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Our Man in Niger
Exposed and discredited, Joe Wilson might consider going back.


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Clifford D. May

Joe Wilson’s cover has been blown. For the past year, he has claimed to be a truth-teller, a whistleblower, the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy–and most of the media have lapped it up and cheered him on.

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After a whirl of TV and radio appearances during which he received high-fives and hearty hugs from producers and hosts (I was in some green rooms with him so this is eyewitness reporting), and a wet-kiss profile in Vanity Fair, he gave birth to a quickie book sporting his dapper self on the cover, and verbosely entitled The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir.

The book jacket talks of his “fearless insight” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and “disarming candor” (which does not extend to telling readers for whom he has been working since retiring early from the Foreign Service).

The biographical blurb describes him as a “political centrist” who received a prize for “Truth-Telling,” though a careful reader might notice that the award came in part from a group associated with The Nation magazine–which only Michael Moore would consider a centrist publication.

But now Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV–he of the Hermes ties and Jaguar convertibles–has been thoroughly discredited. Last week’s bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report concluded that it is he who has been telling lies.

For starters, he has insisted that his wife, CIA employee Valerie Plame, was not the one who came up with the brilliant idea that the agency send him to Niger to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had been attempting to acquire uranium. “Valerie had nothing to do with the matter,” Wilson says in his book. “She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.” In fact, the Senate panel found, she was the one who got him that assignment. The panel even found a memo by her. (She should have thought to use disappearing ink.)

Wilson spent a total of eight days in Niger “drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people,” as he put it. On the basis of this “investigation” he confidently concluded that there was no way Saddam sought uranium from Africa. Oddly, Wilson didn’t bother to write a report saying this. Instead he gave an oral briefing to a CIA official.

Oddly, too, as an investigator on assignment for the CIA he was not required to keep his mission and its conclusions confidential. And for the New York Times, he was happy to put pen to paper, to write an op-ed charging the Bush administration with “twisting,” “manipulating” and “exaggerating” intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs “to justify an invasion.”

In particular he said that President Bush was lying when, in his 2003 State of the Union address, he pronounced these words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

We now know for certain that Wilson was wrong and that Bush’s statement was entirely accurate.

The British have consistently stood by that conclusion. In September 2003, an independent British parliamentary committee looked into the matter and determined that the claim made by British intelligence was “reasonable” (the media forgot to cover that one too). Indeed, Britain’s spies stand by their claim to this day. Interestingly, French intelligence also reported an Iraqi attempt to procure uranium from Niger.

Yes, there were fake documents relating to Niger-Iraq sales. But no, those forgeries were not the evidence that convinced British intelligence that Saddam may have been shopping for “yellowcake” uranium. On the contrary, according to some intelligence sources, the forgery was planted in order to be discovered–as a ruse to discredit the story of a Niger-Iraq link, to persuade people there were no grounds for the charge. If that was the plan, it worked like a charm.

But that’s not all. The Butler report, yet another British government inquiry, also is expected to conclude this week that British intelligence was correct to say that Saddam sought uranium from Niger.

And in recent days, the Financial Times has reported that illicit sales of uranium from Niger were indeed being negotiated with Iraq, as well as with four other states.

According to the FT: “European intelligence officers have now revealed that three years before the fake documents became public, human and electronic intelligence sources from a number of countries picked up repeated discussion of an illicit trade in uranium from Niger. One of the customers discussed by the traders was Iraq.”

There’s still more: As Susan Schmidt reported–back on page A9 of Saturday’s Washington Post: “Contrary to Wilson’s assertions and even the government’s previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence.”

The Senate report says fairly bluntly that Wilson lied to the media. Schmidt notes that the panel found that, “Wilson provided misleading information to the Washington Post last June. He said then that he concluded the Niger intelligence was based on a document that had clearly been forged because ‘the dates were wrong and the names were wrong.’”

The problem is Wilson “had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports,” the Senate panel discovered. Schmidt notes: “The documents–purported sales agreements between Niger and Iraq–were not in U.S. hands until eight months after Wilson made his trip to Niger.”

Ironically, Senate investigators found that at least some of what Wilson told his CIA briefer not only failed to persuade the agency that there was nothing to reports of Niger-Iraq link–his information actually created additional suspicion.

A former prime minister of Niger, Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, told Wilson that in June 1999, a businessman approached him, insisting that he meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations.” Mayaki, knowing how few commodities for export are produced by impoverished Niger, interpreted that to mean that Saddam was seeking uranium.

Another former government official told Wilson that Iran had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium in 1998. That’s the same year that Saddam forced the weapons inspectors to leave Iraq. Could the former official have meant Iraq rather than Iran? If someone were to try to connect those dots, what picture might emerge?

Schmidt adds that the Senate panel was alarmed to find that the CIA never “fully investigated possible efforts by Iraq to buy uranium from Niger destined for Iraq and stored in a warehouse in Benin.”

I was the first to suggest, here on National Review Online a year ago (“Scandal!” and “No Yellowcake Walk“), that Wilson should not have been given this assignment, that he had no training or demonstrated competence as an investigator, that his inquiry had been obviously superficial and that, far from being a “centrist,” he was a partisan with an ax to grind.

But my complaint was really less with Wilson than it was with the CIA for sending him, rather than an experienced spy or investigator, to check out such an important and sensitive matter as whether one of the world’s most vicious killers had been trying to buy the stuff that nuclear weapons are made of.

For this, I received a couple of dishonorable mentions in Wilson’s memoir. He has a chapter called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” which might be used as a case study for CIA trainees and others who need to understand the fundamental principle of logic that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, Wilson fails to grasp that because he didn’t find proof that Saddam was seeking African uranium does not mean that proof was not there to be found.

In reaction to his “fearless candor” and “disarming insight” about the “sixteen-word lie,” Wilson writes that “right-wing hatchet men were being wheeled out to attack me. More ominously, plots were being hatched in the White House that would betray America’s national security.

He writes: “Clifford May was first off the mark, spewing uninformed vitriol in a piece in National Review Online blindly operating on the principle that facts, those pesky facts, just do not matter.”

Well, facts, those pesky facts do matter and a bipartisan Senate investigative committee has now established that Wilson has had very few in his possession. And, for the record, I was never advised anything about Wilson by anyone serving in the White House, the administration, or the Republican party. I never even had a discussion about him with such folks.

There is much more that could be said about the Wilson affair, and certainly many questions that ought to be both asked and answered. But in the interest of time and space, let me leave you with just one: Now that we know that Mrs. Wilson did recommend Mr. Wilson for the Niger assignment, can we not infer that she was working at CIA headquarters in Langley rather than as an undercover operative in some front business or organization somewhere?

As I suggested in another NRO piece (Spy Games), if that is the case–if she was not working undercover and if the CIA was not taking measures to protect her cover–no law was broken by columnist Bob Novak in naming her, or by whoever told Novak that she worked for the CIA.

It is against the law to knowingly name an undercover agent. It is not against the law to name a CIA employee who is not an undercover agent. For example, I know the identity of “Anonymous,” the CIA employee who has now written a book trashing the Bush administration for its policies. But since he is not–to the best of my knowledge–a covert operative, I would be committing no crime were I to name him in this piece. Nor, I should add, did he attempt to hide his employment when we sat across a dinner table some months ago.

I don’t think Joe Wilson is an evil man. I do think he is an angry partisan and an opportunist. According to my sources, during most of his diplomatic career he specialized in general services and administration, which means he was not the political or economic adviser to the ambassador, rather he was the guy who makes sure the embassy plumbing is working and that the commissary is stocked with Oreos and other products the ambassador prefers.

Just prior to the Gulf War, he did serve in Iraq, a hot spot to be sure, but that was under Ambassador April Glaspie, who failed to make it clear to Saddam that invading Kuwait would elicit a robust response from Washington. I doubt that Wilson advised her to do otherwise. I rather doubt she asked. As he says in his book, she was giving him an “on-the-spot education in Middle Eastern diplomacy. It was a part of the world in which I had no experience.”

In 1991, Wilson’s book jacket boasts, President George H.W. Bush praised Wilson as “a true American hero,” and he was made an ambassador. But for some reason, he was assigned not to Cairo, Paris, or Moscow, places where you put the best and the brightest, nor was he sent to Bermuda or Luxembourg, places you send people you want to reward. Instead, he was sent to Gabon, a diplomatic backwater of the first rank.

After that, he says in his memoir, “I had risen about as high as I could in the Foreign Service and decided it was time to retire.” Well, that’s not exactly accurate either. He could have been given a more important posting, such as Kenya or South Africa, or he could have been promoted higher in the senior Foreign Service (he made only the first of four grades). Instead, he was evidently (according to my sources) forced into involuntary retirement at 48. (The minimum age for voluntary retirement in the Foreign Service is 50.) After that, he seems to have made quite a bit of money–doing what for whom is unclear and I wish the Senate committee had attempted to find out.

But based on one op-ed declaring 16 words spoken by the president a lie, he transformed himself into an instant celebrity and, for a while, it seemed, a contender for power within the chien-mange-le-chien world of foreign policy. That dream has now probably evaporated. It is hard to see how a President John Kerry would now want Wilson in his inner circle. But if he desired to return to Gabon or Niger I, for one, would not be among those opposing him.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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