1/01/1990

Ex-Diplomat's Surprise Volley on Iraq Drove White House Into Political Warfare Mode - New York Times

WASHINGTON, July 22 - President Bush was celebrating his 57th birthday at the White House on July 6, 2003, a muggy midsummer Sunday. He had played golf with old friends at Andrews Air Force Base on Saturday, followed by an early birthday party arranged by his wife. The weekend marked a rare lull in the presidential schedule, a welcome break before a grueling trip to Africa that would start on Monday.

But a former diplomat named Joseph C. Wilson IV had just delivered an unwelcome present. In an Op-Ed article for The New York Times, an interview with The Washington Post and an appearance on "Meet the Press" on NBC, Mr. Wilson accused the administration of twisting the facts about Iraqi weapons and leading the nation to war on false pretenses.

In the growing chorus of criticism of the run-up to war, Mr. Wilson's one-man media onslaught stood out as a sort of eyewitness account. He had been dispatched to Niger by the C.I.A. to see whether Iraq was buying uranium there for nuclear weapons. He claimed to have debunked the story in March 2002, only to have it reappear in January 2003, in the president's State of the Union address.

If believed, Mr. Wilson's accusations were poised to add an insider's authority to the cloud of doubt beginning to grow around the Iraq enterprise, as the resistance was proving far more stubborn than anticipated and the search for Saddam Hussein's weapons was coming up empty.

Ten weeks had passed since Mr. Bush's speech aboard an aircraft carrier, before a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." And the president was being criticized by Democrats as taunting Iraqi insurgents a few days earlier by using the phrase "Bring 'em on." Behind the scenes, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council were skirmishing over who would take the blame for inaccurate intelligence.

The White House response to Mr. Wilson's accusations, as it unfolded over the next eight days, would be aggressive and comprehensive. At home and from the African road trip, in on-the-record briefings and in background tips to reporters, the president's aides sought to rebut Mr. Wilson's statements and undercut his credibility.

It was political trench warfare, Washington-style, an early exchange in what would become an enduring conflict over the administration's use of prewar intelligence.

But in the enthusiasm of the campaign to discredit Mr. Wilson, someone would expose the real job of the diplomat's wife, Valerie, a C.I.A. officer who had worked under cover for two decades, hiding her position from even close friends and relatives.

Whether thoughtless or deliberate, the shattering of Valerie Wilson's cover would prompt the C.I.A. to seek a criminal investigation into the leak. And the investigation would be turned over to a special counsel with a reputation for relentlessly pursuing his quarry.

What had begun as an offensive against a critic would backfire for the White House, setting off a legal and political imbroglio that two years later has engulfed the president's advisers. The leak question has become a cudgel for the president's critics, who have wielded it to attack the credibility of the White House on the fundamental question of why the nation is at war.

If there was a moment that set the whole affair in motion, it came during a morning intelligence briefing for Vice President Dick Cheney in February 2002.

Mr. Cheney, known as a voracious consumer of intelligence, had read a Defense Intelligence Agency report suggesting that Niger had agreed to sell 500 tons a year of yellowcake uranium to Iraq, "probably" for use in a nuclear weapons program.

Intrigued, the vice president, who had long believed that Saddam Hussein posed a threat, asked his briefer for the C.I.A.'s analysis. In response to his query - and to similar questions from State and Defense Departments - the agency convened a meeting of experts, including Mr. Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon with considerable knowledge of the African uranium trade.

Mr. Wilson's wife, who was working at the C.I.A.'s Langley, Va., headquarters as an operative on weapons of mass destruction, had written a note to a superior describing her husband's qualifications, and she introduced him at the meeting before stepping out.

After a 10-day trip to Niger, Mr. Wilson concluded that there was "nothing to the story" of the uranium sales, as he later told Senate Intelligence Committee investigators. Two C.I.A. officers interviewed him on March 5 after his return home.

Nine months later, by Mr. Wilson's account, he was surprised to hear President Bush's assertion in the State of the Union speech that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Mr. Wilson began to spread the word to reporters that he believed the president's speech had misrepresented the government's knowledge. Identified as "a former U.S. ambassador to Africa," Mr. Wilson spoke with Nicholas Kristof of The Times for a May 6, 2003, column about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. The column quoted an "insider" as saying, "It's disingenuous for the State Department people to say they were bamboozled because they knew about this for a year."

But it was only on that Sunday in July that Mr. Wilson - by then a foreign policy adviser to Democratic Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign - really turned up the volume. His charges in two newspapers and on a television network were instantly rebroadcast around the world.

The president's staff moved swiftly to counter Mr. Wilson's media trifecta, which threatened to undermine Mr. Bush's record as a war leader just 15 months before the election.

The goals were clear: shield President Bush from responsibility for dubious prewar weapons claims, and distance the vice president from Mr. Wilson's journey to Niger, which Mr. Cheney's aides say he knew nothing about.

The president's aides, including Ari Fleischer, his press secretary, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, would attempt to blunt Mr. Wilson's claims in on-the-record briefings, before Air Force Once took off for Senegal and then for the correspondents following the president as he traveled around Africa.

Meanwhile, those left in charge at the White House, including Karl Rove, the president's political guru, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., chief of staff to Mr. Cheney, would spend part of the week trying to defuse the controversy over the State of the Union address.

The White House response began at 9:30 a.m. on July 7, a Monday, as Mr. Fleischer briefed the press at the White House. "There is zero, nada, nothing new here," he said of Mr. Wilson's claims. But under questioning, Mr. Fleischer's account became murkier. He seemed to concede, before backing away, that Mr. Bush's entire statement about Saddam Hussein's search for uranium in Africa might have been flawed.

By evening, as Air Force One lifted off, officials on the plane were calling The Times and The Washington Post to make it clear that they no longer stood behind Mr. Bush's statement about the uranium - the first such official concession on the sensitive issue of the intelligence that led to the war.

Aboard the president's plane was a copy of a State Department memorandum on the Wilson matter faxed in-flight to Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state. Officials who have seen the memorandum say that in a passage marked "S" for "secret," it included a crucial revelation: that Valerie Wilson was a C.I.A. officer who played a role in the agency's decision to send her husband to Africa.

As Mr. Bush appeared with one African leader after another, reporters repeatedly tried to slip in questions on Iraq. On Wednesday, July 9, in South Africa, he was asked if he regretted the uranium reference in the January speech.

"Look," the president replied, "I am confident that Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program."

In Uganda, two days later, he was asked whether "somebody should be held accountable" for the inaccurate reference in the State of the Union address. He replied, "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services."

Aboard the plane that Friday evening, Ms. Rice spoke at length with reporters, elaborating on the president's point by saying repeatedly that the C.I.A. had approved his text.

"Now, I can tell you," Ms. Rice said, "if the C.I.A., the director of central intelligence, had said, 'Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone, without question."

Back at the White House, Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby had been at work all week, along with Ms. Rice's deputy, Stephen Hadley, helping to craft a statement that was issued on Friday by George Tenet, the C.I.A. director. Mr. Tenet did precisely what the White House needed: he took responsibility for the inclusion of the 16 words on uranium in the president's speech, and he made clear that Mr. Cheney had neither dispatched Mr. Wilson to Niger nor been briefed on what he found there.

Even as they worked on Mr. Tenet's statement, Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby took calls from reporters. On Wednesday, Mr. Rove spoke with Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist; according to a person briefed on the case, Mr. Rove said the columnist informed him that Mr. Wilson's wife worked for the C.I.A. and had a role in arranging the trip to Niger. On Friday, Mr. Rove spoke with Matthew Cooper, of Time magazine, who would later testify that Mr. Rove had said Mr. Wilson's wife worked for the C.I.A.

Mr. Libby, too, spoke with Mr. Cooper and at least three other reporters.

On Monday, July 14, a column by Mr. Novak made public for the first time Ms. Wilson's C.I.A. affiliation, using her maiden name, Valerie Plame, and calling her "an agency operative." He added that "two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger."

The introduction of Ms. Wilson into the story was politically useful to the White House, implying that the Niger trip was a nepotistic sideshow. But it was legally hazardous, as events would soon reveal: a 1982 law criminalized the disclosure of the identity of a C.I.A. officer working under cover.

Though Ms. Wilson had worked at C.I.A. headquarters since 1997, with occasional trips abroad, she had previously worked overseas for many years, posing as a diplomat and as an energy consultant. C.I.A. officials referred the breach to the Justice Department, which eventually turned the matter over to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel.

By several accounts, some government officials initially did not take the case seriously, not bothering to retain lawyers before they were interviewed by F.B.I. agents. One person close to Mr. Powell said he did not have a lawyer when he testified to the grand jury investigating the leak and does not have one now.

The blasé attitude might have been encouraged in part by official statements from Scott McClellan, Mr. Fleischer's replacement as White House press secretary, that Mr. Rove and other officials had played no role in leaking Ms. Wilson's identity.

But the atmosphere surrounding the inquiry has changed. Revelations in recent weeks that Mr. Rove discussed the Wilsons with at least two reporters have called into question the earlier White House denials. And the jailing on July 6 of Judith Miller, a Times reporter, for refusing to reveal confidential sources to the grand jury, has suggested high stakes for the investigation.

Mr. Fitzgerald's actions have been mostly hidden from view, but his public pursuit of Ms. Miller gave a glimpse of a deadly serious prosecutor on the trail of a major case.

When Ms. Miller's lawyers argued that her stance protected a crucial principle for a free press, Mr. Fitzgerald did not flinch.

"We cannot tolerate that," he said in court. "We are trying to get to the bottom of whether a crime was committed and by whom."

Ex-Diplomat's Surprise Volley on Iraq Drove White House Into Political Warfare Mode - New York Times

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