Dennis Hans: Know Means Know, Unless…
Know Means Know:
Unless, that is, you’re the president addressing the nation or senior aides explaining the Niger gaffe to dim, servile Washington journalists
By Dennis Hans
On July 22, White House communications director Dan Bartlett and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley briefed reporters on CIA memos urging the deletion of a line in a forthcoming presidential speech asserting that Iraq had recently sought significant quanitities of uranium from Africa. Sadly, a review of the lengthy transcript ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/07/print/20030722-12.html) suggests that the briefers, two bright, sophisticated men presumed to have great command of the English language, no longer understand what the word “know” means. Nor do the briefees — approximately 25 journalists from our leading news media outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times and the national and cable-news networks. The transcript suggests that many briefees are plagued by some combination of laziness, incompetence and servility.
The briefing was prompted by the recent re-discovery of two memos that had been sent by the CIA in the first week of October 2002 to Hadley and Bush’s speechwriter Mike Gerson, laying out the agency’s doubts about the veracity of the uranium assertion in a draft of the president’s upcoming October 7 address in Cincinnati. CIA director George Tenet also requested the deletion in a phone conversation with Hadley, and Hadley complied. But a similar assertion about Iraq’s alleged uranium pursuits in Africa, presented as established fact and sourced to the British government, ended up in the January 28 State of the Union address (hereafter “SOTU”). The 16-word sentence should have set off an immediate media brouhaha, given that British intelligence had not claimed that it “knew.” Yet even now, few U.S. journalists are capable of grasping that obvious and important point.
The briefing gave Hadley the chance to join Tenet in taking responsibility for the uranium flap. But the text of the briefing makes clear that another party — the national news media — shares responsibility.
For too long most of the major media have allowed Bush to get away with asserting as fact all manner of rumors, allegations and deductions. Though our focus is Iraq, the pattern is evident across a range of issues, as Al Gore noted belatedly in a major address August 7. In effect, journalists are Bush’s “enablers,” as they reward rather than punish his deceptive ways. The media’s enabling qualities were on display July 22 at the White House.
You Don’t KNOW What You Say You “Know”
Early in the briefing, Bartlett explained the construction of the Iraq section of the SOTU, which featured “a series of assertions”:
Those assertions were very straightforward in which they said, we know that Saddam Hussein had materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulism [sic] toxin; we know that Saddam Hussein had materials to produce as much as 500 tons of saran [sic], mustard, VX nerve agents; we know that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents; we know that Iraq in the late 1990s had several mobile biological weapons labs; we know that in the 1990s Saddam Hussein had advanced nuclear weapons program and had a design for a nuclear weapon, was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb; and we know that Saddam Hussein had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
So there were a whole litany of "we knows." And as we read the speech and reviewed the drafts, we believed that it would be much more credible for those that were hearing the speech and making a decision based on the speech, and being educated by the speech, if they understood how we knew these things. So we asked the speechwriters to go back and source each of these assertions that we made. That's why we go back, and you can look at the final text of the speech in which we cite specific sources, where possible that we can make public. Several of them were the U.N., IAEA; some we had to say, U.S. intelligence indicates; one we said, from three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq in the late 1990s had several mobile biological weapons labs. Then on the issue of uranium in Africa, we said, "the British government has learned." [end of two-graf Bartlett excerpt]
Alas, none of the notable Washington journalists butted in to explain, along the following lines, the litany’s lack of logic:
Hold on, Dan. Included in your list of “we knows” are items you and the administration could not possibly “know.” You may know what defectors CLAIM about mobile labs, but you sure as hell don’t know whether or not they actually KNOW. You may know what the Brits SAY, but you sure as hell don’t know that they truly “learned” that Iraq had “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” To “learn” is to know, and there’s no such assertion in the Brits’ dossier. The body of the dossier offers the vague, weak construction “there is intelligence,” while the “executive summary” says the Brits “judge” that Iraq sought the stuff. What does “judge” mean? Is it that 6 of 11 Brit intelligence officials THINK Iraq did just that while 5 of 11 think not? I don’t know and you don’t know. Suppose that, contrary to what the dossier states, the Brits really did KNOW for a fact, had irrefutable proof. That wouldn’t let you off the hook, because no one in the Bush administration had any way of knowing that the Brits really KNEW. Remember, the Brits wouldn’t share with the U.S. the “intelligence” that led to their mere judgment. Dan, you’re the director of communications. Stephen, you’re Number Two at the NSC. You’re bright, sophisticated guys. You don’t see a big problem with taking unproven claims by defectors of questionable credibility and a judgment by the Brits based on second-hand “intelligence” and converting this stuff into statements of fact? Dan, you talk about making the speech “credible” for citizens who are being “educated” by it. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that citizens were FOOLED by the speech? Wasn’t that the intent?
