A Vaster Conspiracy?
Over the past few months, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has been questioning witnesses in the CIA leak case about the origins of the disputed Niger documents referenced in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address, according to several current and former State Department officials who have testified in the case.
The State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because some of the information they discussed is still classified, indicated that the White House had substantial motive for revealing undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to reporters.
They said the questions Fitzgerald asked them about the Niger documents suggested to them that the special prosecutor was putting together a timeline. They said they believe Fitzgerald wants to show the grand jury how some people in the Bush administration may have conspired to retaliate against former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an outspoken critic of the administration’s pre-war Iraq intelligence.
The officials said Fitzgerald’s interest is not in the the war’s validity. Instead, Fitzgerald is trying to find out if Wilson’s public questions about the administration’s intelligence and its use of the Niger documents led members of a little known committee called the White House Iraq Group to leak Plame’s name and CIA status to reporters.
The officials have provided the first in-depth look at how the administration came to rely upon the Niger documents in the fall of 2002, and how it played a direct role in the Plame leak, which ultimately forced the White House to acknowledge that it shouldn’t have allowed President Bush to cite the uranium claims in his State of the Union address – a move the White House had hoped it could avoid.
Wilson was chosen by the CIA in February 2002 to travel to Niger to check on questions Vice President Dick Cheney had about Iraq’s interest in buying yellowcake uranium from the African country. Uranium is the key component used to build an atomic bomb. The State Department had first expressed doubts about the vice president’s inquiries. Officials at the State Department, including Colin Powell, according to sources, told Cheney the intelligence was suspect.
"We already expressed our opinion about the intelligence the vice president was asking about. We thought it had no merit," one former senior State Department official said. "We resented that they didn’t trust what we said."
Indeed, earlier that month, Carlton Fulford Jr., a four-star Marine general, was sent to Niger to check on the security of Niger’s uranium. He returned to the United States convinced that the supply was secure. Fulford informed Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about his findings. It’s unclear whether Myers ever shared the information with White House officials. A spokesperson for Myers said the general would not respond to questions for this story.
Later that same month, the State Department official said, Wilson traveled to Niger on behalf of the CIA. That’s the trip the State Department had initially protested because Fulford had already looked into it. But Wilson confirmed that there was no truth to the allegations.
"We felt vindicated," the State Department official said because there had long been animosity between the White House and State over disagreements concerning intelligence on the Iraqi threat.
However, seven months later, the British government prepared a "white paper" giving validity to the claims that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger which the State Department and Wilson had already proved false.
"Some very senior people in the vice president’s office saw that as an opportunity," an official who currently works at the State Department in a senior capacity said. "They took it and ran with it, and it was wrong."
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby – Cheney’s former chief of staff, who was indicted on five-counts of lying to federal investigators, perjury, and obstruction of justice related to his role in the Plame leak – National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and Cheney had embraced the uranium claims cited in the"white paper," according to the State Department sources, and they had all pushed for its inclusion in the National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002.
"I have no idea how or why [the Niger uranium claim] got in there," one of the current State Department sources said. "To this day I don’t know. Secretary Powell knew that we disagreed with the intelligence. It wasn’t that we disagreed with the White House per se. It’s that we disagreed with the intelligence regarding Niger. We were the only people in the intelligence community who thought the documents were bogus."
Numerous messages were left at the offices of Hadley, Cheney and Powell, and there was no response.
Iraq’s interest in the yellowcake caught the attention of Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association. ElBaradei had read a copy of the National Intelligence Estimate and had personally contacted the State Department and the National Security Council, where Hadley was then deputy advisor, to obtain the evidence so his agency could look into it.
ElBaradei sent a letter to the White House and the National Security Council in December 2002, warning senior officials he thought the documents were forgeries and should not be cited by the administration as evidence that Iraq was actively trying to obtain WMDs. ElBaradei said he never received a written response to his letter, despite repeated follow-up calls he made to the White House, the NSC and the State Department.
The State Department officials said they did not know whether Powell ever saw ElBaradei’s letter, but they were unaware that ElBaradei had inquired about the allegations made in the Niger documents.
In a second letter sent to Congressman Henry Waxman, D-California, in March 2003, after the Iraq had war started, ElBaradei laid out the details of his attempts to get to the bottom of the Niger uranium story.
ElBaradei said that when the Niger claims were included in the State Department fact sheet on the Iraqi threat in December 2002, "the IAEA asked the U.S. Government, through its Mission in Vienna, to provide any actionable information that would allow it to follow up with the countries involved, viz Niger and Iraq."
ElBaradei said he was assured that his letter was forwarded to the White House and to the National Security Council. He added that he and his staff were suspicious about the Niger documents because it had long been rumored that documents pertaining to Iraq’s attempt to obtain uranium from Niger had been doctored.
