

# # #

©2003 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” ( and “The Disinformation Age” ( He can be reached at

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