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
THE WHITE HOUSE began to take its case against Iraq to the American public beginning in the late summer of 2002. Vice President Cheney warned of the threat from Iraq in a stern speech in Nashville on August 26. Behind the scenes at the White House, communications officials developed talking points and fact sheets for administration officials and their surrogates. Most of these included the Iraq-Niger intelligence, and all of them were cleared by the CIA.
The CIA also cleared several references to the Iraq-Niger intelligence--some more direct than others--for use in speeches written for President Bush. This language was cleared by the CIA on September 11, 2002:
We also know this: within the past few years, Iraq has resumed efforts to purchase large quantities of a type of uranium oxide known as yellowcake, which is an essential ingredient in this [enrichment] process. The regime was caught trying to purchase 500 metric tons of this material. It takes about 10 tons to produce enough enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon.
Although Bush spoke the following day at the United Nations, he did not use the CIA-approved language.
The first public mention of the intelligence reporting on Iraq and Niger came on September 24, 2002, in a white paper produced by the British government. "There is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The CIA had reservations about the British dossier, but not because of its substance. Despite the fact that the British paper did not link the intelligence to Niger, officials at the CIA were concerned that the reference could compromise the source that had provided the intelligence.
That same day, September 24, staffers at the National Security Council (NSC) asked the CIA to clear additional language on Iraq and Niger. "We also have intelligence that Iraq has sought large amounts of uranium and uranium oxide, known as yellowcake, from Africa. Yellowcake is an essential ingredient in the process to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." The CIA once again approved the language, but once again the president did not use it.
The Senate Select Intelligence Committee met on October 2, 2002, and questioned senior U.S. intelligence officials in closed session about the threat from Iraq. Here, for the first time, a senior CIA official raised doubts about the reporting on Iraq and Niger. Responding to a question from Senator Jon Kyl, who asked if there was anything in the British white paper that the CIA disputed, deputy CIA director John McLaughlin said this:
The one thing where I think they stretched a little bit beyond where we would stretch is on the points about Iraq seeking uranium from various African locations. We've looked at those reports and we don't think they are very credible. It doesn't diminish our conviction that he's going for nuclear weapons, but I think they reached a little bit on that one point.
It was a strange claim, and it provides a first glimpse of the internal confusion at the CIA on the issue of Iraq and Niger. One day earlier, on October 1, 2002, the CIA had published the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD, Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction. This classified document--the U.S. government's official position on Iraqi WMD programs--lifted almost verbatim the aggressive language used in the aforementioned DIA study, Iraq's Reemerging Nuclear Program, published just two weeks earlier: "Iraq [has been] vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake; acquiring either would shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons."
The National Intelligence Estimate continued: "A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of 'pure uranium' (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Iraq and Niger reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which would be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. We do not know the status of this arrangement." The NIE included a bullet point about other intelligence on Iraq's pursuit of uranium. "Reports indicate Iraq has also sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo." The INR objections to the Iraq-Niger intelligence were included but, because of an editing glitch, were placed some 60 pages away from the consensus view.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration continued its public relations campaign to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein was a threat. The White House was finalizing the text of a speech the president was scheduled to deliver in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, on the eve of the congressional vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq. The speechwriters continued their regular back and forth with the CIA for clearance of potentially sensitive language. On draft six of the speech, the CIA objected to this sentence: "The [Iraqi] regime has been caught attempting to purchase up to 500 metric tons of uranium oxide from Africa--an essential ingredient in the enrichment process."
Had something changed? The National Intelligence Estimate published just three days earlier included language as aggressive as the language proposed for the Cincinnati speech. Was it a matter of classification? The NIE was classified, while the language in the speech was meant for public consumption. And the CIA had been nervous about the British white paper. Still, twice in September the CIA had cleared similar language for a presidential address.
The White House sent the next iteration of the speech to the CIA for clearance, and the language on Iraq and Africa had not been taken out. This oversight prompted a phone call from CIA Director George Tenet to Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Tenet later recalled telling Hadley that "the reporting was weak," and that the line shouldn't be used in the Cincinnati speech. Hadley removed the disputed language, and the CIA later faxed over its reasoning for insisting on the change.
