I wrote about it all at the time. I also was caught up in the leak investigation into the disclosure of Plame’s identity and the perjury trial of Cheney’s then-chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, where I testified that he was not the one who told me of her CIA employment.
In his book, Cheney wrote he began reading newspaper stories in late spring 2003 about an unnamed former U.S. ambassador who went to Africa in 2002 for the CIA to check on whether Iraq was buying, or trying to buy, uranium for its nuclear weapons program. The ambassador had returned, said the story was not true and thus appeared to contradict Bush’s speech when he said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
One of the stories Cheney read — but did not note in the book — was a May 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed column by Nicholas Kristof, which said, “The vice president’s office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger.” Kristof had learned in a background conversation with Wilson days earlier that the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to follow up on questions posed by Cheney at a morning briefing. Wilson, who interviewed present and former Niger officials, said he reported back that the uranium story was not true.
The other published story was one I wrote more than a month later. It appeared on the front page of the June 12, 2003, Washington Post. Headlined “CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data,” it noted that Cheney’s office was not told the CIA dispatched the ambassador (Wilson) to Niger and that no specific reports on his findings reached Cheney.
I wrote the article after talking not only to Wilson but also to Libby and to officials at the White House and the State Department. I also spoke to senior CIA officials, who later acknowledged they were unaware of Wilson’s mission when I first called. It had been sponsored by an office within the agency’s clandestine Directorate of Operations.
No one I interviewed made any mention of Wilson’s wife, or where she worked, or her having any involvement in sending him to Niger in 2002.
In his book, Cheney gives his view of the origins of Wilson’s trip. He wrote that in early 2002 he read a Defense Intelligence Agency report that Saddam Hussein was “possibly” trying to buy uranium from Niger. He asked his CIA briefer for more information. A Feb. 13, 2002, CIA internal memo from Cheney’s briefer, which is not in the book, said the vice president “had been shown an assessment (he thought from DIA) that Iraq is purchasing uranium from Africa. He would like our assessment of that transaction and its implications for Iraq’s nuclear program.”
Cheney also writes of his recollection of receiving a CIA memo “around Valentine’s Day” — actually it was Feb. 14, the day after he raised the question — that said Iraq already had stockpiles of uranium, previously acquired from Niger, but that they were sealed in containers inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. He noted that the CIA was “seeking to clarify and confirm the reporting on recent efforts by Iraq to acquire Niger uranium.”
Cheney didn’t mention that the CIA memo also noted, in a then-classified section, that the sales allegation“comes exclusively from a foreign government service report that lacks crucial details.”
He writes that it was a year later, in early June 2003 and a month after Kristof’s column, that he learned from then-CIA Director George J. Tenet that Plame was Wilson’s wife and that she “worked in the unit that sent him” to Niger. Tenet has never been able to recall this conversation. But documents released as exhibits in Libby’s perjury trial showed in the June 10-11, 2003, period that Cheney’s staff was responding to my questions about the Wilson trip. During one of three phone calls in that period, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow disclosed to Cathy Martin, Cheney’s communications director, that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.
On the broader point of the 16 words in Bush’s State of the Union speech, Cheney’s book discusses discusses the internal White House debate after Wilson’s July 6, 2003, public statements over whether an apology should be made for including the British report that Hussein had been seeking uranium from Africa. Over Cheney’s objection, the apology was eventually made by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Cheney writes that a later British inquiry into their statement declared their claim was “well founded.” The British inquiry concluded that it had different sources reporting that “Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999” where there were indications “this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium.”
Left out of Cheney’s book is a CIA document — relevant to the 16 words — that was sent to his office in June 2003 but made public at Libby’s trial. It summarized previous reports, including one dated March 2002, that disclosed the information on the 1999 delegation came from a former Niger official who said only that he “believed Iraq was interested in discussing yellowcake [uranium].” But a later CIA report, dated Sept. 24, 2002, referred directly to the British information that was subsequently used in Bush’s speech. At that point, the CIA questioned the credibility of the British sources and said it had recommended the British withhold their report.
In 2004, Charles Duelfer, in his final report of the Iraq Survey Group which studied Hussein’s nuclear program after the U.S. invasion, said, “ISG has uncovered no information to support allegations of Iraqi pursuit of uranium from abroad in the post-Operation Desert Storm era,” meaning after 1991.
Perhaps Cheney has not read Duelfer’s report.