Defending Joe Wilson
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The Senate intelligence committee's report on prewar intelligence demonstrates that George W. Bush launched a war predicated on false assertions about weapons of mass destruction and misled the country when he claimed Saddam Hussein was in cahoots in al Qaeda. But what has caused outrage within conservative quarters? Passages in the report that they claim undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
Wilson, if you need to be reminded, embarrassed the Bush administration a year ago when he revealed that he had traveled to Niger in February 2002 to check out the allegation that Hussein had been shopping for uranium there. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush had referred to Iraq's supposed attempt to obtain uranium in Africa to suggest Hussein was close to possessing a nuclear weapon. When Bush's use of this allegation become a matter of controversy last summer, Wilson went public with a New York Times op-ed in which he noted his private mission to Niger – which he had taken on behalf of the CIA – had led him to conclude the allegation was highly unlikely. After Wilson's article appeared, the White House conceded that Bush should not have included this charge in his speech.
A week later, Wilson received the payback. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, quoting two unnamed administration sources, reported that Wilson's wife, Valerie Wilson (nee Plame), was a CIA operative working in the counterproliferation field. Novak revealed her identity to suggest that Wilson had been sent to Niger due to nepotism not his experience. The point of Novak's column was to call Wilson's trip and his findings into question.
The real story was that Novak's sources – presumably White House officials – might have violated the law prohibiting government officials from identifying a covert officer of the United States government. Outing Valerie Wilson was a possible felony and – to boot – compromised national security. Two months later, the news broke that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the Wilson leak. And a US attorney named Patrick Fitzgerald has been on the case since the start of this year, leading an investigation that has included questioning Bush.
But now Wilson's detractors on the right claim the critical issue is Wilson's credibility on two points: whether his wife was involved in the decision to send him to Niger and whether he accurately portrayed his findings regarding his Niger trip. And they have made use of the Senate intelligence report – particularly additional comments filed by committee chairman Pat Roberts and two other Republican members of the committee, Kit Bond and Orrin Hatch – to pound Wilson. But not only does the get-Wilson crusade ignore the main question – did White House officials break the law and damage national security to take a swing at a critic? – it overstates and manipulates the material in the Senate report.
The first shot at Wilson actually came from The Washington Post . The day after the Senate report was released, Post reporter Susan Schmidt did an entire piece on the portion of the report related to the Niger episode. (By the way, the Post devoted more space to the Wilson affair than to the report's conclusion that there was no intelligence to back up Bush's assertion that Iraq and al Qaeda had maintained a working relationship.) In this story, Schmidt claimed that Wilson was "specifically recommended for the [Niger] mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly." She also reported that the intelligence committee "found that Wilson's report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts." Schmidt added, "The report may bolster the rationale that administration officials provided the information not to intentionally expose an undercover CIA employee, but to call into question Wilson's bona fides as an investigator into trafficking of weapons of mass destruction."
Within days, Tim Graham, an analyst at the conservative Media Research Center, wrote a piece for The National Review pointing to the Schmidt article and decrying the "truth-telling problems" of Wilson, whose recent best-selling book is titled "The Politics of Truth ." Then Novak, returning to the scene of the (possible) crime, cited the committee report and the Republicans' additional comments to prove that he had been right to report in his original column that Wilson's wife had been behind the move to send Wilson to Niger. And Novak approvingly quoted Senator Roberts blast at Wilson: "Rather than speaking publicly about his actual experiences during his inquiry of the Niger issue, the former ambassador seems to have included information he learned from press accounts and from his beliefs about how the Intelligence Community would have or should have handled the information he provided ... Time and again, Joe Wilson told anyone who would listen that the president had lied to the American people, that the vice president had lied, and that he had 'debunked' the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. . . . [N]ot only did he NOT 'debunk' the claim, he actually gave some intelligence analysts even more reason to believe that it may be true." (In this column, Novak did not explore the ethics or legality of White House officials identifying CIA officers.) And then, of course, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page piled on. So did the Republican National Committee.
Wilson has written a response to Roberts that addresses many of the criticisms being hurled at him. But let's sort out some of the various claims.
First, what the report says about Valerie Wilson's role in this business. In his book, Wilson writes,
"Apart from being the conduit for a message from a colleague in her office asking if I would be willing to have a conversation about Niger's uranium industry [with CIA counterproliferation experts], Valerie had had nothing to do with the matter. Though she worked on weapons of mass destruction issues, she was not at the meeting I attended where the subject of Niger's uranium was discussed, when the possibility of my actually traveling to the country was broached. She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip."
So what if she had? A week in Niamey for no pay was hardly a junket. What would have been wrong with a CIA officer telling another CIA officer, hey my husband, a former ambassador, is an Africa expert with experience in Niger, perhaps you should send him to Niger to see what he can learn? But because Wilson is on record saying it did not happen this way, the question is whether he has been truthful.
The intelligence committee report says, "Some [CIA Counterproliferation Division] officials could not recall how the office decided to contact the former ambassador, however, interviews and documents provided to the Committee indicate that his wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip. The CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador's wife 'offered up his name' and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002, from [Valerie Wilson] says, 'my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.' ... The former ambassador's wife told Committee staff that when CPD decided it would like to send the former ambassador to Niger, she approached her husband on behalf of the CIA."
The report also notes, "On February 19, 2002, CPD hosted a meeting with the former ambassador, intelligence analysts from both the CIA and INR [the State Department's intelligence unit], and several individuals from the [Directorate of Operations'] Africa and CPD divisions. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the merits of [Wilson] traveling to Niger. An INR analyst's notes indicate that the meeting was 'apparently convened by [Wilson's] wife who had the idea to dispatch [him] to use his contacts to sort out the Iraq-Niger uranium issue. The former ambassador's wife told Committee staff that she only attended the meeting to introduce her husband and left after about three minutes."
This is not what ex-CIA chief George Tenet would call a slam-dunk case against Wilson. Sure, some of the evidence seems to contradict his account. But Valerie Wilson could have "offered up" his name as a handy person to contact about allegations concerning Niger's uranium trade without suggesting he get on a plane to Niger. And it is certainly imaginable that an INR analyst sitting in a meeting in which there is talk of dispatching a CIA officer's husband to Africa could have received the impression that his wife had initiated the mission. But if that was the case, why did Valerie Wilson attend for only a few minutes? If Valerie Wilson's account of this meeting is not accurate, where are the contradicting accounts from the other participants? Why does the report not quote them on this topic? Since only a week elapsed between the time Valerie Wilson "offered up" her husband and a meeting was held to consider sending him to Niger, it is possible that someone participating in the matter might have thought that Valerie Wilson's original advice – talk to my husband – was related to question of sending an unofficial envoy to Niger to seek out additional information.
When Wilson returned from Niger two CIA officers debriefed him. "The debriefing," the Senate report says, "took place in the former ambassador's home and although his wife was there, according to the reports officer, she acted as a hostess and did not participate in the debrief." If Valerie Wilson had played a key role in sending Joseph Wilson to Niger, would she have skipped out on this debriefing? Perhaps. But this scene reinforces Wilson's claim that she was not deeply involved in his Niger trip.
It may be that in some of his public remarks, Wilson underplayed his wife's involvement in his trip. After all, according to the Senate intelligence committee's report, she did write at least one memo on the subject. But it is not clear from the report that she specifically advocated he be sent to Niger. Again, it makes little difference – or it should make little difference – whether Valerie Wilson said to her CIA colleagues "contact my husband" or said to them "you should put him on a plane to Niamey immediately." The report notes that the CIA people in charge of investigating the Niger allegation deliberated over what to do and then reached the decision to ask Wilson to perform a pro bono act of public service. And he said yes. He had the experience for the job. His trip was not a boondoggle arranged by his wife for his or their benefit.
Now on to the claim that Wilson's report to the CIA actually provided more reason to believe Iraq had been seeking yellowcake uranium. In his debriefing Wilson reported that former Nigerian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki had told him that in 1999 he had been asked to meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between Niger and Iraq. Mayaki said he assumed the delegation wanted to discuss uranium sales. But he said that although he had met with the delegation he had not been interested in pursuing any commercial dealings with Iraq. The intelligence report based on Wilson's debriefing also noted that the former minister of mines explained to Wilson that given the tight controls maintained by the French consortium in charge of uranium mining in Niger, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a shipment of uranium to a pariah state.