In conversations and correspondence with Waxman in March 2003, ElBaradei said White House officials pledged to cooperate with United Nations inspectors but repeatedly withheld evidence from them.
Cheney, who made the rounds on the cable news shows that month, tried to discredit ElBaradei’s conclusion that the documents were forged.
"I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don’t have any reason to believe they’re any more valid this time than they’ve been in the past."
Two months earlier, Wilson re-emerged. It was one day after President Bush’s January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, in which the president said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Wilson said he met with a friend who worked at the State Department and asked why the president cited the British intelligence report about Iraq’s attempt to buy uranium, when he had debunked the allegation a year earlier.
"I reminded a friend at the State Department of my trip and suggested that if the president had been referring to Niger, then his conclusion was not borne out by the facts as I understood them. He replied that perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I accepted the explanation. I didn’t know that in December, a month before the president’s address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that mentioned the Niger case," Wilson wrote in his infamous July 6, 2003, op-ed in the New York Times, which preceded his wife’s identity being leaked to reporters by about a week.
Many career State Department officials were also livid that the so-called "16 words" made its way into the State of the Union address, the current and former department officials who commented for this story said.
"To me it showed a total disregard for the truth, plain and simple," said one former State Department official who had worked closely with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, referring to the administration’s use of the flawed intelligence.
"I refuse to believe that the findings of a four-star general and an envoy the CIA sent to Niger to personally investigate the accuracy of the intelligence, as well as our own research at the State Department, never got into the hands of President Bush or Vice President Cheney. I don’t buy it. Saying that Iraq sought uranium from Niger was all it took, as far as I’m concerned, to convince the House to support the war. The American people too. I believe removing Saddam Hussein was right and just. But the intelligence that was used to state the case wasn’t."
The officials said Scooter Libby and Stephen Hadley had pressured Powell to reference the Niger documents in his presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, but Powell did not believe the intelligence was solid and refused. The officials said there was a verbal confrontation between the men over the issue. Other sources close to Powell confirmed this as well.
Although there were suspicions that the Niger documents were forgeries, the White House went to great lengths to defend its use of the report in Bush’s State of the Union address, saying the CIA signed off on it.
At this time, Wilson was also unconvinced that the White House did not see his report. In private conversations with a State Department official and a few reporters, he accused the White House of twisting the intelligence to fuel the administration’s war machine. He let it be known that he had personally investigated the allegations on behalf of the CIA.
By May 2003, Wilson had made enough noise in Washington, DC, political circles about the veracity of pre-war Iraq intelligence to attract the attention of Libby and Hadley. Wilson had been a source for Nicholas Kristoff’s New York Times column that suggested the administration knowingly used the phony Niger documents to win support for the war.
"You have to understand," the former State Department official said, "this was two months after the invasion, and here was a person contradicting what the administration felt strongly about. The administration put so much stock into the fact that WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) were there. But it was clear that in May 2003 there was no evidence of WMDs. Anyone bringing it up, calling the administration out, so to speak, became a target."
All of the officials said that after Kristoff’s column was published, they received phone calls from from Libby and Hadley inquiring about the unnamed official in Kristoff’s column, who turned out to be Wilson. For the first time, the public learned that the US had sent an American envoy to personally check on the accuracy of the Niger claims.
This was in stark contrast to what the administration had been saying publicly up until this point: that they only cited the Niger documents because they had been confirmed by British intelligence. But the column raised new questions about what the administration knew and when they knew it. The revelation in Kristoff’s report threatened to expose how senior White House officials ignored Wilson and all the other warnings they had received about the veracity of the documents.
Cheney found out who Wilson was in May 2003, according to the indictment handed up against Libby in late October. Cheney found out that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. He shared the information with Libby, although Libby had been snooping around on his own and found out the same information, too.
In fact, according to sources knowledgeable about the discussions that took place during this time, only a handful of Cheney’s very close aides knew the identity of the person trashing the administration’s pre-war intelligence. Karl Rove wasn’t even in the know yet, the sources said.
White House officials’ decision to retaliate against Wilson by blowing his CIA wife’s cover to reporters would come less than a month later – in early June 2003.
The Wilson story had legs. Walter Pincus of the Washington Post started poking around. He called the CIA to check on Wilson’s story. He called other people at the White House, too. Reporters were becoming very interested in the fact that the Bush administration failed to inform Congress or the public that Cheney asked the CIA to look into the Niger uranium allegations a year before, and that Wilson was chosen for the mission. It started to appear as if the administration had manipulated the intelligence and duped Congress into backing the war.
Marc Grossman, then Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, read about the Niger story, and the unnamed special envoy that was sent to check out the bogus claims, in Kristoff’s column.
"He got a request from someone at the White House to look into it, the Niger issues that is, and he asked INR about it," the current State Department official said.
