Senate Democrats are suffering intelligence failure. They have closed down the Senate and called for an investigation into prewar estimates of Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program. But their inspection teams have failed thus far to locate a mammoth July 2004 report on this very topic, the result of 13 months of effort by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The report was approved unanimously by the committee, supported by for example Senators Levin, Feinstein, and Edwards (a few weeks before he was selected as John Kerry’s running mate).
Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter has decried the manipulation of Iraq intelligence to deceive the American people into going to war. But this question had been covered exhaustively by the bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, which released its report last March. It found “no indication that the Intelligence Community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,” and that “the Intelligence Community did not make or change any analytic judgments in response to political pressure to reach a particular conclusion.” Mr. Carter should follow the news a little more closely.
What’s at issue now is “Phase Two” of the original Senate report, in which statements by administration officials are being compared to prewar intelligence to see if the American people were being given the straight story. The Democrats hope that they will be able to find some examples of statements at extreme variance with the admittedly flawed intelligence reports. They submitted 300 such cherry picked statements for review, and the GOP added another 150 from both sides of the aisle in Congress just to be fair.
One would think that this would be an exercise best left to the blogosphere, which has already parsed and dissected every public statement made by the administration on the topic of WMDs. If there were a “smoking gun,” determined bloggers would have found it by now. But the White House has always been careful not to overstep reports. For example those who mocked the president for his statement in the 2004 State of the Union address that weapons inspectors has uncovered “dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” should have consulted the Iraq Survey Group interim progress report, from which he was quoting directly. The phrase was a bit clunky, but if the president had characterized what was found in any other way, those same critics would now be charging high crimes and misdemeanors.
Somehow this is all being linked to the Scooter Libby indictment, and Joe Wilson has been fanning those flames in his usual unassuming, low-key way. But since Wilson is reluctantly back in the limelight it is a good opportunity to revisit his 2002 trip to Niger to investigate whether the Iraqi government was seeking to reopen its long-standing Uranium trading relationship. Wilson went public about his mission in July 2003 to denounce the president’s assertion in the 2003 SOTU address that Saddam’s government had “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Wilson claimed his investigation turned up no such evidence, at least not in Niger. From this he concluded that the administration was twisting the facts.
However, former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki had admitted that in June 1999 he was approached by intermediaries requesting he meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Niger and Iraq, which Mayaki interpreted to mean renewing yellowcake uranium sales. I suppose you could quibble about the meaning of the word “recently,” but not about Saddam’s intention to restart his nuclear program at first opportunity, which was also the finding of the fall 2004 Duelfer Report. So if someone was lying it certainly was not President Bush.
When Wilson was questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee he exaggerated the significance of his findings beyond what the CIA had concluded, and also admitted that he had passed false information–i.e., had “mis-spoken”–to the press. Wilson has since made a number of conflicting statements in various venues, often with the intention of inflating his own importance. The Agency in fact gave his information only a middling grade, saying that it “did not provide substantial new information.” The CIA noted that the people Wilson spoke to knew that he was working for the U.S. government, and so naturally they would not admit to any illegal activities. (Can’t quite see them saying, “O.K. Joe, you got us, we’re the guys dealing with Saddam. Your country can invade us now.”) The only nugget to come out of the mission that the Agency considered valuable was the information about Mayaki’s perception of the June 1999 meeting, which actually supported the administration’s position.
I never understood the link between “outing” Wilson’s wife as a CIA employee and the notion that this would discredit him, unless of course it was the matter of nepotism. The CIA described Wilson as “a contact with excellent access who does not have an established reporting record,” an amateur who could possibly come up with something useful if he was lucky, but who would never be relied on as the sole source for dispositive proof on any question, as Wilson has since represented himself. One wouldn’t say he suffers from deficient vanity. Considering the vast array of intelligence assets available to the U.S. government, someone like Wilson is obviously a bit player, and the more grandiose his claims become the less credibility he has. The best way to discredit Wilson is to let him keep talking and do the job himself. A few more sickeningly self-important photo spreads wouldn’t hurt either.
–James S. Robbins is an NRO contributor.