What did this report mean to the intelligence community? A CIA reports officer told the Senate intelligence committee that he took it as indirect confirmation of the allegation since Nigerian officials had admitted that an Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999 and since the former prime minister had said he believed Iraq was interested in purchasing uranium. But an INR analyst said that he considered the report to be corroboration of INR's position, which was that the allegation was "highly suspect" because Niger would be unlikely to engage in such a transaction and unable to transfer uranium to Iraq due to the strict controls maintained by the French consortium. But the INR analyst added, the "report could be read in different ways."
Wilson's work was thrown into the stew. The CIA continued to disseminate a report noting that a foreign intelligence service had told US intelligence that Niger had agreed to supply Iraq with hundreds of tons of uranium. And in the National Intelligence Estimate produced in October 2002, the intelligence community reported that Iraq had been trying to strike a uranium deal with Niger in 2001. But the NIE noted that INR strongly disagreed with this assessment. And when the National Security Council drafted a speech for Bush in October 2002 the CIA recommended the address not include the Niger allegation because it was "debatable" whether the yellowcake could be obtained from Niger. In a follow-up fax to the NSC, the CIA said "the evidence is weak" and "the procurement is not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already have a large stock of uranium oxide in their inventory." Still, in late January 2003 – after the INR's Iraq analyst had concluded that papers recently obtained by US intelligence related to the supposed Iraqi-Niger uranium deal were "clearly a forgery" – Bush went ahead and accused Iraq of seeking uranium in Africa.
But on Apr. 5, 2003, the National Intelligence Council issued a memo that noted, "we judge it highly unlikely that Niamey has sold uranium yellowcake to Baghdad in recent years." It added that the government of Niger was unlikely to proceed with such a deal. And on June 17, 2003, the CIA produced a memo that said, "since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from aboard."
So Wilson's assessment ended up being accepted by the CIA. His reporting may not have been conclusive. But as we have been told repeatedly this past week, such is often the case in intelligence collection. After coming back from Niger, Wilson's view – which he did not express publicly for nearly a year and a half – was different from that held by CIA analysts. Yet his conclusion – that the Niger allegation was probably bunk – was in line with the thinking of the State Department's lead analyst on this matter. And Wilson's reasoning came to prevail and to be shared by the intelligence community. For some reason, Novak does not mention this in his recent column.
Finally, let's address Schmidt's claim that the Senate intelligence committee's report "may bolster" the defense of the leakers – whoever they are. Whether their motivation was to punish Wilson for speaking out or to try to undermine his credibility by suggesting his only bona fides for the Niger trip was his marriage license, blowing Valerie Wilson's cover still was a possible crime and an odious act. The law does not allow a government official to reveal a CIA officer – and jeopardizing the officer, her contacts, and her operations – to score political points.
What Wilson told his CIA contacts, what he told reporters, what he said in public – accurate or not – did not justify disclosing Valerie Wilson's identity. Nor did it justify the subsequent White House effort to encourage other reporters to pursue the Valerie Wilson story. The leak was thuggish and possibly felonious. And the Wilsons and others are waiting to see what comes from Fitzgerald's investigation. (NBC News reported recently that the probe had expanded to examine possible acts of perjury and lying to investigators.) There is no telling if the investigation will end with indictments or whitewashing. It has been a mostly leak-free probe, and even senior people at the Justice Department say they have no idea where Fitzgerald is heading – if anywhere.
Whatever Fitzgerald's criminal investigation produces, the Wilsons were wronged. And Bush and his White House crew did nothing to seek out or punish the Novak-enabled leakers who placed politics ahead of national security and decency. Instead, White House officials peddled the leak further to discredit Wilson, and GOPers have been seeking to blast him ever since.
Roberts and other Republicans are using the intelligence committee's report to whack Wilson, a prominent opponent of the Iraq war and a foreign policy adviser to Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. If only Roberts' committee had applied as much time and energy into investigating the Wilson leak (and how the White House reacted to the leak) as it did to the actions of Valerie Wilson. But the leak is a subject that, for some odd reason, has escaped the attention of Roberts' investigators. And Roberts and his ideological comrades are exploiting the release of the committee's report to blame the victims of the leak. They are far more angered by alleged (or trumped-up) inconsistencies in Wilson's account than by Bush's misrepresentation of the prewar intelligence. Talk about overstating a problem.
To learn more about Joe Wilson's defense, read his letter to the Senate Committe on Intelligence and also his original New York Times op-ed that exposed President's Bush's claims about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium from Niger.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.