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"A Little Literary Flair"

From the July 26, 2004 issue: Joe Wilson wasn't a truth-teller.

Jul 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 43 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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ONE DAY LAST OCTOBER, Ambassador Joe Wilson, his wife Valerie in tow, traveled to the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C., for lunch. It was a big day for Wilson. He was the guest of honor at a banquet thrown by the Nation Institute, which publishes the Nation, the venerable lefty weekly. Daniel Ellsberg was there. So was New Jersey senator Jon Corzine. Towards the end of lunch, plates of cold salad shunted aside, Wilson was invited onstage. Looking the part of a globetrotting former diplomat in his Zegna suit and trademark Hermès tie, he launched into a tirade against the Bush administration, which he claimed had ignored the findings of a trip he took to Niger in February 2002 to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had tried to acquire uranium there. His trip had disproved those claims, he continued, yet his findings were ignored. And when he went public with his story, the administration had tried to "silence" him by leaking to the press that his wife worked for the CIA.

There was much applause. And there was even more applause when Wilson then accepted the first-ever Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling, along with the award's $10,000 prize. (Ridenhour was the soldier who exposed the My Lai massacre in 1969.)

The Nation (and cosponsoring Fertel Foundation) might want to ask for their prize money back. Because the report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released on July 9, fatally undermines Wilson's accusation that the Bush administration "manipulated" intelligence by ignoring his report on Niger--which, in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed, he mistakenly claimed "was circulated to the appropriate officials within our government," including the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Not so, according to the Senate committee's report on pre-Iraq war intelligence. Not so at all.

The first public mention of Joe Wilson's February 2002 mission to Niger appeared in a May 6, 2003, column by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times. Shortly before, Wilson had met Kristof at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee conference in the capital. As Wilson later recounted to Vanity Fair, he told Kristof about his trip to Niger over breakfast the next morning, and said "Kristof could write about it, but not name him."

Kristof, the first of Wilson's many journalistic victims, accepted Wilson's claims at face value. "I do know from talking to people directly involved in the Niger deal that information did go to the vice president's office and did go to the national security staff in the White House and went to the top of the CIA," he told an NPR interviewer on June 25, 2003.

But read the various claims made in Kristof's May 6 column side by side with the Senate Intelligence Committee's findings, and you find two different stories. Here's Kristof: "In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the CIA and State Department that the information [of a Niger-Iraq uranium deal] was unequivocally wrong and that the documents [purporting to show such a deal] had been forged."

Wilson did report back to the CIA after he returned from Niger. And Wilson did say he was skeptical about claims of an Iraq-Niger uranium deal. But according to the committee's findings, Wilson did not report, by any reckoning, that the information was "unequivocally wrong" or that documents "had been forged" to show a deal. Indeed, he couldn't have.

That's because the bogus documents in question were not turned over to CIA personnel until October 16, 2002, about eight months after Wilson had returned from Niger. Also, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, at Wilson's initial February 19, 2002, meeting in CIA headquarters, "none of the meeting participants recall telling the former ambassador the source of the report."

This is how Pat Roberts, the committee's chairman, put it in his "additional views" section of the report:

At the time the former ambassador traveled to Niger, the Intelligence Community did not have in its possession any actual documents on the alleged Niger-Iraq uranium deal, only second hand reporting of the deal. The former ambassador's comments to reporters . . . could not have been based on the former ambassador's actual experiences because the Intelligence Community did not have the documents at the time of the ambassador's trip.

The Senate Committee asked Wilson how he could have come to such grandiose conclusions without any information: