July 16, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Think British

Those who opposed the war against Saddam Hussein are having a field day. For a while, it seemed that they had been trounced. No one – not Kofi Annan, not Jacques Chirac, not even Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn – could persuade President Bush to leave Saddam alone to play shell games with the clueless Hans Blix, and to slaughter his Kurds, Shias and dissidents in peace (well, unmolested).

The President – with strong support from moderate Democrats — launched the war anyway. It took only a few days before the anti-interventionists were charging that American forces had stumbled into a “quagmire.” Remember the sand storm and those stretched supply lines?

Saddam's defenders had predicted a devastating conflict: hundreds of thousands dead; millions of refugees; environmental devastation; civil strife; other nations pulled into the conflict. None of that happened.

Nevertheless, the Save Saddam Society is back again – this time trying to instill buyer's remorse in the American public. They have apparently convinced themselves that Saddam wasn't building weapons of mass destruction after all, and wasn't much of a threat to the US or anybody else. Those tens of thousands of murdered Iraqis so far found in mass graves? Hey, if you're going to invade every country where people are being slaughtered, where will you send U.S. troops next? Liberia?

In the eye of this media storm are 16 words that President Bush  uttered in his State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The British stand by that conclusion. But that begs the question: Why did the British arrive at that conclusion? Slowly, answers are beginning to emerge. According to a new BBC report, in 1999 an official of Niger had been approached “by an unnamed businessman about expanding trade between Niger and Iraq. …This raised a suspicion that Iraq wanted to buy uranium ore since Niger has little else to offer.”

Who harbored this suspicion about the proposed trade ties? British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw this week told the BBC: “Former Niger government officials believe that this was in connection with the procurement of yellowcake” (enriched uranium ore).

But that wasn't all. In a letter to the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, Straw added that British intelligence's “assessment of Iraq's efforts to reconstitute its nuclear program did not rest on the attempted acquisition of yellowcake alone.” Rather, Straw wrote, it was based on additional “reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S. (for good reasons which I have given your committee in private session.)”

We do know that the British government received additional information from at least one other separate source — a “foreign intelligence service,” according to the BBC, (probably French or Italian). British intelligence analysts found the information “credible.”

That information may have concerned an Iraqi delegation that visited Niger in 1999. Reports the BBC: “Someone on that delegation may have talked, but the British government refuses to say.”

Though you wouldn't know it from most of the coverage, all this tracks closely with what many U.S. intelligence analysts believed. According to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, the classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) contains “a lengthy section in which most agencies of the intelligence community judged that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”

Such a program would require uranium. According to Tenet, the N.I.E. also contains reports of Saddam trying to obtain uranium from Niger and other African sources. The N.I.E. states: “We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.” Doesn't the phrase, “whether Iraq succeeded,” presume that Iraq was trying to succeed? And isn't that precisely what the British believe Saddam was trying to do – succeed in acquiring uranium from Africa?

With this in mind, was what the President said truthful? Yes, although it would have been better had Bush not said that the British government “has learned,” but rather that it “believes” or “suspects.”

Should he have included that sentence in his SOTU? Probably not. As National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice has conceded, the standard for what goes into a SOTU should be higher than fragmentary bits of intelligence – however alarming those bits appear when arranged into a pattern and viewed through the prism of 9/11.

But the vital point is – or ought to be — this: The case in favor of overthrowing Saddam'sregime was overwhelming, even without a frosting of yellowcake. That's why members of Congress from both parties voted to authorize the President to use military force against Saddam more than three months before the State of the Union. Which of them would change their vote now? In retrospect, the case for overthrowing Saddam remains persuasive.

It's true that weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found. Nor have we found Saddam. Or Osama bin Laden. But Saddam and Osama exist. They were a threat to every one of us. They still are, though less so now that they dwell in safe-houses and caves.

The matrix of rogue dictators, terrorists and WMD is the gravest menace faced by Americans and other free peoples face in the 21st Century. That is why we – Republicans, Democrats, Americans, America's old allies and new (e.g. free Iraqis) – have our work cut out for us in the years ahead.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.