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A Handle On Scandal

'Uranium From Africa' Doesn't Have the Smell of 'I Am Not a Crook,' but It Has at Least a Whiff of Flap

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2003; Page C01

People in the nation's capital don't use the word "scandal" lightly. Here, a scandal is an almost sacred thing. It has formal structures. It has institutionalized traditions. Corruption at the highest levels -- its ritualized exposure and punishment amid a media frenzy that humbles the mighty and turns obscure government employees into cult figures -- is a cherished part of our community heritage.

If certain criteria aren't met, the thing in question is not a scandal, but merely a controversy, or a furor, or something even more trivial than that: a flap.

President Bush delivers the State of the Union address, and the Sixteen Words that may or may not constitute a scandal. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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At present there is abundant disputation in Washington over the president's use of incorrect information about Iraq in his State of the Union address. Building his case for war against Iraq, President Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The White House has acknowledged that this was bad information and shouldn't have been included in the January speech. Intelligence agencies had already dismissed the sketchy reports of Iraqi attempts to buy "yellowcake uranium ore" in Niger. The Central Intelligence Agency said this week that it had specifically warned White House staffers last October that the Niger allegation was unsupportable and should be removed from a presidential speech. Critics say the administration repeatedly abused intelligence data and exaggerated the Iraqi threat in the run-up to war.

A scandal?

Or just . . . flapdoodle?

Naturally there are partisan differences. William Kristol, editor of the conservative journal the Weekly Standard, has derided Democrats for scandalmongering, and ridiculed the news media for their "hyperbolic, rush-to-judgment, believe-the-worst" coverage of the issue. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has argued that the line in Bush's speech was "technically correct." National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the president's mistake was "about a single sentence, a single data point," and was just "16 words."

The "16 words" defense sent up a red flag for those on the other side of the political spectrum.

"A lame attempt to diminish it is always a good sign of a scandal," says Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" and a former Clinton administration aide. The phrase "just 16 words" reminds him of a line about Watergate: "just a third-rate burglary."

Begala says the climate is right for an authentic scandal.

"I see all of the storm clouds gathering. For one thing, it's summer. Scandals do gather more in the summer. There's nothing else to do."

Liberal pundit Alan Colmes of Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" isn't quite ready to use the S-word.

"To call it a scandal would be premature, but clearly a full and open investigation would be warranted. I don't believe the president necessarily lied, but someone certainly made him look bad. And I don't understand why he doesn't loudly proclaim that he wants to get to the bottom of this," Colmes says.

One person familiar with scandal, former White House counsel John Dean -- instrumental in sinking the presidency of his boss, Richard Nixon -- points out that a scandal by definition requires not only improper behavior but also public offense. Action and reaction are equally essential.

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