Grossman was scheduled to meet with Cheney and Libby and other senior officials who were members of the White House Iraq Group to discuss the war and the negative stories that were flooding the media about the absence of WMDs in Iraq.
There is no indication that Fitzgerald is investigating Cheney.
The White House Iraq Group (WHIG) was formed in August 2002 by Andrew Card, President Bush’s chief of staff, to publicize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. WHIG operated out of the Vice President’s office.
The group’s members included Rove, Bush advisor Karen Hughes, Senior Advisor to the Vice President Mary Matalin, Deputy Director of Communications James Wilkinson, Assistant to the President and Legislative Liaison Nicholas Calio, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Last week, this State Department official said that a meeting took place in the office of the Vice President after Libby read the memo, to decide how they would respond to Wilson’s increasing public criticism about the administration.
"There was a major, major concern about the polls, the public response, that Mr. Wilson could cause enormous damage," the retired senior State Department official said.
Grossman asked Carl Ford, then the head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to prepare what is known as an INR report about the Niger claims to shed additional light on what Wilson had been referring to in news reports.
The four-page memo indicated that the State Department long had doubts about the veracity of the administration’s claims about Iraq’s attempts to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. The memo made scant reference to Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame.
"We had real qualms that the intel was not true. When the report was prepared, we were actually happy, because it was an opportunity to talk about Niger again and why we thought there was absolutely no truth to the intelligence," one senior State Department official who saw the report said. "It was not intended to be a report about Mr. Wilson or Ms. Plame."
A retired State Department official who was a source for a July 20, 2005, Associated Press story told the AP that the memo was drafted to respond to specific questions about Wilson’s debunking of the Niger uranium claims.
"It wasn’t a Wilson-Wilson wife memo," the State Department official told the AP. "It was a memo on uranium in Niger and focused principally on our disagreement with the White House."
The retired official was tracked down and interviewed by this reporter. This person said some senior members of Cheney’s staff wanted the memo "toned down" after they read it.
"Try to understand their concern," the retired State Department official said. "This was the very first time there was written evidence – not notes, but a request for a report – from the State Department that documented why the Niger intel was bullshit. It was the only thing in writing, and it had a certain value because it didn’t come from the IAEA. It came from State. It scared the heck out of a lot of people because it proved that this guy Wilson’s story was credible. I don’t think anybody wanted the media to know that the State Department disagreed with the intelligence used by the White House. That’s why Wilson had to be shut down."
The current State Department official said the INR memo was discussed at length during the meeting Grossman attended at the White House. That meeting may have been the first time other White House officials, including Karl Rove, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and other unknown administration officials learned that Valerie Plame was Wilson’s wife and that she worked at the CIA in a covert capacity.
All of the sources interviewed separately for this story said they were told that Karl Rove was the person who first suggested using the media to "turn the tables on Wilson." The officials wouldn’t identify the person who told them this. The decision, however, was made during a meeting that took place between the White House Iraq Group.
"There was a discussion about what to do about Mr. Wilson," the current State Department official said. "There was a decision to leak a story to the press – I think a few journalists – about the Wilson trip, that it was a non-issue because his wife set it up for him. They were going to show that Wilson and his wife were Democrats. Can you imagine? They were going to say ‘don’t listen to them, they’re partisan.’ It was a coordinated effort to turn him into the story. Much to my surprise, it worked."
One of the officials interviewed for this story was also cited in a September 28, 2003, Washington Post story about the motivation to leak Wilson’s wife’s identity to the media. "Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the State Department official told the Post. The Post did not name the official.
Lawyers close to the leak case said Fitzgerald seems to be pursuing conspiracy charges against some of the higher-profile suspects in the leak, such as Rove.
Robert Luskin, Rove’s attorney, did not return numerous messages left at Patton Boggs, the law offices where he works in Washington, DC.
The State Department officials said they were asked by Fitzgerald how important they thought the Niger uranium claims were in making a case for war. He also asked them why they doubted the authenticity of the Niger documents, why the reports appeared to be dubious, if they knew how Wilson was picked to investigate it, whether they heard about his verbal report upon his return, how and why the INR memo was prepared, and whether it was done in response to Wilson’s claims about the Niger intelligence or so officials could find out how Wilson was chosen for the trip, and why any reference to his wife was made in the memo.
Ironically, a day after Wilson’s July 6, 2003, op-ed titled "What I didn’t Find in Niger" was published in the New York Times, Hadley accepted responsibility for allowing the infamous "16 words" to be included in Bush’s State of the Union address. Hadley was sent two separate letters from the CIA, warning him not to allow Bush to cite the Niger uranium claim in his State of the Union address. Hadley said he forgot about the letters.
Exactly one week later, Valerie Plame Wilson’s cover was blown in a column written by conservative journalist Robert Novak.
JASON LEOPOLD is the author of the explosive NEWS JUNKIE, to be published in April on Process/Feral House books.