Intelligence analysts–like all detectives–find excitement in anomalies. An anomaly in conduct–action, reaction, and such–may be insignificant, but is often a clue to what is about to happen, or why something already has. In politics, as well as in intelligence, we ignore anomalies at our peril. Right now, the CIA is awash in them, and the president should be asking George Tenet some really tough questions about Joe Wilson.
#ad#In the long buildup to the Iraq campaign, the Bush administration turned virtually all of our intelligence assets to gathering information about Saddam’s WMD programs and connections to terrorism. We had historical data, mainly from the reports of UNMOVIC and Richard Butler, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector. From them, we knew that in 1998–when the U.N. inspectors were first sold out by Kofi Annan and then kicked out by Saddam–Iraq possessed several types of chemical and biological weapons. We knew, also, from high-ranking defectors such as Dr. Khidir Hamza–who previously headed Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program–that Saddam was still doing his best to get his nuke program back on track. I spoke to Dr. Hamza several times, and he gave me many details that seemed both credible and chilling.
Before the final case against Saddam could be presented to the U.N., there were loose ends to tie up. In February 2002 someone in the CIA sent former career diplomat Joseph Wilson to Niger to check out that information. By his own description of his “investigation,” Wilson “spent…eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people.” Current and former government officials and “people associated with the country’s uranium business.” Wilson found the mines regulated by the U.N. and run by an international consortium (which includes Saddam-friendly nations such as France and Germany) and concluded that it would be hard for the government to sell uranium without being detected. Wilson reported to the CIA–only verbally–that he didn’t believe it would be easy for Saddam to get uranium from Niger.
On September 24, 2002, Tony Blair’s government published a sanitized intelligence report entitled, “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” In part it said, “Iraq retained, and retains, many of its experienced nuclear scientists and technicians who are specialised in the production of fissile material and weapons design…there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Iraq has no active civil nuclear power programme or nuclear power plants and therefore has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium.”
In January’s State of the Union speech, the president said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Soon after, there were leaks that the Brit report was false, perhaps even based on forged documents. The Brits stood by their report, but the president’s words soon became a focus of antiwar pols and media, proof enough for them that the case against Iraq was a fraud.
In an eve of war interview–on March 13, 2003–Wilson said the president hadn’t made the case that Saddam was connected to terrorism and argued that multilateral cooperation in the U.N. was too important to risk by preemptive action. He made the Albright/Scowcroft argument saying, “…it’s very clear that the way the administration is proceeding, and its willingness to go despite the United Nations, and the willingness to use the military option before a good part of the world believes that war is the only remaining option, puts at risk the rule of law and it also puts at risk the whole multi-lateral system which we’ve worked so hard since 1945 to build.” And ever since Saddam’s regime was toppled, Joe Wilson has been a media darling in dozens of interviews and one key op-ed to condemn the military action. In July, two senior administration officials told columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative, and Novak published her name in a column about the political storm surrounding Wilson.
All was quiet until about three weeks ago, when the Washington press corps began trying to rouse itself into a feeding frenzy over the leak of the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame. Plame is a CIA employee who apparently had some connection to covert operations. Revealing covert operatives is a crime. The media (remembering the fun days staked out at the federal courthouse on the concrete expanse known then as “Monica Beach”) can’t understand why Karl Rove–publicly blamed for the leak by Wilson–hasn’t been indicted yet. Trying to stir the press cauldron, the Dems are all over the airwaves demanding a “special counsel” to investigate the leak. Some Dems are even suggesting a revival of the “independent-counsel” law to which they bade farewell gladly in 1999 after Ken Starr taught them it could be applied to people who weren’t Republicans.
The leaker may or may not be found. If he is discovered, he should be punished as the law provides. But the leak while titillating, is unimportant. While we occupy ourselves with the Plame name blame game, we are missing the most important elements of the Wilson affair: the anomalies.
Everyone who works for the CIA in everything having to do with intelligence or foreign governments is required to sign a secrecy agreement that provides the Agency the right to approve and censor what the employee may wish to say or write for public consumption. In Wilson’s famous July 6, 2003 NYT op-ed, he said, “The mission I undertook was discreet but by no means secret. While the CIA paid my expenses, (my time was offered pro bono), I made it abundantly clear to everyone I met that I was acting on behalf of the United States government.” It is unheard of for anyone to not be required to sign a secrecy agreement. So did Wilson get that article approved by the CIA?
I asked the CIA, and a very testy spokesperson refused to answer. I asked if Wilson ever signed a security agreement, and she sounded about to burst from stress, but she’d give no answer to that question either. Maybe she was just having a bad hair day. Or maybe the CIA is feeling some well-earned heat.
A senior intelligence-community source told me that no one as vocal as Wilson could possibly be bound to the usual security agreement. So Wilson wasn’t required to sign one. Why? The fact that he was paid only his expenses is no explanation. That’s Anomaly Number 1.
Why was Joe Wilson chosen for the Niger mission? A career foreign-service officer, he’s no intelligence pro. He’s not an expert on nuclear weapons, and he’s sure no expert on covert purchase of WMD-related materials. He served as an “Africa expert” in the second Clinton administration, but hadn’t been in Niger since he served as a flunky in our embassy there in the early ’80s. He did serve–with courage–as acting ambassador in Baghdad in 1990. He had no unique or current knowledge of Niger, but he does have deeply felt political views which cannot have resulted from some recent epiphany.
Wilson worked for Al Gore as a congressional fellow in the mid-Eighties, has given money to John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and believes his mission in life is to “destroy” both “neoconservatives and religious conservatives.” Anyone political–which means everyone in the White House and the CIA hierarchy–must have understood the risk the president took in stating WMD as the casus belli against Saddam. Though the nuclear part of the WMD equation was never a principal part of the case for war, it was part of it. Anomaly Number 2: Why was Wilson–uncredentialed in the critical areas, and devoted to a political agenda antithetical to the president’s policy–chosen for such an apparently controversial mission?
Wilson’s “investigation” was patently inadequate. According to his op-ed, he made no effort to talk to the IAEA, Niger military or intelligence authorities. Dr. Hamza told me in considerable detail about a highly organized and well-financed black-market operation by Saddam’s regime to buy every sort of nuclear weapons-related equipment and materials. It’s not hard to suborn people with enough money, or to buy uranium and smuggle it out of places such as Niger. Over time, any amount could be smuggled out to Iraq. Anomaly Number 3: Why was Wilson’s verbal report apparently taken at face value? No intelligence professional should have relied on it.
Although it’s not an anomaly, no one seems to know who hired Joe Wilson for the Niger job. Reports and sources all say George Tenet didn’t, and that someone well below him did. One report says that Plame recommended him. To whom, we don’t know. Who chose Wilson, and why?
It’s possible that Wilson’s trip and report were a put-up job, intended to embarrass the president sooner or later. But that analysis overlooks Wilson’s persona, his political loyalties, and his actions. I don’t believe in conspiracies. But I don’t believe in coincidences, either. If I were the president, I’d unambiguously support the leak investigation, and prosecute the leaker if he can be found. With equal urgency, I’d be working hard to find out why these anomalies exist. And wondering what other disagreeable surprises may be coming my way from the CIA in the next twelve months.