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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOR TWO YEARS, THE political class in Washington has followed with intense interest the story of Joseph Wilson and the events that led to the compromising of his wife's identity and undercover status as a CIA operative. The rest of the country seems to have responded with a collective yawn. That will soon change if special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald issues indictments of senior White House aides in his investigation of the alleged leaking of Mrs. Wilson's name.

The narrative constructed to date by the mainstream media is uncomplicated: The White House exaggerated claims of Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium from Niger despite objections from the CIA and the broader U.S. intelligence community. In the late spring of 2003, Joseph Wilson laid bare this White House deception with firsthand accounts of his involvement in the intelligence-gathering. Bush administration officials quickly became obsessed with Wilson, and their anger drove them to retaliate, exposing Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, by leaking her identity to reporters.

Think this is oversimplified? Here is a Washington Post summary of the events leading up to the investigation, from July 27, 2005:

[Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald] began his probe in December 2003 to determine whether any government official knowingly leaked Plame's identity as a CIA employee to the media. Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, has said his wife's career was ruined in retaliation for his public criticism of Bush. In a 2002 trip to Niger at the request of the CIA, Wilson found no evidence to support allegations that Iraq was seeking uranium from that African country and reported back to the agency in February 2002. But nearly a year later, Bush asserted in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa, attributing it to British, not U.S., intelligence.

Simple. Clean. And very misleading. The real story is considerably more complicated.

ON OCTOBER 15, 2001, the CIA received a report from a foreign government service that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had struck a deal with the government of Niger to purchase several tons of partially processed uranium, known as "yellowcake." The first report was met with some skepticism. The CIA found the substance of the report plausible but expressed concern about its sourcing. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) was more dubious. INR thought it unlikely that the government of Niger would take the substantial risks involved in doing illicit business with a rogue regime. INR analysts also expressed doubt that the transaction could have taken place because the uranium mines in Niger are controlled by a French consortium, which would be reluctant to work with Saddam Hussein--an objection that seems naive with the benefit of hindsight.

On October 18, 2001, the CIA published a Senior Executive Intelligence Bulletin that discussed the finding. "According to a foreign government service, Niger as of early this year planned to send several tons of uranium to Iraq under an agreement concluded late last year." The report noted the sourcing: "There is no corroboration from other sources that such an agreement was reached or that uranium was transferred."

Several months later came a second report, dated February 5, 2002, also from a "foreign government service." It contained more details of the alleged transaction. An official from the CIA's directorate of operations said that the new information came from "a very credible source," and some of the reporting seemed to corroborate earlier accounts of meetings between Nigerien officials and Iraqis. The State Department's INR remained skeptical, judging that the Iraqis were unlikely to engage in such illicit trade because they were "bound to be caught."

Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency wrote a report using the new information entitled "Niamey signed an agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium a year to Baghdad." It was published internally on February 12, 2002, and included in the daily intelligence briefing prepared for Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney asked his CIA briefer for more information, including the CIA's analysis of the report. The CIA filed a perfunctory response to the vice president's request, noting some concerns about the report and promising to follow up. It is unclear whether Cheney saw this response.