Opinion Sixteen Truthful Words

The statement at the center of the accusation that "Bush lied to us" was just the plain old truth. By WILLIAM SAFIRE

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

-George W. Bush, State of the Union address, Jan. 28, 2003

WASHINGTON - Those were "the 16 words" in a momentous message to a joint session of Congress that were pounced on by the wrong-war left to become the simple centerpiece of its angry accusation that "Bush lied to us" - or, as John Kerry more delicately puts it - "misled" us into thinking that Saddam's Iraq posed a danger to the U.S.

The he-lied-to-us charge was led by Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat sent in early 2002 by the C.I.A. to Niger to check out reports by several European intelligence services that Iraq had secretly tried to buy that African nation's only major export, "yellowcake" uranium ore.

Wilson testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had assured U.S. officials back in 2002 that "there was nothing to the story." When columnist Robert Novak raised the question of nepotism by reporting that he got the assignment at the urging of his C.I.A. wife, Wilson denied that heatedly and denounced her "outing," triggering an investigation. The skilled self-promoter was then embraced as an antiwar martyr, sold a book with "truth" in its title, appeared on the cover of Time and every TV talk show denouncing Bush.

Two exhaustive government reports came out last week showing that it is the president's lionized accuser, and not Mr. Bush, who has been having trouble with the truth. Contrary to his indignant claim that "Valerie had nothing to do with the matter" of selecting him for the African trip, the Senate published testimony that his C.I.A. wife had "offered up his name" and printed her memo to her boss that "my husband has good relations" with Niger officials and "lots of French contacts." Further destroying his credibility, Wilson now insists this strong pitch did not constitute a recommendation.

More important, it now turns out that senators believe his report to the C.I.A. after visiting Niger actually bolstered the case that Saddam sought - Bush's truthful verb was "sought" - yellowcake, the stuff of nuclear bombs. The C.I.A. gave Wilson's report a "good" grade because "the Nigerien officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999 and that the Nigerien Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium" - confirming what the British and Italian intelligence services had told us from their own sources.

But a C.I.A. analyst opined "the Brits have exaggerated this issue" because "the Iraqis already have 550 metric tons of uranium oxide in their inventory."

State Department intelligence also was dubious, reports the Senate, more so in October when an Italian journalist brought in a bunch of phony documents somebody was trying to sell him about a Niger uranium transaction. This outweighed the report of a top security official in the French Foreign Ministry, who told U.S. diplomats in November 2002 that "France believed the reporting was true that Iraq had made a procurement attempt for uranium from Niger."

Two months later, with no objection from C.I.A., the famous 16 words went into Bush's 2003 State of the Union. But when word leaked about the fake documents - which were not the basis of the previous reporting by our allies - Wilson launched his publicity campaign, acting as if he had known earlier about the forgeries. The Senate reports that in his misleading anonymous leak to The Washington Post, "He said he may have misspoken . . . he said he may have become confused about his own recollection. . . ." The subsequent firestorm caused the White House to retreat prematurely with: "the sixteen words did not rise to the level of inclusion in the State of the Union address." That apology was a mistake; Bush had spoken the plain truth. Did Saddam seek uranium from Africa, evidence of his continuing illegal interest in a nuclear weapon? Here is Lord Butler's nonpartisan panel, which closely examined the basis of the British intelligence:

". . . we conclude that the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that `The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa' was well-founded."