Then there occurred a communications breakdown that would prove costly. For reasons still unexplained, it appears that these objections were not communicated down the chain. The two officials responsible for coordinating the translation of intelligence into public rhetoric--Alan Foley, a top CIA nonproliferation expert, and Robert Joseph, a special assistant to the president for nonproliferation and a senior director at the NSC--were kept in the dark. In the months to come, Foley and Joseph would proceed unaware that any substantive objections had been raised to the Niger intelligence.
In an ironic twist that underscores the chronic miscommunication, on the very day President Bush delivered the Cincinnati speech--making no mention of Iraq's seeking uranium in Africa--the CIA once again approved language for a White House paper claiming Iraq had "sought uranium from Africa."
Two days later, on October 9, 2002, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, spoke of the Iraqi threat in explaining his vote to authorize the use of force. "There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons and will likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years. And that may happen sooner if he can obtain access to enriched uranium from foreign sources--something that is not that difficult in the current world." (Rockefeller would be one of 77 senators voting to authorize the use of force against Iraq. The vote in the House would be 296-133.)
THEN THE STORY TOOK A BIZARRE TURN. That same day, October 9, an Italian journalist walked into the U.S. embassy in Rome and delivered a set of documents purportedly showing that Iraq had indeed purchased uranium from Niger. The embassy provided the documents to the State Department and the CIA. At State, an INR analyst almost instantly suspected the documents might be forgeries. Although several different CIA divisions received copies of the documents, the agency provided no immediate evaluation of them and did not identify them as likely fabrications.
Two events in the fall of 2002 seemed to enhance the credibility of the initial reporting on an Iraq-Niger deal. First, a French diplomat told the State Department that his government had received additional, credible reporting on the transaction and had concluded that the earlier reports were true. A second report, this one from the U.S. Navy, suggested that uranium being transferred from Niger to Iraq had been discovered in a warehouse in Cotonou, Benin. Although that report indicated that the broker for the deal was willing to talk about it, he was never contacted by the CIA or military intelligence.
On December 7, 2002, Iraq submitted to the United Nations an 11,000-page document on its weapons programs, as required by U.N. Resolution 1441. The CIA prepared the U.S. response to the Iraqi declaration. Among the scores of objections was the fact that Iraq had failed to account for its attempts to acquire uranium from Africa.
In the days leading up to the president's State of the Union speech, the Iraq-uranium-Africa claim was used repeatedly by senior U.S. officials. A January 23 speech by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz noted Iraq's failure to admit its effort to procure uranium from abroad; U.N. ambassador John Negroponte referenced it in a speech at the Security Council; the State Department included it in a fact sheet published on the department website; Secretary of State Colin Powell even used a generalized version of it in a January 26, 2003, speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?"
Even as some CIA officials expressed doubts about the original Iraq-Niger reporting and the INR analyst quietly voiced his concerns about a potential hoax after careful examination of the Iraq-Niger documents passed to the U.S. embassy in Rome, the CIA approved Iraq-Niger language for the White House. Although George Tenet had been given an early draft of the State of the Union address, he never read it. As Alan Foley from the CIA and Bob Joseph from the NSC vetted the language for Bush's speech, Foley raised a concern about the Iraq-Niger wording. The agency was concerned--as it had been in the past--about potentially compromising sources and methods by disclosing the Iraq-Africa intelligence. To ease the CIA's anxiety about sources and methods, Joseph passed on a suggestion from the White House communications office: Source the reporting to the British because their government had already made the argument publicly in the white paper it had issued some five months earlier. Importantly, the CIA never objected to including the Iraq-Africa language in the State of the Union on the grounds that the information was not reliable.
That's worth repeating: The CIA never objected to including the Iraq-Africa language in the State of the Union on the grounds that the information was unreliable.
At the same time the White House speechwriting staff was preparing the State of the Union for delivery January 28, 2003, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, were gathering materials for the upcoming U.S. presentation on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council. The CIA would provide material for three six-inch briefing books on WMD, Iraq and Terrorism, and Iraqi Human Rights Abuses. Among the WMD materials, in a memo dated January 24, 2003, was the language from the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's "vigorous" attempts to procure uranium from Africa.