The journalists didn’t say that at the briefing, and only rarely said so throughout the long pre-war propaganda campaign, which is why the campaign was such a smashing success. The vast majority of the news media allowed Bush, Rice, Powell, Rummy, Negroponte, Tony Blair and Jack Straw to present allegations, rumors and judgments as fact. Those officials would have dropped the practice long ago if the news media had risen up as one and screamed, “If you think something MIGHT be true, but you say that it most definitely IS true, that’s LYING. It’s lying even if it turns out to be true, because you sure as hell didn’t know it was true when you said it was true. Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
Some reporters at the Hadley-Bartlett briefing did get around to asking questions about the British intelligence and what the administration thought of it. But none caught on that the SOTU phrasing — the British government “has learned” — was erroneous no matter how much confidence the Bushies had in the Brits. The reporters allowed Hadley and Bartlett to repeatedly say the SOTU statement was correct without ever once explaining to the confused or deceitful duo (my preliminary judgment is “confused”) the difference between LEARNING something and making a JUDGMENT about something. The Brits had done the latter. As with many other dossier judgments, it looks more dubious with each passing day.
Defining “Unaccounted For”
What about all those other “we knows” about chemical and biological warfare agents? Didn’t Hadley, Bartlett and the crème of the U.S. press corps realize all of that pre-1991 stuff, aside from mustard gas, had lost its lethality? I’ll go out on a limb and say they didn’t. And why should they? They’re not chemists or biologists, so they have to rely on others to evaluate the claims. Would they have heard anything in 2002 or 2003 that would lead them to reconsider? Only if they were willing to listen to notables not affiliated with the Bush administration. If they had, they and we would have had a much better idea of the actual threat posed by Iraq’s “unaccounted for” WMD.
I place those words in quotations because it has been the preferred lingo of U.N. weapons inspectors. In September 2002, prior to the resumption of inspections, UNMOVIC executive chairman Hans Blix said that while there is much that remains unknown about Iraq’s programs, “this is not the same as saying there are weapons of mass destruction. If I had solid evidence that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction or were constructing such weapons I would take it to the Security Council.” ( http://www.traprockpeace.org/counter-dossier.html) After the war, he said “I think we were vindicated in the prudence that we showed. We consistently maintained that unaccounted for is not the same thing as saying things exist. They might exist, they might not exist and I think everything shows that that was wise.” ( http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=564&ncid=564&e=3&u=/nm/20030630/ts_nm/iraq_blix_dc_2)
By waiting till he actually KNEW something before saying “I know,” Blix avoided the credibility problems that are beginning to afflict others, including Bush. Blix’s pronouncements over the past year are standing the test of time; Bush’s are not.
