The Get-Wilson Crusade


So this is what the campaign against former ambassador Joseph Wilson is about? In a long editorial yesterday, the hawks of The Wall Street Journal called for Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney investigating the Bush administration leak that identified Wilson's wife as a CIA officer, to "fold up his tent." The goal of the WSJ conservatives – and perhaps that of the other GOPers who have been bashing Wilson – is to get the Bush White House off the hook for the leak that outed Valerie Wilson (nee Plame). This leak, which appeared in a Robert Novak column a year ago, ruined the career of a government employee who worked to prevent the spread of unconventional weapons. It may have undermined national security by impairing her operations and threatening her contacts. And it was a possible violation of the federal law that prohibits government officials from disclosing the identities of covert government officers.

In other articles, I've addressed the campaign against Wilson. But let's zero in on the logic – or lack thereof – of the Journal's editorialists. They write:

"Mr. Wilson had been denying any involvement at all on Ms. Plame's part, in order to suggest that her identity was disclosed by a still-unknown Administration official out of pure malice. If instead an Administration official cited nepotism truthfully in order to explain the oddity of Mr. Wilson's selection for the Niger mission, then there was no underlying crime. Motive is crucial under the controlling statute."

Much is wrong in this short paragraph. First, Wilson did not deny "any involvement at all on Plame's part." He denied that she had specifically recommended him to be an envoy for the CIA. He has said she was involved in bringing him to a meeting at the CIA that led to his assignment. But Wilson and his detractors are now arguing over the details of this minor matter. But if there is going to be a nitpickfest, the Journal should be careful to get its facts straight.

Second, did Wilson deny his wife's involvement so he could suggest the leak was done out of pure malice? I doubt it. His family was hit hard by the leak. He didn't need to downplay – if that is what he did – his wife's participation to accuse the leakers of thuggish behavior. He would have had a strong argument even if she had signed his travel orders. His trip was no junket. He was not paid for it. Her involvement – in any capacity – did not justify the leak.

Third, there was nothing odd about the CIA dispatching Wilson on an informal mission to Niger to check out the allegation that Saddam Hussein had been shopping for uranium there. Wilson, an old African hand who had worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, had the experience and the contacts in Niger to do what he was asked. (By the way, at the time of the trip, he was no Democratic or anti-Bush partisan. He had even made a political contribution to George W. Bush during the 2000 primaries.)

Fourth, the Journal's claim that the leak was legal if Wilson's wife was involved in his trip is – to be kind – wacky. Here's what the law says:

"Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined not more than $50,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."

It does not say it is okay to identify a CIA officer if that officer engaged in an act of nepotism (as if sending your spouse to Niger for a no-pay job is an act of nepotism). Motive, contrary to the editorial, is not addressed in the above passage. Intentionality does matter, as does the state of knowledge of the offender (regarding the status of the covert officer). But surely the geniuses of the WSJ know the difference between motivation and intentionality. Whether the leakers outed Valerie Wilson to undermine Wilson's credibility (his wife sent him, so how much could he really know about this stuff?) or to punish him for challenging Bush's claim that Hussein had been caught trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Africa, the law applies just the same.

Pointing to supposed discrepancies in Wilson's account is not a defense – and does not mitigate the need for a criminal investigation.

"The entire leak probe now looks like a familiar Beltway case of criminalizing political differences," the editorial maintains. This is the canard often pressed into service when Republicans are accused of illegal activity. For years, the rightwing has dismissed the Iran-contra scandal as merely an instance of when political differences were "criminalized." And in the case of the Wilson leak, the use of this rhetoric is especially absurd. The probe was requested by the CIA. The Justice Department initiated it. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself, and his deputy handed the case to Fitzgerald, who set up a quasi-independent inquiry. Where are the political motivations in all this?

As other Wilson critics have done in recent days, the Journal selectively picks material out of the Senate intelligence committee's report on the prewar intelligence to accuse Wilson of having misrepresented his trip to Niger. Wilson declared that what he learned there showed that the allegation about Iraq purchasing uranium from Niger was "highly doubtful." His foes at the Journal (and elsewhere) note that the Senate report maintains his trip was seen by intelligence analysts as partially confirming the allegation. But the Journal and the others conveniently ignore the fact (contained in the report) that analysts split on this point, and that the lead analyst at the State Department saw Wilson's report as confirmation of the State Department's view that the allegation was improbable.

The Journal and the rest also make much of Wilson's statement that he had concluded documents purporting to outline a uranium deal between Iraq and Niger were forgeries. A-ha, they say, these documents did not appear until eight months after his trip. Wilson has acknowledging misspeaking about the forgeries. Still, the Journal writes, "Joe Wilson didn't tell the truth about how he supposedly came to realize that it was 'highly doubtful' there was anything to the story he'd been sent to Niger to investigate. He told everyone that he'd recognized as obvious forgeries the documents purporting to show an Iraq-Niger uranium deal" But this is another misrepresentation.

Wilson went public about his trip to Niger by publishing an op-ed piece in The New York Times on July 6, 2003. In that piece, he specifically noted that his conclusions had had nothing to do with the forged documents that appeared months after his trip. Here is the key portion of that piece:

"I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."

"Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq. Niger's uranium business consists of two mines, Somair and Cominak, which are run by French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerian interests. If the government wanted to remove uranium from a mine, it would have to notify the consortium, which in turn is strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, because the two mines are closely regulated, quasi-governmental entities, selling uranium would require the approval of the minister of mines, the prime minister and probably the president. In short, there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired. (As for the actual memorandum, I never saw it. But news accounts have pointed out that the documents had glaring errors – they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government – and were probably forged. And then there's the fact that Niger formally denied the charges.)"

Again, the Journal got it wrong. Wilson's determination that the charge was "highly doubtful" was unconnected to the forged documents (or anything he might have subsequently said about the documents).

The Journal ended the editorial with what has become the chorus of conservative war-backers: the Senate report is proof that Bush did not oversell the case for war. It notes that a British inquiry released days ago found that Bush's use of the uranium-shopping allegation was "well-founded." But as have other conservatives, the Journal's editorialists ignore the portion of the report that says there was no intelligence to back up Bush's prewar assertion that Hussein was a threat because he was "dealing" with al Qaeda. (If that wasn't overselling, please define the term.) They also fail to address the extensive parts of the report that show that the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq was much weaker than Bush told the public during the run-up to the war.

It's too bad that one cannot say it is surprising that the conservatives of The Wall Street Journal care more about the supposed inconsistencies of Joe Wilson than either the leaking of classified information that might have harmed national security or the dramatic overstatements Bush peddled to grease the way for war. The Journal and other rightwingers, eager to strike an ideological foe and protect the Bush White House, are trying to recast the Wilson episode by blaming and impugning the victims (the Wilsons). In doing so, these law-and-order conservatives are mounting a disingenuous attempt to politicize – and excuse – possible criminal behavior.

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