16 Words, 500 Tons and 28 Kilograms: the Iraqi Nuclear Program Revisited

16 Words, 500 Tons and 28 Kilograms: the Iraqi Nuclear Program Revisited

With the advent of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and the unfolding of the Lewis Libby perjury trial, the famous "16 words" are back and, in the most literal possible sense, with a vengeance. It is not only on MSNBC or in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly -- which had a cover story on Presidential lying -- that "Bush lied!" is again the order of the day. In Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Iraq last month, one Senator after another seized the opportunity to assail the administration's credibility. "I have not been told the truth again and again," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) complained. Meanwhile, even Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has accused the President of "misleading this country and this Congress."
The Senator did not say about what. But one can presume she meant about Iraqi WMD, and in the popular narrative, the "16 words" are, of course, supposed to provide the conclusive "proof" that this is the case and hence that the ostensible reasons the administration gave for going to war against Iraq were not its "real" reasons. Incidentally, while many of our esteemed senators appear to endorse this conclusion, they do not venture to speculate on what the "real" reasons were. This they leave to the more inquiring minds of 9/11 "Truthers" and the anti-American (and often anti-Semitic) conspiracy theorists from Europe and the Middle East who provide their inspiration.

The starting point of what might be called the "16 words proof" is, of course, the assumption that the "16 words" -- George Bush's claim in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had recently sought to acquire uranium in Africa -- were false. By way of an obvious logical leap, this premise then becomes "Bush lied," i.e. that the President knew the words were false in uttering them. The real key to the use of the "16 words" to discredit the entirety of the administration's pre-war claims is, however, the further inference that if Iraq had not sought to acquire uranium in Africa, it must, then, have had no access to uranium at all. The President had clearly argued that the Iraqi nuclear program in particular represented a looming threat to American security and a nuclear program without fissile material can hardly be regarded as such. Thus, the President had at least "exaggerated," if not indeed outright "invented," the Iraqi nuclear threat.

Joe Wilson's famous trip to Niamey notwithstanding, intelligence analysts generally accept that Iraq made overtures to Niger about purchasing "yellow cake" uranium in 1999. This conclusion has been endorsed by both the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on Iraq War intelligence and by the British Butler Report. To the best of our knowledge, then, the "16 words" were in fact true. It is not known, on the other hand, whether any deal was actually concluded. As so happens, however, whether or not Iraq obtained uranium from Niger in or after 1999, the inference that the Iraqi nuclear program could not have posed a threat without its having done so is not only obviously problematic on logical grounds -- it is also demonstrably false.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review