They may have finally found the smoking gun that nails the culprit responsible for the Iraq war. Unfortunately, the incriminating evidence wasn't left in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces but rather in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
Former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV publicly revealed over the weekend that he was the mysterious envoy whom the CIA, under pressure from Cheney, sent to Niger to investigate a document -- now known to be a crude forgery -- that allegedly showed Iraq was trying to acquire enriched uranium that might be used to build a nuclear bomb. Wilson found no basis for the story, and nobody else has either.
What is startling in Wilson's account, however, is that the CIA, the State Department, the National Security Council and the vice president's office were all informed that the Niger-Iraq connection was phony. No one in the chain of command disputed that this "evidence" of Iraq's revised nuclear weapons program was a hoax.
Yet, nearly a year after Wilson reported the facts to Cheney and the U.S. security apparatus, Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, invoked the fraudulent Iraq-Africa uranium connection as a major justification for rushing the nation to war: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa." What the president did not say was that the British were relying on their intelligence white paper, which was based on the same false information that Wilson and the U.S. ambassador to Niger had already debunked. "That information was erroneous, and they knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British white paper and the president's State of the Union address," Wilson said Sunday on "Meet the Press."
Although a British Parliament report released Monday exonerated the Blair government of deliberate distortion to justify invading Iraq, it urged the foreign secretary to come clean as to when British officials were first told that the Iraq-Niger allegation was based on forged documents. The report noted: "It is very odd indeed" that the British government has still not come up with any other evidence to support its contention about an Iraq-Niger connection.
Nor has the U.S. administration told the American public why it ignored the disclaimers from its own intelligence sources. In order to believe that our president was not lying to us, we must believe that this information did not find its way through Cheney's office to the Oval Office.
In media interviews, Wilson said it was the vice president's questioning that pushed the CIA to try to find a credible Iraqi nuclear threat after that agency had determined there wasn't one. "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," Wilson wrote in an Op-Ed article in Sunday's New York Times. "A legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses."
In a Washington Post interview, Wilson added, "It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?" Those are the carefully chosen words of a 23-year career diplomat who, as the top U.S. official in Baghdad in 1990, was praised by then-President George H.W. Bush for his role as the last American to confront Saddam face to face after the dictator invaded Kuwait. In a cable to Baghdad, the president told Wilson: "What you are doing day in and day out under the most trying conditions is truly inspiring. Keep fighting the good fight."
As Wilson observed wryly, "I guess he didn't realize that one of these days I would carry that fight against his son's administration." And that fight remains the good fight. This is not some minor dispute over a footnote to history but rather raises the possibility of one of the most egregious misrepresentations by a U.S. administration. What could be more cynical and impeachable than fabricating a threat of rogue nations or terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons and using that to sell a war?
"There is no greater threat that we face as a nation," Wilson told NBC, "than the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of nonstate actors or international terrorists. And if we've prosecuted a war for reasons other than that, using weapons of mass destruction as cover for that, then I think we've done a great disservice to the weapons-of-mass-destruction threat."
The world is outraged at this pattern of lies used to justify the Iraq invasion, but the U.S. public still seems numb to the dangers of government by deceit.
Indeed, Nixon speechwriter William Safire this week in his column channeled the voice of his former boss to reassure Republicans that the public could easily be conned through the next election.
Perhaps, and far be it for me to lecture either Safire or a reincarnated Nixon as to the ease of deceiving the electorate, but as we learned from the Nixon disgrace, lies have a way of unraveling, and the truth will out, even if it's after the next election.