ON JUNE12, 2003, when he first published a story about the matter, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus became the second journalist to have been used by Ambassador Joseph Wilson to peddle bogus information about his February 2002 trip to Niger.
Wilson told Pincus that he had debunked Bush administration claims that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. He was specific and apparently seemed credible. And Pincus bought it all.
Armed with information purportedly showing that Iraqi officials had been seeking to buy uranium in Niger one or two years earlier, the CIA in early February 2002 dispatched a retired U.S. ambassador to the country to investigate the claims, according to the senior U.S. officials and the former government official, who is familiar with the event. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity and on condition that the name of the former ambassador not be disclosed.
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.
There is one problem with this: It's wrong. Wilson lied and lied repeatedly. His central contention--that he had seen documents about the alleged sale and determined that they were forgeries--was a fabrication. We know this because Wilson took his trip in February 2002 and the U.S. government did not receive those documents until October 2002. It could not have happened the way Wilson described it to Pincus.
Wilson was later confronted about his misrepresentations. He told investigators from the Senate Intelligence Committee that he may have "misspoken." CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Wilson specifically about these obvious discrepancies, citing Pincus's June 12, 2003, Washington Post story. Wilson decided to share the blame. He pointed the finger squarely at Walter Pincus:
Yes, I am male, I'm over 50. By definition, I can misspeak. I have gone back and taken a look at this particular article. It refers to an unidentified former government official. If it is referring to me, it is a misattribution, of facts that were already in the public domain and had been so since March. My first public statement on this, in my own words, was on July 6." [emphasis added]
The following day, Wilson was confronted again, this time by CNN's Paula Zahn. This time he played dumb before once again blamed the reporters who retold his phony story.
Zahn: I want you to respond to that very specific allegation in the addendum to the Senate report, which basically says that your public comments not only are incorrect, but have no basis in fact.
Wilson: Well, I'm not exactly sure what public comments they're referring to. If they're referring to leaks or sources, unidentified government sources in articles that appeared before my article in the New York Times [July 6, 2003] appeared, those are either misquotes or misattributions if they're attributed to me.
It was a stunning reversal. Wilson had turned on the very people who had given him prominence and had trusted that his story was accurate.
All of which brings us to the very bizarre story in today's Washington Post. The article is a rather transparent attempt to rehabilitate Joseph Wilson, casting the current debate about his credibilityas a battle between Wilson's antiwar supporters and his pro-war critics. It fails.
IT FAILS BECAUSE outside of the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, there is no real debate over Joseph Wilson's credibility. He doesn't have any. It is something that Walter Pincus should understand well, having been one of the earliest peddlers of Wilson's fabrications. And one might think that Pincus would be angry at Wilson after the former ambassador accused him of sloppy reporting to cover up Wilson's own misrepresentations.
But one would be wrong. Pincus is the co-author--along with Dana Milbank--of this morning's amusing attempt to reframe the Wilson story.
"To his backers, Joseph C. Wilson IV is a brave whistle-blower wronged by the Bush administration," claim Pincus and Milbank. "To his critics, he is a partisan who spouts unreliable information."
And why has Wilson's credibility become an issue? A reasonable outside observer might think that Wilson's credibility is an issue because, well, he lied about his findings. That doesn't work for the Post reporters. Wilson's claims are once again at issue because "Republicans [are] preparing a defense of the administration."
The Post report continues: "Wilson's central assertion--disputing President Bush's 2003 State of the Union claim that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger--has been validated by postwar weapons inspections. And his charge that the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq has proved potent."
It is the 60 Minutes defense all over again: Fake, but accurate. Yet there are two problems with these claims.
First, it is far from clear that Bush's claim has been invalidated by postwar inspections. Weapons inspections in 2003 and 2004 have little bearing on whether Iraq sought uranium in 1999. And the British review of prewar intelligence (known as the Butler report) concluded that the claim was--and remains--solid. Even Wilson's own reporting about a 1999 meeting between Nigerien government officials and an Iraqi delegation seemed to corroborate earlier reports, dating back to October 2001, that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger.
More problematic: Wilson's "central assertion" was not a soft, subjective claim that Bush's statement was incorrect. His central assertion was that he had seen the documents that proved the Bush administration had lied. Wilson's story was compelling not because he had simply come to a different conclusion than the Bush administration, but because he alone could demonstrate that the administration's claim was built on a lie.
So how does the Post deal with Wilson's fabrications? Very politely. Wilson "armed his critics by misstating some aspects of the Niger affair" and when later confronted with his misrepresentations "had to admit he had misspoken." But none of this was important, according to the Post. "That inaccuracy wasnot central to Wilson's claims about Niger, but his critics have used it to cast doubt on his veracity about more important questions, such as whether his wife recommended him for the 2002 trip . . . "
Come again? The fact that he misrepresented his findings and invented a story about evidence he had never seen is "not central to his claims about Niger?"
IN ANY CASE, Pincus hasn't always believed that the involvement of Wilson's wife was a "more important question." On August 8, 2005, he wrote an article with this headline: "Side Issue in the Plame Case: Who Sent Her Spouse to Africa?"
And what about Wilson's claims that his wife had nothing to do with sending him? When Time magazine interviewed Wilson for an article published July 17, 2003, the Time reporters confronted him with those allegations. Wilson, according to Time, "angrily said that his wife had nothing to do with his trip to Africa." Said Wilson: "That is bull----. That is absolutely not the case."
Today's Post article once again plays this as an ambiguity: The reporters note a Senate report that suggests she was involved, but also cite anonymous CIA officials who "have always said" that "Plame's superiors chose Wilson for the Niger trip and she only relayed their decision."
Two points: By the CIA's own account, Mrs. Wilson was "involved" in sending her husband to Niger. So his denial is, again, false. Furthermore, the Senate Intelligence Committee report makes clear that Mrs. Wilson was instrumental in facilitating her husband's trip to Niger. She suggested him for the job, even writing a memo to her superiors detailing his qualifications for the mission. She introduced him at the subsequent meeting about the trip. And, upon his return, she was present for his debriefing, which was conducted by two CIA officials in their home.
The Post piece closes by citing "another item of dispute": The claim that Wilson was dispatched to Niger by Vice President Dick Cheney. In a recent interview with the Post, Wilson claims: "I never said the vice president sent me or ordered me sent."
But in his May 6, 2003, column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote: "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." Was that Wilson? We cannot be certain. But both Kristof and Wilson have acknowledged that he was a primary source for the piece.
Wilson further claimed that Cheney had received Wilson's report--allegedly debunking the claim--and had chosen to ignore it. From the New Republic, June 30, 2003: "The CIA circulated the ambassador's report to the vice president's office, the ambassador confirms to TNR." Wilson added: "They knew the Niger story was a flatout lie."
TODAY'S Post story is one in a long stream of news reports in both the Post and the New York Times which have given credence to Wilson's bogus claims. For more than a year--from May 2003 until the release ofthe Senate Intelligence Committee report on July 7, 2004--the mainstream press regurgitated Wilson's fraudulent narrative as if it was true.
Here was Pincus on July 6, 2003, the first on-the-record interview with Wilson about his Niger trip. "Joseph C. Wilson, the retired United States ambassador whose CIA-directed mission to Niger in early 2002 helped debunk claims that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium there for nuclear weapons, has said for the first time publicly that U.S. and British officials ignored his findings and exaggerated the public case for invading Iraq.
Wilson, whose 23-year career included senior positions in Africa and Iraq, where he was acting ambassador in 1991, said the false allegations that Iraq was trying to buy uranium oxide from Niger about three years ago were used by President Bush and senior administration officials as a central piece of evidence to support their assertions that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program."
The New York Times, too, assumed that Wilson's version of events was true: "The agent is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson 4th, a former ambassador to Gabon. It was Mr. Wilson who, more than a year and a half ago, concluded in a report to the CIA that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium ore in Niger in an effort to build nuclear arms. But his report was ignored, and Ambassador Wilson has been highly critical of how the administration handled intelligence claims regarding Iraq's nuclear weapons programs, suggesting that Mr. Bush's aides and Vice President Dick Cheney's office tried to inflate the threat."
More troubling, though, is the credulous reporting that came after the Senate Intelligence Committee report had discredited Wilson. The New York Times, in an editorial on July 19, 2005, argues as if the Senate report had never been issued:
"In July 2003, Mr. Wilson wrote an Op-Ed article in The Times that described how he had been sent by the C.I.A. to investigate a report that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. He said he had found no evidence to support the claim of a uranium purchase, or even a serious attempt to negotiate one, and that he had reported this to Washington. That is entirely accurate."
Or, more recently, the July 27, 2005, Washington Post: "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."
But those were not Wilson' findings. And he wasn't sent by Vice President Cheney. And he was recommended by his wife. And he never did see the forgeries. And his report never was circulated to senior Bush administration policymakers. And on and on it goes.
The only debate about Joseph Wilson's credibility is the one apparently taking place at the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.