Monday, July 19, 2004

Joseph C. Wilson IV’s shattered credibility illustrates much of what is wrong with the CIA, and with “mainstream” journalism.

Mr. Wilson’s 15 minutes of fame began July 6, 2003, when he accused President of Bush of twisting the truth when he said in his State of the Union address that January: “The British government has learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa.”

Mr. Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon, said he knew this wasn’t true because in February, 2002, the CIA sent him to Niger to determine whether that African country had sold “yellowcake” (lightly enriched uranium ore) to Iraq. After spending eight days “drinking sweet mint tea and talking with dozens of people,” he concluded Niger had not done so.

Mr. Wilson’s fame soared when columnist Robert Novak disclosed a Bush administration official told him Mr. Wilson had been selected for the Niger mission at the recommendation of his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame. He was a frequent guest on television news shows; the subject of a fawning profile in Vanity Fair magazine; awarded a lucrative book deal, and made an (unpaid) foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry.

On July 9, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued its report on the CIA’s prewar intelligence on Iraq. The SSCI concluded:

• Mr. Wilson lied when he denied his wife had got him the Niger assignment. “Interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife … suggested his name for the trip.”

• Mr. Wilson lied when he said his report “debunked” Mr. Bush’s charge that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa. “For most analysts, the information in [Mr. Wilson’s] report lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal.”

• Mr. Wilson lied when he told The Washington Post he knew the Niger intelligence had been based on forged documents. The CIA didn’t obtain the document alleged to be a forgery until eight months after Mr. Wilson’s return from Niger. “Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that ‘the dates were wrong and the names were wrong’ when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports.”

On July 14, the Butler Commission issued its report on Britain’s prewar intelligence. It concluded there was ample evidence Saddam tried to buy uranium from Niger and other African countries, and that Mr. Bush’s statement to that effect in his State of the Union address was “well founded.”

Mr. Wilson’s charges against President Bush last year were big news. But the fact government investigations in two countries have concluded Mr. Wilson lied apparently isn’t news at all.

NBC had Mr. Wilson on its “Meet the Press” and “Today” programs a half-dozen times when he was accusing Mr. Bush of lying. But as of this writing, no stories at all since the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Blair Commission have issued their reports. Same for ABC and CBS, according to the Media Research Center.

Mr. Wilson graced the cover of Time magazine’s Oct. 13, 2003, issue, but Time managed to write a story on the Senate Intelligence Committee report without ever mentioning how it savaged Mr. Wilson’s credibility.

The Senate panel criticized the CIA’s sloppy work in investigating the Saddam/Africa/uranium connection. All its information came from foreign intelligence services. Aside from Mr. Wilson’s tea-drinking expedition, the CIA itself made little effort to gather information on this potentially critical topic. When the Navy received a report from an African businessman that uranium from Niger was stored in a warehouse in Cotineau, Benin, the CIA didn’t bother to check it out.

Some in the CIA may have been more interested in dismissing reports of an Iraq/Niger connection than in finding out if they were true. Valerie Plame told Senate investigators she told her husband “there’s this crazy report” on a purported deal for Niger to sell uranium to Iraq.

If we’re to win the war on terror, we need a CIA more interested in finding out what is going on than in reinforcing the prejudices of some analysts, and a news media more interested in finding the facts than in shilling for the Democratic Party.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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