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CIA Leak Scandal Goes to the Top

Bush administration officials reveal that the Vice President spearheaded the White House's efforts to discredit Joseph Wilson.
 
 
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Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley led a campaign beginning in March 2003 to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for publicly criticizing the Bush administration's intelligence on Iraq, according to current and former administration officials.

The officials work or had worked in the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council in a senior capacity and had direct knowledge of the Vice President's campaign to discredit Wilson.

In interviews over the course of two days this week, these officials were urged to speak on the record for this story. But they resisted, saying they had already testified before a grand jury investigating the leak of Wilson's wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, and added that speaking out against the administration and specifically Vice President Cheney would cause them to lose their jobs and subject their families to vitriolic attacks by the White House.

The officials said they decided to speak out now because they have become disillusioned with the Bush administration's policies regarding Iraq and the flawed intelligence that led to the war.

They said their roles, along with several others at the CIA and State Department, included digging up or "inventing" embarrassing information on the former Ambassador that could be used against him, preparing memos and classified material on Wilson for Cheney and the National Security Council, and attending meetings in Cheney's office to discuss with Cheney, Hadley, and others the efforts that would be taken to discredit Wilson.

A former CIA official who has worked in the counter-proliferation division, and is familiar with the undercover work Wilson's wife did for the agency, said Cheney and Hadley visited CIA headquarters a day or two after Joseph Wilson was interviewed on CNN.

These were the first public comments Wilson had made about Iraq. He said the administration was more interested in redrawing the map of the Middle East to pursue its own foreign policy objectives than in dealing with the so-called terrorist threat.

"The underlying objective, as I see it, the more I look at this, is less and less disarmament, and it really has little to do with terrorism, because everybody knows that a war to invade and conquer and occupy Iraq is going to spawn a new generation of terrorists," Wilson said in a March 2, 2003, interview with CNN.

"So you look at what's underpinning this, and you go back and you take a look at who's been influencing the process. And it's been those who really believe that our objective must be far grander, and that is to redraw the political map of the Middle East," Wilson added.

This was the first time that Wilson had spoken out publicly against the administration's policies. It was two and a half weeks before the start of the Iraq war.

But it wasn't Wilson who Cheney was so upset about when he visited the CIA in March 2003.

During the same CNN segment in which Wilson was interviewed, former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright made similar comments about the rationale for the Iraq war and added that he believed UN weapons inspectors should be given more time to search the country for weapons of mass destruction.

The National Security Council and CIA officials said Cheney had visited CIA headquarters and asked several CIA officials to dig up dirt on Albright, and to put together a dossier that would discredit his work that could be distributed to the media.

"Vice President Cheney was more concerned with Mr. Albright," the CIA official said. "The international community had been saying that inspectors should have more time, that the US should not set a deadline. The Vice President felt Mr. Albright's remarks would fuel the debate."

The officials said a "binder" was sent to the Vice President's office that contained material that could be used by the White House to discredit Albright if he continued to comment on the administration's war plans. However, it's unclear whether Cheney or other White House officials used the information against Albright.

A week later, Wilson was interviewed on CNN again. This was the first time Wilson ridiculed the Bush administration's intelligence that claimed Iraq tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger.

"Well, this particular case is outrageous. We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for something like this to go unchallenged by US -- the US government -- is just simply stupid. It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an embassy there since the early '60s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted market of buyers and sellers," Wilson said in the March 8, 2003, CNN interview. "For this to have gotten to the IAEA is on the face of it dumb, but more to the point, it taints the whole rest of the case that the government is trying to build against Iraq."

What Wilson wasn't at liberty to disclose during that interview, because the information was still classified, was that he had personally traveled to Niger a year earlier on behalf of the CIA to investigate whether Iraq had in fact tried to purchase uranium from the African country. Cheney had asked the CIA in 2002 to look into the allegation, which turned out to be based on forged documents, but was included in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address nonetheless.

Wilson's comments enraged Cheney, all of the officials said, because they were seen as a personal attack against the Vice President, who was instrumental in getting the intelligence community to cite the Niger claims in government reports to build a case for war against Iraq.

The former Ambassador's stinging rebuke also caught the attention of Stephen Hadley, who played an even bigger role in the Niger controversy, having been responsible for allowing President Bush to cite the allegations in his State of the Union address.

At this time, the international community, various media outlets, and the International Atomic Energy Association had called into question the veracity of the Niger documents. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of IAEA, told the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003, that the Niger documents were forgeries and could not be used to prove Iraq was a nuclear threat.

Wilson's comments in addition to ElBaradei's UN report were seen as a threat to the administration's attack plans against Iraq, the officials said, which would take place 11 days later.

Hadley had avoided making public comments about the veracity of the Niger documents, going as far as ignoring a written request by IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei to share the intelligence with his agency so his inspectors could verify the claims. Hadley is said to have known the Niger documents were crude forgeries, but pushed the administration to cite it as evidence that Iraq was a nuclear threat, according to the State Department officials, who said they personally told Hadley in a written report that the documents were bogus.

The CIA and State Department officials said that a day after Wilson's March 8, 2003, CNN appearance, they attended a meeting at the Vice President's office chaired by Cheney, and it was there that a decision was made to discredit Wilson. Those who attended the meeting included I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff who was indicted in October for lying to investigators, perjury and obstruction of justice related to his role in the Plame Wilson leak, Hadley, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and John Hannah, Cheney's deputy national security adviser, the officials said.

