How to Mislead a Nation Into War
The Bush Administration's Techniques of Deceit
by Dennis Hans
August 5, 2003

The Bush administration is enmeshed in a crisis of credibility over a 16-word sentence in the State of the Union address (hereafter "SOTU") about alleged Iraqi efforts to procure unenriched uranium from Africa. But two centrist senators, Democrats Bob Graham and Carl Levin, have argued persuasively that those 16 words are the mere tip of a deceptive iceberg that helped to win public and congressional support for war.

The senators are correct. An examination of a single paragraph – the one containing those 16 words – illustrates a few of the many "techniques of deceit" the Bush team has mastered: misrepresentation, unsupported "certitude" and, most importantly, deception through omission.

Here is Bush's Jan. 28 SOTU description of the Iraqi nuclear threat:

"The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide."

If you're a parent watching at home with your kids, and if you just happen to lack expertise on Iraq and nuclear-weapons technology, like 99.99 percent of your fellow citizens, that's a very frightening picture.

Not only did Bush put the fear of Saddam into viewers, he did so by citing sources that fence-sitters and skeptics would likely consider credible: the British government and the IAEA. For citizens who didn't know the IAEA from Adam or what to think of it, Bush wisely included this comment earlier in the address: "We're strongly supporting the [IAEA] in its mission to track and control nuclear materials around the world.

What Bush didn't include was the IAEA's assessment of the current Iraqi nuclear "threat" – issued the day before the SOTU: "No evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities [nor] signs of new nuclear facilities or direct support to any nuclear activity. ... The IAEA expects to be able, within the next few months, barring exceptional circumstances and provided there is sustained proactive cooperation by Iraq, to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons programme."

Such a program can't be hidden in a basement or buried in a garden. It requires a vast, high-tech infrastructure. The "yellowcake" uranium Iraq was allegedly seeking in Africa would have to be enriched to become weapons-grade. A nuclear consultant quoted in the British press on July 20 estimated the enrichment plant would be "the size of 30 football pitches" – i.e., 30 soccer fields.

Even if that turns out to be an exaggeration, you get the idea. Such a plant could not go undetected in a country spied on from satellites and swarming with inspectors.

The preparers of the SOTU cherry-picked an old IAEA comment of no relevance to 2003, about a nuclear program that was destroyed and dismantled long ago, and paired it with assertions about recent activity to conjure up a frightening image that bore no relation to reality.

As for the controversial SOTU assertion about Iraq's pursuit of African uranium, the Bush team maintains that even though U.S. intelligence had doubts about the claim, it was OK to cite the Brits because they had secret intelligence we hadn't seen and which they stood behind. Even if we grant that point, the Bush team still is guilty of misrepresentation.

The claim in the British dossier was a vague, weak construction: "There is intelligence." As we've learned over and over again before, during and after this war, "intelligence" is not "proof." Bush would have been on solid ground to say that the Brits "claim" or "say they have intelligence." But Bush said the British government "has learned" when, in fact, it hadn't "learned" squat. To learn is to know. The Brits didn't "know" then and they don't "know" now.

Someone needs to tell Bush and his speechwriters that if you think something might be true, but you say it most definitely is true, that's lying. It's lying even if it turns out to be true, because you didn't know it for a fact when you spoke. Unsupported "certitude" has been a trademark not only of Bush's pronouncements on Iraq, but also of Colin Powell's. All manner of unproven claims by defectors and by foreign and domestic intelligence services have been presented to the public as established fact.

Bush's statement about aluminum tubes is best characterized as "implied certitude," as he gave nary a hint that they might have a non-nuclear use. The non-expert sitting at home would have no idea that the tubes' technical specifications made them a perfect fit for Iraq's conventional artillery rockets, or that the IAEA's "provisional conclusion" 16 days before the SOTU was that the tubes "were for rockets and not for [nuclear] centrifuges." A majority of the U.S. intelligence community disagreed with the IAEA, but our best experts, the nuclear scientists at the Department of Energy (DOE), concurred.

Nor would the non-expert have learned what the IAEA reported 19 days before the SOTU: Despite Bush's characterization of the tubes as "suitable for nuclear weapons production," the IAEA concluded they "are not directly suitable." As the IAEA and DOE knew, aluminum was a substandard metal for the task. Also, the tubes were the wrong dimension and would have to be redesigned and stripped of their anodized coating. If all that were achieved, there was still no guarantee that the tubes would function as centrifuges.

The astute reader may have noticed that I've dismantled Bush's paragraph with public evidence from credible sources widely available at the time of the SOTU. That leads to our most important lessons: 1. The Bush team's techniques of deceit are transparent and easily exposed. 2. The techniques can work only if the watchdogs – national-security bureaucrats in position to blow the whistle, members of Congress and the news media – allow them to work.

Alas, with few honorable exceptions, the watchdogs slept, cowered or cheered the president as he misled the nation into war.

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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.

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