Inconvenient Facts

There are no stubborn facts in the Bush White House, just stubborn men. This is an administration that will not be cowed by the truth.

After all, it's not as if the president's baseless assertion in his State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to acquire "yellowcake" uranium from Niger was the last we heard of this claim. To be sure, Colin Powell consciously excised it from the bill of indictment he delivered to the UN Security Council in early February. (It had been included in the first draft of his speech, which was prepared, according to U.S. News and World Report, by the National Security Council and Vice President Cheney's office.) But it popped up again as late as March 16, when Cheney himself appeared on Meet The Press to make one more case for going to war.

By then, the International Atomic Energy Agency had publicly reported that the documents purportedly recording the Iraq-Niger transaction were forgeries -- a conclusion, we now know, that the CIA and the State Department shared. Indeed, when the State Department turned over the documents to the IAEA on Feb. 4, it sent along a note stating, "We cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims."

But when Meet The Press host Tim Russert asked the vice president about the IAEA's conclusions, Cheney bulled ahead with a certitude born of -- well, of the political necessity for certitude. He disagreed with the IAEA, he said, adding, wrongly, "You'll find that the CIA, for example, and other key parts of our intelligence community disagree."

As for Saddam, he said, "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei [the IAEA director], frankly, is wrong. And I think if you look at the track record of the International Atomic Energy Agency [on] this kind of issue, especially where Iraq's concerned, they have consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing."

The point is not that an apology is in order, though it plainly is. The point is that even after the IAEA's revelation that the forged agreement had been "signed" by a Niger government official who in fact had been out of office for the better part of a decade, the vice president dismissed this information out of hand and disparaged its source. He did not, however, refute it. Refutations plunge you into the realm of facts, where this administration is exquisitely uncomfortable.

Just how uncomfortable becomes clear by a close reading of the cover story in the July-August issue of Foreign Policy -- Newt Gingrich's attack on the State Department for its refusal to implement George W. Bush's foreign policy. Gingrich's screed has been widely condemned for its bizarre allegations of Foggy Bottom disloyalty. But its most stunning passage -- an attack on the very idea of unbiased intelligence -- has been overlooked.

Gingrich notes that on April 28, Bush told a group of Iraqi Americans in Dearborn, Mich., "I have confidence in the future of a free Iraq. The Iraqi people are fully capable of self-government." Then the Newtster continues:

"Contrast that vision with a recent classified report by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research titled 'Iraq, the Middle East and Change: No Dominoes,' which was leaked in March 2003 to the Los Angeles Times. As reported by that newspaper, the document stated that 'liberal democracy would be difficult to achieve [in Iraq]. . . . Electoral democracy, were it to emerge, could well be subject to exploitation by anti-American elements.'" Gingrich goes on to list other Foggy Bottom low points, and concludes: "Can anyone imagine a State Department more out of sync with Bush's views and objectives?"

It's OK if you want to go back and read that again. Gingrich has just criticized an intelligence assessment of what Iraq is for being out of sync with Bush's views on what Iraq should be. Those of us who've called for investigations of whether the administration slanted its intelligence should be abashed. What's to investigate? Here's a member of the administration's Defense Policy Board who argues in print that the very purpose of intelligence is to confirm the president's vision of a proper planet. In the mind of Newt Gingrich, where synapses must misfire at close to the speed of light, the descriptive and the normative are as one.

It's fashionable to dismiss Gingrich today as a kind of crazy uncle with whom the Republicans are saddled. But no one made Don Rumsfeld appoint to his policy board a guy who doesn't understand the most rudimentary premise of intelligence. And the appointment does help explain why Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence assessment office inside the Pentagon in the very image of Gingrich's intelligence cookery.

My friends on the left fear the administration's budding imperialism. I'm more concerned by its raging anti-empiricism.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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