Michael Kinsley, and Eugene Volokh have both criticized the Bush administration for claiming that Bush’s State of the Union statement about Iraq trying to purchase uranium from Africa was “technically accurate”. I disagree with them (and sent Eugene a message with basically this post’s content).
Here’s the quote: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Their argument is that when Bush says “The British government has learned X” he implies “And I believe X to be true.” And if X turns out not to be true, or if Bush wasn’t convinced that it was, then his statement was not accurate.
I think that when somebody says “The British government has learned X” it doesn’t mean “And I believe X to be true,” I think it just means that they (the British government) believe that it’s true and whether or not you should believe that it’s true depends on how trustworthy you believe British intelligence gathering and analysis is. Otherwise, why mention the British government at all? Do people really care about trivia such as the history of various pieces of intelligence? I don’t think so. I think it means: here is a claim, here is the source, I haven’t been able to verify it independently, so treat it as you think appropriate.
I agree that, in this context, it implies “And I think it might be true”, but that much is technically accurate; as far as I know.
And even this implication is not true in all contexts where we speak of “X learned Y”. For example, if I say “Palestinian children learned that Jews drink Arab blood” it doesn’t mean “And I believe it’s true, or might be true.” It just means something like “The claims were presented to them and they generally accept it as true.”
Another technical point is that this claim is about acquiring uranium from Africa not just Niger and not just the incident with the forged documents.
In any case, the administration has admitted that the statement should not have been in the speech because if its potential to mislead. I think they are right about this and that they’re right about it having been “technically accurate”. I doubt that anybody supported the war largely because of this one statement. So, I’m a bit confused about what the big deal is.