the summer of 03…

Posted on Wednesday 30 August 2006

The lead-in to the summer of 2003 was pretty dramatic. The year had opened with Bush’s State of the Union message. Our target was to be Iraq, it seemed. In that speech, he said:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
What we now know is that the reason he reported on the British intelligence was that by this time, the C.I.A. had debunked what we call The Niger Forgeries, but the British had not. So, Bush could report that the British still believed this particular piece of false intelligence. After his speech, there was a flurry of activity. Condoleeza Rice wrote of the Aluminum Tubes, something Iraq had purchased that they thought were for concentating Uranium [they were, in truth, missle casings]. The Administration was out in force about Iraq, suggesting al Qaeda ties and other kinds of weapons of mass destruction. Judith Miller of the New York Times reported on various versions of Iraq’s weapons arsenal based on accounts from Iraqi expatriots. In February, Colin Powell went to the U.N. to make our case against Iraq, leaving out the Yellowcake uranium story. In retrospect, everything he reported to the U.N. was wrong.

Failing to get support from the U.N. [whose inspections found no confirmation of our allegations], we marched off to war with Iraq in March [Operation Iraqi Freedom]. As we swept through the Iraqi countryside, Judith Miller rode with our soldiers searching for the weapons of mass destruction. I guess she believed her own stories, but they didn’t find what they were looking for [still haven’t]. By mid-May, we were declaring victory. President Bush flew a fighter onto the Aircraft Carrier, Lincoln, and announced "Mission Accomplished."

But there was discontent at home. A lot of us who had opposed the war were asking about the weaponry that wasn’t found, about the [mythical] al Qaeda ties  One particular person was asking his friends in Washington – Joseph Wilson. Retired Ambassador Wilson had gone to Niger at the request of the C.I.A. to check out the story about Iraq’s uranium purchase. He’d found no evidence that any such thing had happened. He’d gone to several reporters who’d published his questioning the "sixteen words anonymously. The Administration got wind of his questioning, and began to investigate him, finding out quickly that his wife, Valerie Plame was in the C.I.A. and had been involved with his being sent on his mission to Niger. So, in the midst of this great outpouring of patriotism, the summer of 2003 was gearing up for some dissent on the home front.

At the time, there was a rift in the government. The neoconservatives had long maintained that the C.I.A. was leading President Clinton astray – focusing on Terrorist groups [al Qaeda] rather that the Middle Eastern States [Iraq and Iran]. When Bush was elected and imported the neoconservatives into his Administration, the anti-C.I.A. sentiment came with it. The State Department was also suspect. Ironically, the two top dogs in the State Department, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, were veteran soldiers, but were the voice of caution in the lead-up to the war. While the Bush, Cheney, and the Defense Department, populated with non-veterans, were the ones racing to war.

So when the media picked up Joseph Wilson’s questioning the Administration’s use of the pre-war intelligence, thinly disguised in articles by William Kristol [May 6, New York Times] and Walter Pincus [June 12, Washington Post], the Administration quickly started paying attention. Someone was saying, "the emperor has no clothes!" After Kristol’s article, Vice President Cheney and and his assistant, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby began to look into Joseph Wilson and found the connection to his wife. Memos about this were apparently widely available in the Executive offices.

On June 13th, Richard Armitage "casually" told Bob Woodward that Joseph Wilson’s wife worked for the C.I.A. [revealed finally this week]. Scooter Libby had a meeting with Judith Miller, and told her on June 23rd. On July 6th, Joseph Wilson wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, saying:
Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

Bush and an entourage were flying off to Africa when it came out. On Air Force I, Colin Powell was apparently walking around with the memo about Wilson’s wife. Ari Fleischer was hinting to reporter’s saying they should look into who sent Joseph Wilson to Africa. Back home, Libby had another meeting with Judith Miller about it. Richard Armitage told Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times. Novak confirmed it the next day with Karl Rove. Within several days, Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine was told about Joseph Wilson’s wife’s C.I.A. role by Karl Rove – confirming the story with Scooter Libby the next day. Meanwhile, Scooter Libby and Judith Miller had a conversation about it the same day. Then, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post learned of this connection from a yet un-named source. Obviously, the fact that Joseph Wilson’s wife was with the C.I.A. and involved in his being picked for this mission was a hot topic in the Executive Halls. Equally obvious was that this connection was being seen as a way of discrediting Wilson’s Op-Ed comments.

Probably the most vivid example of how the information about Wilson’s wife was being touted as discrediting him was a bizarre incident on June 8th. Here’s Wilson’s account of the story:
Late on Tuesday afternoon, July 8, six days before Robert Novak’s article about Valerie and me, a friend showed up at my office with a strange and disturbing tale. He had been walking down Pennsylvania Avenue toward my office near the White House when he came upon Novak, who, my friend assumed, was en route to the George Washington University auditorium for the daily taping of CNN’s Crossfire. He asked Novak if he could walk a block or two with him, as they were headed in the same direction; Novak acquiesced. Striking up a conversation, my friend, without revealing that he knew me, asked Novak about the uranium controversy. It was a minor problem, Novak replied, and opined that the administration should have dealt with it weeks before. My friend then asked Novak what he thought about me, and Novak answered: “Wilson’s an asshole. The CIA sent him. His wife, Valerie, works for the CIA. She’s a weapons of mass destruction specialist. She sent him.” At that point, my friend and Novak went their separate ways. My friend headed straight for my office a couple of blocks away.
The discrediting music sings from Novak’s private comments. On July 14th, Robert Novak published the information about Valerie Plame, Joseph Wilson’s wife [Mission to Niger]. His article itself, however, was not so caustic:
Wilson’s report that an Iraqi purchase of uranium yellowcake from Niger was highly unlikely was regarded by the CIA as less than definitive, and it is doubtful Tenet ever saw it. Certainly, President Bush did not, prior to his 2003 State of the Union address, when he attributed reports of attempted uranium purchases to the British government. That the British relied on forged documents made Wilson’s mission, nearly a year earlier, the basis of furious Democratic accusations of burying intelligence though the report was forgotten by the time the president spoke.

Reluctance at the White House to admit a mistake has led Democrats ever closer to saying the president lied the country into war. Even after a belated admission of error last Monday, finger-pointing between Bush administration agencies continued. Messages between Washington and the presidential entourage traveling in Africa hashed over the mission to Niger.

Wilson’s mission was created after an early 2002 report by the Italian intelligence service about attempted uranium purchases from Niger, derived from forged documents prepared by what the CIA calls a "con man." This misinformation, peddled by Italian journalists, spread through the U.S. government. The White House, State Department and Pentagon, and not just Vice President Dick Cheney, asked the CIA to look into it.

That’s where Joe Wilson came in. His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein’s wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed "the stuff of heroism." President George H.W. Bush the next year named him ambassador to Gabon, and President Bill Clinton put him in charge of African affairs at the National Security Council until his retirement in 1998.

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.

After eight days in the Niger capital of Niamey (where he once served), Wilson made an oral report in Langley that an Iraqi uranium purchase was "highly unlikely," though he also mentioned in passing that a 1988 Iraqi delegation tried to establish commercial contacts. CIA officials did not regard Wilson’s intelligence as definitive, being based primarily on what the Niger officials told him and probably would have claimed under any circumstances. The CIA report of Wilson’s briefing remains classified.

It is against the law to knowingly out a C.I.A. undercover operative. All parties involved in leaking this part of the story deny knowing that Valerie Plame was a C.I.A. operative. We all know what’s happened since that time. My point in rehashing the sequence of events in that month-long period in the summer of 2003 is simple. The Executive Branch of the government reacted to Joseph Wilson’s accusation by discrediting him and his connection to the C.I.A. through his wife. The Executive Branch of the government did this because what he said was true. The Plame issue is now in Civil Court where it belongs and will be resolved there, but the background accusation from Joseph Wilson still stands [and was, in fact, understated] – "some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

In some ways, the three year probe into the legality of leaking Plame’s identity has obscured the essential point Wilson tried to make in that Op-Ed. He said that the Administration lied to get us into war. In fact, the Administration did lie to get us into war. The war has turned out to be a monumental mistake, and it’s not even an honest mistake – the Administration had to lie to make their mistake. What could possible be worse than that? This business is not over yet as the right wing pundits now claim.  The summer of 03 is not yet even history! It’s right smack dab in the center of our present business…

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