On January 28, President Bush delivered his State of the Union. Among his many claims that night was this one: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
In the meantime, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body responsible for monitoring nuclear proliferation, began to ask the United States and Britain for more information on the claims about Iraq's seeking uranium from Africa. In early February, the U.S. government made available to the IAEA the contents of its original reporting on the issue as well as the documents delivered by the Italian journalist to the U.S. embassy in Rome.
Colin Powell's U.N. presentation did not make reference to the Iraq-Africa intelligence because, according to recollections of a State Department staffer, there had been no new developments. But the claim did not end with the State of the Union. In an op-ed that ran in the Chicago Tribune on February 16, 2003, Hadley reiterated it: "Iraq has an active procurement program. According to British intelligence, the regime has tried to acquire natural uranium from abroad."
On March 3, 2003, the IAEA shared with the U.S. government its assessment that the October 2002 documents on an Iraq-Niger deal for uranium were forgeries. The following day, the French government announced that the assessment it had previously given the United States--that an Iraq-Niger deal had taken place--was based on the same forged documents. (Some current and former Bush administration officials remain convinced that the French role in this matter was no accident. They speculate that French intelligence, seeking to embarrass the U.S. government, may have been the original source of the bad documents. An FBI investigation into the matter continues.)
As the IAEA findings made their way into the U.S. media, the White House began to understand that the forgeries would be a problem. When the war started later that month, all the focus shifted to the fighting in Iraq. It would be a temporary reprieve.
ON MAY 6, 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof examined prewar U.S. claims of WMD in Iraq. His article included this curious passage:
I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
The envoy reported, for example, that a Niger minister whose signature was on one of the documents had in fact been out of office for more than a decade. In addition, the Niger mining program was structured so that the uranium diversion had been impossible. The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted--except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.
It was the first of many times Joseph Wilson would tell his story to a reporter and the first of many times he would overstate his role and invent his supposed findings. The White House didn't pay much attention to the Kristof column. Few people knew about Wilson and his CIA-sponsored trip, and those who did know dismissed Wilson's claims as wildly inaccurate. Wilson, after all, had gone to Niger and returned some eight months before the U.S. government ever came into possession of the forged documents.
But if the White House shrugged off the story, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post did not. On June 12, 2003, Pincus published a story that "kicked everything off," according to a former White House official. Pincus wrote:
During his trip, the CIA's envoy spoke with the president of Niger and other Niger officials mentioned as being involved in the Iraqi effort, some of whose signatures purportedly appeared on the documents.
After returning to the United States, the envoy reported to the CIA that the uranium-purchase story was false, the sources said. Among the envoy's conclusions was that the documents may have been forged because the "dates were wrong and the names were wrong," the former U.S. government official said.
Two days after the Washington Post story, on June 14, Wilson spoke at a forum sponsored by the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC). Although Wilson never told the gathering he was the source for the stories about "the ambassador's" trip to Africa, his comments revealed intimate knowledge of the mission.
I just want to assure you that that American ambassador who has been cited in reports in the New York Times and in the Washington Post, and now in the Guardian over in London, who actually went over to Niger on behalf of the government--not of the CIA but of the government--and came back in February of 2002 and told the government that there was nothing to this story, later called the government after the British white paper was published and said you all need to do some fact-checking and make sure the Brits aren't using bad information in the publication of the white paper, and who called both the CIA and the State Department after the president's State of the Union and said to them you need to worry about the political manipulation of intelligence if, in fact, the president is talking about Niger when he mentions Africa.
That person was told by the State Department that, well, you know, there's four countries that export uranium. That person had served in three of those countries, so he knew a little bit about what he was talking about when he said you really need to worry about this. But I can assure you that that retired American ambassador to Africa, as Nick Kristof called him in his article, is also pissed off, and has every intention of ensuring that this story has legs. And I think it does have legs. It may not have legs over the next two or three months, but when you see American casualties moving from one to five or to ten per day, and you see Tony Blair's government fall because in the U.K. it is a big story, there will be some ramifications, I think, here in the United States. So I hope that you will do everything you can to keep the pressure on. Because it is absolutely bogus for us to have gone to war the way we did.
The website for EPIC includes a biography of Wilson under the June 14, 2003, event that concludes with this sentence: "He is married to the former Valerie Plame and has four children."
Wilson also peddled his story to John Judis and Spencer Ackerman at the New Republic. And as in the whispered "telephone" game that kids play around the campfire, the story became more distorted the more it was told. In the New Republic's version, Vice President Cheney received the forged documents directly from the British a year before Bush spoke the "16 words" in the January 2003 State of the Union. Cheney then
had given the information to the CIA, which in turn asked a prominent diplomat, who had served as ambassador to three African countries, to investigate. He returned after a visit to Niger in February 2002 and reported to the State Department and the CIA that the documents were forgeries. The CIA circulated the ambassador's report to the vice president's office, the ambassador confirms to TNR. But, after a British dossier was released in September detailing the purported uranium purchase, administration officials began citing it anyway, culminating in its inclusion in the State of the Union. "They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie," the former ambassador tells TNR.
It should be clear by now that the only one telling flat-out lies was Joseph Wilson. Again, Wilson's trip to Niger took place in February 2002, some eight months before the U.S. government received the phony Iraq-Niger documents in October 2002. So it is not possible, as he told the Washington Post, that he advised the CIA that "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong." And it is not possible, as Wilson claimed to the New York Times, that he debunked the documents as forgeries.
That was hardly Wilson's only fabrication. He would also tell reporters that his wife had nothing to do with his trip to Niger and, as noted in the New Republic article, that Vice President Cheney's office had seen the report of his findings. Both claims were false.
It seems that very few people paid attention to the CIA's report on Wilson's trip to Niger. And those who did found that his account--particularly his revelation of the meeting between Mayaki and the Iraqis in 1999--supported the original reporting that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger.
If the White House launched a campaign to counter the claims Wilson was making to columnists like Kristof, it doesn't appear to have been very comprehensive. Officials who worked on other aspects of the Iraq WMD story say they do not recall any coordinated effort to correct Wilson's misrepresentations. And, in any case, the results were hardly what you'd expect from a White House offensive. Several reporters known to have spoken with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the senior White House officials apparently at the center of the current investigation, have testified that they did not learn of Plame's identity or status from either person.
WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS OFFICIALS had good reason to be distracted. Behind the headlines and intensifying public scrutiny of the case for war in Iraq, a leak war had erupted. David Sanger, a veteran reporter for the New York Times, had been calling the White House as the Times prepared a comprehensive report on the administration's prewar claims about Iraqi WMD. Sasnger wanted to know why Colin Powell hadn't made the same claim about uranium from Africa in his U.N. presentation that Bush had made one week before. Sanger also inquired about whether the CIA had warned Bush against using the uranium reference.
The White House scrambled to come up with a chronology for Sanger. Although the language in the State of the Union had its roots in intelligence on Iraq and uranium from October 2001, a full year before the U.S. government had even received the forged documents, Sanger's questions ignited a debate within the administration about whether to back off the suddenly controversial "16 words."
Then, on July 6, the New York Times published Wilson's now-famous op-ed. That account differs in important ways from the story Wilson had anonymously provided the Times, the Washington Post and the New Republic. Wilson acknowledged for the first time that he had not seen any forged document. "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." Wilson acknowledged the same thing in an appearance that morning on Meet the Press, saying, "I had not, of course, seen the documents."
It may well have been the case that Wilson was skeptical of the original intelligence on the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal, though it's worth remembering that this is not how CIA analysts recall his debriefing. But Wilson's charge--and one of the reasons it survives today--was not merely that his analysis differed from that of other analysts or even of Bush administration policymakers. His charge was more specific and not coincidentally more damning: The reason he was courted to write an op-ed for the New York Times and to appear on Meet the Press was not that his analysis of the Niger intelligence differed from that of the CIA or of Bush administration policymakers. No, Wilson was given those platforms because he was the man with the proof. Joseph Wilson alone, in his telling, could demonstrate that the Bush administration intentionally deceived the country to go to war.
Wilson's new version of his story caused a stir, but White House reporters at the press gaggle the following day seemed more concerned with unrest in Liberia and the president's imminent departure for Africa. It wasn't until the middle of the briefing that White House spokesman Ari Fleischer got his first question about Wilson.
Q: Can you give us the White House account of Ambassador Wilson's account of what happened when he went to Niger and investigated the suggestions that Niger was passing yellowcake to Iraq? I'm sure you saw the piece yesterday in the New York Times.
Fleischer fielded several additional questions before calling on David Sanger, the New York Times reporter who had been seeking clarification from the White House on the broader "16 words" allegation.
This was a mistake. The White House had not, in fact, stated that all of the Niger reporting was wrong, only that the documents delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October 2002 had been forgeries. But Fleischer failed to make that distinction, and his answers implied that the "16 words" had been based on the forged documents and that the White House no longer stood by those 16 words. Fleischer ended the briefing after promising to provide Sanger a definitive answer.
Fleischer's briefing meant that the White House and CIA officials who had been working to hammer out official language on the "16 words" had to move quickly. The guidance distributed to the press that day said:
We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged. The other reporting that suggested Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that such attempts were in fact made.
For much of the week, leaks and counterleaks appeared on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. The CIA told reporters that the agency had long been suspicious of the underlying intelligence on the Iraq-Niger deal. The administration told reporters that the CIA continued to provide intelligence reporting on the deal up to and through the State of the Union speech. A New York Times article called it "an unusual exercise in finger-pointing" within the Bush administration.
On July 11, 2003, Tenet released a statement in which he declared, "I am responsible for the approval process in my agency." That same day, President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters traveling with the president in Africa that the CIA had approved the language in the State of the Union. "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services," said Bush. Rice added: "The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety."
Three days later, Robert Novak wrote a column in which he named Joseph Wilson's wife, "CIA operative" Valerie Plame. Novak sourced this information to "two senior administration officials." The CIA concluded that the reference had compromised Plame's undercover status and asked the Justice Department to investigate. On December 30, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself in the matter, and Deputy Attorney General James Comey named U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald special prosecutor. Scores of administration officials and some journalists have testified before the grand jury. It was for initially declining to testify that New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail. The conclusion of the investigation appears imminent.
Whatever Fitzgerald determines about the veracity of individuals in the administration or the press, in their statements to each other or to the grand jury, it is not possible to understand the current investigation without appreciating the history recounted here.
ON JULY 22, 2005, the New York Times published a lengthy, front-page article detailing the work of two senior Bush administration officials, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, on the Niger-uranium story. A seemingly exhaustive timeline ran alongside the piece. In 19 bullet points, the Times provided its readers in considerable detail with what it regarded as the highlights of the story. The timeline traces events from the initial request for more information on the alleged Iraqi inquiries in Africa to Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger; from the now-famous "16 words" in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union to the details of White House telephone logs; from Bush administration claims that Karl Rove was not involved in the leak to the naming of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and on from there to the dates that White House officials testified before the grand jury.
As I say, seemingly exhaustive. But there is one curious omission: July 7, 2004. On that date, the bipartisan Senate Select Intelligence Committee released a 511-page report on the intelligence that served as the foundation for the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq. The Senate report includes a 48-page section on Wilson that demonstrates, in painstaking detail, that virtually everything Joseph Wilson said publicly about his trip, from its origins to his conclusions, was false.
This is not a minor detail. The Senate report, which served as the source for much of the chronology in this article, is the definitive study of the events leading up to the compromising of Valerie Plame. The committee staff, both Democrats and Republicans, read all of the intelligence. They saw all of the documents. They interviewed all of the characters. And every member of the committee from both parties signed the report.
It is certainly the case that the media narrative is much more sensational than the Senate report. A story about malfeasance is perhaps more interesting than a story about incompetence. A story about deliberate White House deception is perhaps more interesting than a story about bureaucratic miscommunication. A story about retaliation is perhaps more interesting than a story about clarification.
But sometimes the boring stories have an additional virtue. They're true.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.