Joseph Wilson vs. the right-wing conspiracy

Gleeful conservatives insist the Senate Intelligence Committee report impeached the former ambassador's claims about Iraq and uranium. But Wilson is firing back.

Topics: Iraq, Middle East,

Choreographed editorials and Op-Ed pieces on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal and National Review and by conservative columnist Robert Novak signaled the revving up of a Republican campaign to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his claims that President Bush trumpeted flimsy intelligence in the drive to invade Iraq.

The opinion pieces came on the heels of a July 10 report in the Washington Post that said Wilson lied when he claimed in public statements that his wife, a covert Central Intelligence Agency officer, had not recommended him for a fact-finding mission to Niger in 2002.

It was on this CIA-sponsored trip more than two years ago that Wilson concluded there was no truth to a British intelligence report, highly prized by the White House, that Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons from the African nation. When Bush repeated the questionable claim in a January 2003 State of the Union address, Wilson wrote publicly about his trip and his findings in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, setting off a political firestorm. The first chapter in the drama appeared to end when the White House admitted that Bush should not have said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

But the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of a report last week on prewar intelligence failures has resurrected the Niger controversy. The report, amplified by Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt and right-wing opinion writers, prompted the retired diplomat on Thursday to send a six-page rebuttal to the panel’s chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. An aide to Rockefeller did not return phone calls, while a Republican intelligence committee staffer who was asked to comment on Wilson’s letter said, “Our report speaks for itself.”

The new questions about Wilson and his motives come as polls show Bush approval ratings floundering amid falling support for the war in Iraq. The campaign of presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has sharply questioned Bush’s candor and credibility, and a special prosecutor is wrapping up an investigation into which senior administration official leaked Plame’s name to columnist Novak. Wilson has said the apparently illegal disclosure of his wife’s identify (she was a covert CIA officer) was made in retaliation for his speaking out about the lack of evidence in Niger.

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The dispute over the committee report centers on its interpretation of two facts. One is that Wilson told his CIA debriefers that during his Niger trip, he spoke to the country’s former prime minister, who told him that members of an Iraqi delegation in the late 1990s expressed interest in expanded commercial contacts with Niger. The former prime minister told Wilson that he interpreted the comment to mean that Iraq was interested in buying uranium, although the word “uranium” was not mentioned in the Iraqis’ conversation, he said. The prime minister, fearful of United Nations sanctions that prevented trade with Iraq at the time, dropped the subject, Wilson reported.

But because the ex-minister believed the Iraqis were seeking uranium, the Senate report concluded that whether Iraq sought uranium in Africa remains an open question — a conclusion Wilson disputes. It further reported that far from debunking the notion that Iraq was seeking uranium for weapons, Wilson’s trip to Niger actually bolstered the story, at least in the view of some intelligence analysts, who found the news that the former prime minister believed the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium convincing. But no sale of uranium ever took place, Wilson reported, and that conclusion is not in dispute. Wilson did report that Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998.

The report also quotes an internal CIA memo written by Wilson’s wife, Plame, stating: “my husband has good relations with both the PM (prime minister) and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” Based on Plame’s internal memo and other evidence, three Republicans — Roberts and Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Kit Bond of Missouri — wrote additional views appended to the report, concluding that “the plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested” by Plame. The three GOP senators criticized their Democratic counterparts on the panel for refusing to endorse this conclusion.

In his letter to the committee, Wilson disputed the Republican senators’ characterization. “There is no suggestion or recommendation in that statement that I be sent on the trip,” he wrote. A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment. In an interview, Wilson said that his wife was stating facts about his background, not pushing that he go to Niger.

The Washington Post story, meanwhile, took the disputed Senate report conclusions even further. It stated in its lead that Wilson was “specifically recommended for the mission by his wife … contrary to what he has said publicly.” In the interview, Wilson argued that the Post story failed to make clear that only the intelligence panel’s Republicans, and not its Democrats, came to that conclusion. He said he has written a letter of protest to the Post.

The Post article also contained one acknowledged error: In trying to build a case that Wilson’s Niger trip had actually bolstered the administration’s claims, Schmidt wrote that Wilson had told the CIA that Iraq had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998. In fact, it was Iran that Wilson said had tried to make the purchase, as the Senate report states. The Post ran a correction.

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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