The Magazine

The White House, the CIA, and the Wilsons

The chain of events that gave rise to a grand jury investigation.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The promised CIA follow-up came quickly. That same day officials at the agency's Counterproliferation Division discussed how they might investigate further. An employee of the division, Valerie Wilson, suggested the agency send her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Gabon with experience in Niger, to Africa to make inquiries. In a memo to the deputy director of the Counterproliferation Division, she wrote: "My husband has good relations with the PM [prime minister of Niger] 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." Mrs. Wilson would later say she asked her husband, on behalf of the CIA, if he would investigate "this crazy report" on a uranium deal between Iraq and Niger. Wilson agreed to go.

On February 18, 2002, the U.S. embassy in Niger sent a cable describing a new account of the alleged deal. The account, it said, "provides sufficient detail to warrant another hard look at Niger's uranium sales." The cable further warned against dismissing the allegations prematurely. The following day, back at Langley, representatives of several U.S. intelligence agencies met with Ambassador Wilson to discuss the trip. Contemporaneous notes from an analyst at the State Department's INR suggest that Mrs. Wilson "apparently convened" the meeting. She introduced her husband to the group and left a short time later. Several of the attendees would later recall questioning the value of the proposed trip, noting that the Nigeriens were unlikely to admit dealing with the Iraqis. Still, the CIA approved the trip.

Here is how Wilson would later recall his investigation in his now-famous New York Times op-ed.

In late February 2002, I arrived in Niger's capital, Niamey, where I had been a diplomat in the mid-70s and visited as a National Security Council official in the late 90s. The city was much as I remembered it. Seasonal winds had clogged the air with dust and sand. Through the haze, I could see camel caravans crossing the Niger River (over the John F. Kennedy bridge), the setting sun behind them. Most people had wrapped scarves around their faces to protect against the grit, leaving only their eyes visible.

Wilson met with U.S. Ambassador to Niger Barbara Owens-Kirkpatrick, who, like the State Department's intelligence bureau, thought the alleged sale unlikely. Wilson continued:

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.

Wilson was debriefed by two CIA officials at his home on March 5, 2002. He never filed a written report. The resulting CIA report was published and disseminated in the regular intelligence stream three days later. The report included the unsurprising declaration of former Nigerien prime minister Ibrahim Mayaki that Niger had signed no contracts with rogue states while he served first as foreign minister and then prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. But Mayaki added one tantalizing detail, also included in the CIA report that resulted from Wilson's trip. An Iraqi delegation had visited Niger in 1999 to explore "expanding commercial relations" between Iraq and Niger. Mayaki had met with the Iraqis and later concluded that their request for enhanced trade meant they wanted to discuss purchasing uranium. Mayaki said he had not pursued the matter because such deals were prohibited under U.N. sanctions.

Reactions to the report differed. The INR analyst believed Wilson's report supported his assessment that deals between Iraq and Niger were unlikely. Analysts at the CIA thought the Wilson report added little to the overall knowledge of the Iraq-Niger allegations but noted with particular interest the visit of the Iraqi delegation in 1999. That report may have seemed noteworthy because of the timing of the Iraqi visit. The CIA had several previous reports of Iraq seeking uranium in Africa in 1999, specifically from Congo and Somalia.

On balance, then, Wilson's trip seemed to several analysts to make the original claims of an Iraq-Niger deal more plausible.

Throughout the spring and summer, finished intelligence products from several U.S. intelligence agencies cited the reporting on Iraq and Niger as evidence that the Iraqis were continuing their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Some of these noted the doubts of the skeptics, while others were more aggressive in their analysis. A September 2002 DIA paper, for instance, was titled Iraq's Reemerging Nuclear Program. It declared: "Iraq has been vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake."