Mission to Niger, (fair use)
Robert Novak (<archive.shtml>)
July 14, 2003
Editor's Note: Robert Novak wrote a column on Oct.
1, 2003 <http://www.townhall.com/columnists/robertnovak/rn20031001.shtml>
in response to the story that began to unfold three months after this column
WASHINGTON -- The
CIA's decision to send retired diplomat Joseph C. Wilson to Africa in February
2002 to investigate possible Iraqi purchases of uranium was made routinely at a
low level without Director George Tenet's knowledge. Remarkably, this produced a
political firestorm that has not yet subsided.
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
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
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.
All this was forgotten until reporter Walter
Pincus revealed in the Washington Post June 12 that an unnamed retired diplomat
had given the CIA a negative report. Not until Wilson went public on July 6,
however, did his finding ignite the firestorm.
During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Wilson had taken a
measured public position -- viewing weapons of mass destruction as a danger but
considering military action as a last resort. He has seemed much more critical
of the administration since revealing his role in Niger. In the Washington Post
July 6, he talked about the Bush team "misrepresenting the facts,"
asking: "What else are they lying about?"
After the White House admitted error, Wilson declined all
television and radio interviews. "The story was never me," he told me,
"it was always the statement in (Bush's) speech." The story, actually,
is whether the administration deliberately ignored Wilson's advice, and that
requires scrutinizing the CIA summary of what their envoy reported. The Agency
never before has declassified that kind of information, but the White House
would like it to do just that now -- in its and in the public's interest.
©2003 Creators Syndicate, Inc.