U.S. and U.K. officials repeatedly asserted, generally without media challenge, that the U.N. and the inspectors said Iraq HAS all these leftover WMD, when they in fact were saying Iraq MIGHT have them. The inspectors knew that Iraq had produced all sorts of stuff before 1991, huge quantities of which were accounted for and destroyed by 1995. Since then, there’s been no evidence of anything remaining, but inspectors wisely refused to rule out the possibility some might turn up. They knew that Iraq secretly and illegally destroyed materials in 1991, and that their favorite defector, the late and credible Hussein Kamel, told them in 1995 that all the WMD had been destroyed at his order. But the U.N. was never able to verify the QUANTITY secretly destroyed and knew from experience notbetter than to simply take Iraq at its word. That’s why UNSCOM and UNMOVIC couldn’t say for certain what if anything remained from those “unaccounted-for” pre-1991 weapons, stocks and precursors.
Hadley and Bartlett don’t determine the WMD “talking points” for administration officials, so they’re not responsible for drilling into the public’s heads that Iraq definitely possessed in 2002 the “unaccounted for” pre-1991 weapons and materials. I presume Hadley and Bartlett believe it is an established fact that Iraq did indeed possess that stuff in the months before the war. After all, if two conservative officials never see a particular point challenged in the mainstream media — which they may well regard as feisty and even liberal — it’s hardly surprising that the point would lodge in their brains as incontrovertible fact. When the media fail miserably at their purported mission, they not only contribute to the hoodwinking of the public, they also help to hoodwink administration personnel unaware that a particular book was cooked.
Distinguishing Deadly From Formerly Deadly
The “unaccounted for” point has often been made by someone I recommend to our news media as a source, guest and role model: Glen Rangwala, lecturer in politics at Cambridge University in England. His greatest asset is one that can be mastered by even the most dim-witted and servile reporter: a willingness to read. Not being an expert on WMD, he simply read up on what reputable independent experts and institutions had published, and filled in the gaps by speaking with other authorities. He also contrasted what UNSCOM, UNMOVIC and IAEA reported with what U.S. officials SAY they reported, finding a number of instances where the U.S. strengthened its case by misrepresenting the original source it purported to accurately paraphrase.
Rangwala has been scrutinizing U.S. and U.K. assertions about Iraqi WMD since well before the Brits’ published the September 24 dossier, working at times with opponents of Tony Blair within Blair’s own Labour Party. Rangwala and parliamentarian Alan Simpson published a “counter dossier” ( http://www.traprockpeace.org/counter-dossier.html) the week before the release of the official dossier, which Rangwala dissected a few days later ( http://middleeastreference.org.uk/iraqncbfurther.html). He cited sources that mainstream American journalists would consider credible to show that the only pre-1991 chem or bio material that would still be lethal in 2002 is mustard gas. Here (I’m quoting directly) is what Rangwala learned about one item from Bartlett’s list of “we knows”:
Clostridium botulinum (botulinum toxin). According to the "strategic dossier" of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) of 9 September 2002: "Any botulinum toxin produced in 1989-90 would no longer be useful" (p.40). According to a CIA briefing of 1990 on the threat from Iraq's biological weapons facilities: "Botulinum toxin is nonpersistent, degrading rapidly in the environment. .. [It is] fairly stable for a year when stored at temperatures below 27c." ("Iraq's Biological Warfare Program: Saddam's Ace In The Hole", August[?] 1990, at: http://www.fas.org/irp/gulf/cia/960702/73924_01.htm)
This, esteemed journalists and misters Hadley and Bartlett, is an example of “learning” and “knowing.” Rangwala cited two published critiques by experts who are credible on that point precisely because of their known hostility to the Iraqi regime. Neither the IISS nor the CIA is inclined to cut Saddam an ounce of slack, so when their scientists say that botulinum toxin produced back in the day is no longer useful, that evaluation carries weight. It’s not a judgment based on second-hand intelligence that neither the Brits nor the intelligence service(s) that passed it to the Brits is willing to share with the International Atomic Energy Agency, even though U.N. Resolution 1441 requires them to do so. Nor is it based on the testimony of defectors of dubious credibility.
On March 6, 2003, UNMOVIC’s “Unresolved Disarmament Issues” report ( http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/documents/6mar.pdf) affirmed the CIA and IISS analyses, stating that “any such stockpiles of botulinum toxin, whether in bulk storage or in weapons that remained in 1991, would not be active today” (p.101). There is no evidence Iraq produced botulinum toxin after 1990.
Again, let’s recall Rangwala’s special research technique: reading reports written in English that are a mere click away. Months before the start of war, there was credible information that rendered moot Bush and Blair’s stated concerns about every unaccounted-for pre-1991 chem-bio weapon or stock aside from mustard gas. But that info could be absorbed only by those willing to read.
Let’s turn to an analysis of a few statements at the briefing by Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, Stephen Hadley:
HADLEY: The President, as you look at the State of the Union, needed to explain to the American people what was at stake in Iraq. And in order to do that, he needed to set out facts. The President is not going to run from facts. What he is going to do is insist that the facts are accurate. And, of course, in this case, the fact was accurate; there was nothing wrong with what the President said.
Comment: Wrong. It is not “accurate” to improve on the Brits’ language in the dossier so as to convert a judgment into knowledge. Nor is it accurate to present as fact an unproven claim about mobile labs by defectors linked to the untrustworthy Iraqi National Congress. Ditto for Bush’s statement about the tubes, which was both misleading (it left out any reference to a non-nuke use) and false (the tubes aren’t directly “suitable” for centrifuge use, as Bush asserted; they’d have to be redesigned, and the IAEA doubted that the Iraqis were technically capable of achieving a redesign of sufficient precision to make the tubes functional). From what I’ve read about Hadley, he’s a bright, conscientious and meticulous gent who takes his work very seriously. But I’m afraid he’ll need to detach himself from the White House for a good little while to regain the ability to distinguish fact from allegation — at least when the speaker is Bush.
HADLEY: And the sense that the British had sources for the truth of that assertion. They continued to stand by the assertion and they continued to stand by the sources. So it's not just that the statement the British said is accurate because the British said it, it's because the British stand behind the substance of that statement.
Comment: Wrong again, even if no reporter challenged Hadley. The substance of the statement in the body of the Brit dossier was the vague and weak “there is intelligence.” Not “We have evidence that has been confirmed” or “We possess proof.” There’s a reason the Brits said “there is intelligence”: despite real or perceived pressure from the Blair team, that was as far as Brit intelligence was willing to go.
HADLEY: And one last point, if I could. The problem with this is that the — and the real failing is that we've had a national discussion on 16 words, and it's taken away from the fact that the intelligence case supporting concerns about WMD in Iraq was overwhelming. It had been put together over a period of decades. It was based as much on U.N. sources as it was on American sources. It was supported by a variety of other intelligence services. It was supported by a number of administrations — it was a basis for President Clinton to use military action in 1998. It was a basis for an overwhelming congressional resolution twice authorizing military force in Iraq.
Comment: Wrong. The case was underwhelming, hence all the distortions. The name “President Clinton” may hold corroborative magic for some journalists, and the citation helps Hadley demonstrate seemingly authoritative and credible bipartisan support for the SOTU indictment. But the sad truth is that Clinton isn’t much more trustworthy on Iraq than his old “third-way” pal Tony Blair. Speaking of whom, the very day the Brits released the dossier with the “there is intelligence” and we “judge” lines about Iraq’s uranium pursuits, Blair went one better in an address to Parliament, saying “we know.” Blair has developed a career-threatening credibility gap because of his Bush-like habit of confidently declaring he “knows” when he bloody well doesn’t.
Real journalists “know” what they have to do to break presidents, prime ministers, NSC deputies and communication directors of the habit of saying “we know” when they really don’t. I’d like to say “I know” that the journalists will do what needs to be done. Heck, I’d like to say “I believe” they will. But if I’m going to be as careful with my words as I want others to be, I’ll have to say “I judge” that few mainstream journalists will meet the challenge.
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
© 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’” ( http://www.democraticunderground.com/articles/03/02/12_lying.html) and “The Disinformation Age” ( http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/HL0303/S00011.htm). He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu