A Bigger Lie - Bush and Blair Fib at Camp David, 9/7/02 
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, Sept 4, 2003

Written about a lesser-noticed deception in the buildup to the war with Iraq - GW

On Sept. 7, 2002, at a joint Camp David press conference, President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair each stated that the International Atomic Energy Agency had issued a report that morning suggesting that Iraq was close to having a nuclear device. No such report had come out that day—or ever.

In contrast to the furor over President Bush’s uranium-from-Niger claim in his State of the Union speech, the IAEA falsehood has drawn relatively little attention. This may be because unlike the uranium claim, which was a single lie British intelligence got from a document later proven to have been forged, the devil is in the many details of the Camp David story.

In arguing their case for military action to the press that day, both Bush and Blair leaned heavily on IAEA reports.

Blair led off with, “. . . [T]he threat from Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, potentially nuclear weapons capability—that threat is real. We only need to look at the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapon sites to realize that.” Blair was referring to recently released satellite photos of Iraq showing new construction at several sites formerly connected to Baghdad’s nuclear-weapons program.

Bush added, “I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied—finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic—the IAEA, that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.” (The United Nations withdrew its inspection teams in 1998.)

Blair remained on message, saying, “Absolutely right. . . . We know that they were trying to develop nuclear-weapons capability. And the importance of this morning’s report, is that it yet again shows that there is a real issue that has to be tackled here.”

At first the media were somewhat critical. That night, NBC’s Robert Windrem reported that the 1998 IAEA document Bush referred to did not say Iraq was six months away from having nuclear capability, though he noted that a 1991 IAEA report did say Baghdad was six to 24 months away. What the 1998 report, itself an update of a 1996 report, had said in its summary was that, “. . . based on all credible information available to date . . . the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material.”

Confronted with the discrepancy between Bush’s statement and the 1998 report, a White House official told NBC News’ Norah O’Donnell, “What happened was, we formed our own conclusions based on the report.” Conclusions, interestingly, directly opposite to those of the actual report.

As for the satellite photos, Mark Gwozdecky, the IAEA’s chief spokesman, told Windrem that nothing in them had aroused the IAEA’s suspicion. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung also checked with an IAEA spokesman, who told her that the agency had issued no new report. But that seemingly important detail was reserved for the 21st paragraph of her coverage.

Nobody got all the way to the bottom of the Camp David declarations for almost three weeks. Finally, Joseph Curl, a reporter from The Washington Times, called the IAEA headquarters to confirm Bush’s and Blair’s contentions. “There’s never been a report like that issued from this agency,” Curl quoted Gwozdecky in a Sept. 27 story.

Curl called the White House seeking clarification. “He’s referring to 1991 there,” said Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan. “In ‘91, there was a report saying that after the war they found out they were about six months away.”

But Gwozdecky denied that any such report was issued by the IAEA in 1991, either. The only factual basis for the Bush and Blair statement Curl could find were two 1991 news stories based on the work of U.N. weapons inspector Jay Davis.

Curl’s story set off surprisingly few ripples. The New York Times and the Washington Post never published a full examination, and the matter was largely dropped, except by a few muckrakers like John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s and a sharp critic of the administration’s Iraq policy.

On Jan. 31, MacArthur appeared on PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers to discuss Bush’s State of the Union address. MacArthur raised the Camp David lie, and noted how ironic it was that only The Washington Times, a very conservative newspaper, had debunked the claim. MacArthur also included an expose of the Sept. 7 claims in a piece he wrote for the March 3 edition of The Columbia Journalism Review titled “The Lies We Bought—The Unchallenged ‘Evidence’ For War.” But the mainstream media stayed silent for months.

Finally, in an Aug. 9 article on the deceitful campaign by the Bush administration to convince the public that Iraq was an imminent threat, the Washington Post cited the debunked Camp David statements and said that a White House spokesman had admitted the president had been “imprecise” on Sept. 7.

The official claimed the president’s statement had been based on U.S intelligence, not an IAEA report. But the Post found even that claim murky—those estimates had reckoned Iraq could have an atomic bomb in six months to a year only if it acquired enough enriched uranium or plutonium from a foreign supplier.

It took a year, but it has been shown—albeit quietly—that with the sole exception of a 1991 report by a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, every possible excuse for Bush and Blair using the IAEA to back themselves up on Sept. 7 has been removed.

It remains to be seen if the untruths told at Camp David and afterward will become as much of a problem for the White House as the Nigerian uranium story, which made the TV evening news and had senior administration officials on the ropes on the Sunday talk shows. Unlike the Niger story, the Sept. 7 statements and their bogus explanations were not one lie but rather a pack of them. And if MacArthur is right, they were also the opener in series of lies told over a period of months.

Perhaps in the beginning, the news media were less alert to the possibility of deception by the administration, since the pattern was just getting going. Even so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as the case for war was being built, the mainstream media fell down on the job.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2003 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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