"The way I remember it," the CIA official said about that first meeting he attended in Cheney's office, "is that the vice president was obsessed with Wilson. He called him an 'asshole,' a son-of-a-bitch. He took his comments very personally. He wanted us to do everything in our power to destroy his reputation and he wanted to be kept up to date about the progress."

A spokeswoman for Cheney would not comment for this story, saying the investigation into the leak is ongoing. The spokeswoman refused to give her name. Additional calls made to Cheney's office were not returned.

The CIA, State Department and National Security Council officials said that early on they had passed on information about Wilson to Cheney and Libby that purportedly showed Wilson as being a "womanizer" and that he had dabbled in drugs during his youth, allegations that are apparently false, they said.

The officials said that during the meeting, Hadley said he would respond to Wilson's comments by writing an editorial about the Iraqi threat, which it was hoped would be a first step in overshadowing Wilson's CNN appearance.

A column written by Hadley that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 16, 2003, was redistributed to newspaper editors by the State Department on March 10, 2003, two days after Wilson was interviewed on CNN. The column, "Two Potent Iraqi Weapons: Denial and Deception" once again raised the issue that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger.

Cheney appeared on Meet the Press on March 16, 2003, to respond to ElBaradei's assertion that the Niger documents were forgeries.

"I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said during the interview. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."

Cheney knew the State Department had prepared a report saying the Niger claims were false, but he thought the report had no merit, the two State Department officials said. Meanwhile, the CIA was preparing information for the vice president and his senior aides on Wilson should the former ambassador decide to speak out against the administration again.

Behind the scenes, Wilson had been speaking to various members of Congress about the administration's use of the Niger documents and had said the intelligence the White House relied upon was flawed, said one of the State Department officials who had a conversation with Wilson. Wilson's criticism of the administration's intelligence eventually leaked out to reporters, but with the Iraq war just a week away, the story was never covered.

It's unclear whether anyone disseminated information on Wilson in March 2003, following the meeting in Cheney's office. Although the officials said they helped prepare negative information on Wilson about his personal and professional life and had given it to Libby and Cheney, Wilson seemed to drop off the radar once the Iraq war started on March 19, 2003.

With no sign of weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, news accounts started to call into question the credibility of the administration's pre-war intelligence. In May 2003, Wilson re-emerged at a political conference in Washington sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. There he told the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff that he had been the special envoy who traveled to Niger in February 2002 to check out allegations that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from the country. He told Kristoff he briefed a CIA analyst that the claims were untrue. Wilson said he believed the administration had ignored his report and were dishonest with Congress and the American people.

When Kristoff's column was published in the Times, the CIA official said, "a request came in from Cheney that was passed to me that said 'the vice president wants to know whether Joe Wilson went to Niger.' I'm paraphrasing. But that's more or less what I was asked to find out."

In his column, Kristoff Had accused Cheney of allowing the truth about the Niger documents the administration used to build a case for war to go "missing in action." The failure of US armed forces to find any WMDs in Iraq in two months following the start of the war had been blamed on Cheney.

What in the previous months had been a request to gather information that could be used to discredit Wilson now turned into a full-scale effort involving the Office of the Vice President, the National Security Council, and the State Department to find out how Wilson came to be chosen to investigate the Niger uranium allegations.

"Cheney and Libby made it clear that Wilson had to be shut down," the CIA official said. "This wasn't just about protecting the credibility of the White House. For the vice president, going after Wilson was purely personal, in my opinion."

Cheney was personally involved in this aspect of the information gathering process as well, visiting CIA headquarters to inquire about Wilson, the CIA official said. Hadley had also raised questions about Wilson during this month with the State Department officials and asked that information regarding Wilson's trip to Niger be sent to his attention at the National Security Council.

That's when Valerie Plame Wilson's name popped up showing that she was a covert CIA operative. The former CIA official who works in the counter-proliferation division said another meeting about Wilson took place in Cheney's office, attended by the same individuals who were there in March. But Cheney didn't take part in it, the officials said.

"Libby led the meeting," one of the State Department officials said. "But he was just as upset about Wilson as Cheney was."

The officials said that as of late May 2003 the only correspondence they had had was with Libby and Hadley. They said they were unaware who had made the decision to unmask Plame Wilson's undercover CIA status to a handful of reporters.

George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, took responsibility for allowing what is widely referred to as the infamous "sixteen words" to be included in Bush's State of the Union address. Tenet's mea culpa came one day after Wilson penned an op-ed for the New York Times in which he accused the administration of "twisting" intelligence on Iraq. In the column, Wilson revealed that he was the special envoy who traveled to Niger to investigate the uranium claims.

Tenet is working on a book titled At the Center of the Storm with former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, which it is expected will be published later this year. Tenet will reportedly come clean on how the "sixteen words made it into the President's State of the Union speech, according to publishersmarketplace.com, an industry newsletter.

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been investigating the Plame Wilson leak for more than two years, questioned Cheney about his role in the leak in 2004. Cheney did not testify under oath, and it's unknown what he told the special prosecutor.

On September 14, 2003, during an interview with Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney maintained that he didn't know Wilson or have any knowledge about his Niger trip or who was responsible for leaking his wife's name to the media.

"I don't know Joe Wilson," Cheney said, in response to Russert, who quoted Wilson as saying there was no truth to the Niger uranium claims. "I've never met Joe Wilson. And Joe Wilson -- I don't who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back … I don't know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn't judge him. I have no idea who hired him."

Jason Leopold, a regular contributor to TruthOut, spent two years covering California's electricity crisis as Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires.