A photo caption with a July 17 article, on a picture of Valerie Plame and Joseph C. Wilson IV, incorrectly said that the photo was taken for Vanity Fair magazine. The photo, by Carol Joynt, was taken for Joynt's Web site, www.nathansgeorgetown.com.
In Plame Leaks, Long Shadows
Sunday, July 17, 2005
Karl Rove had a secret.
In public, he was masterminding President Bush's reelection and brushing off suggestions he had played any part in an unfolding drama: the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame. In private, the senior White House adviser was meeting, on five occasions, with federal prosecutors to tell what he knew about the matter.
The story he would tell prosecutors did not seem to square with the White House's denial that it had played any role in one of the most famous leaks since Watergate. Rove told prosecutors he had discussed Plame in passing with at least two reporters, including the columnist who eventually revealed her name and role in a secret mission that would raise questions about Bush's case for war against Iraq. At the same time, other White House officials were whispering about Plame, too.
It is now clear: There has been an element of pretense to the White House strategy of dealing with the Plame case since the earliest days of the saga. Revelations emerging slowly at first, and in a rapid cascade over the past several days, have made plain that many important pieces of the puzzle were not so mysterious to Rove and others inside the Bush administration. White House officials were aware of Plame and her husband's potentially damaging charge that Bush was "twisting" intelligence about Iraq's nuclear ambitions well before the episode evolved into Washington's latest scandal.
But as the story hurtles toward a conclusion sometime this year, there are several elements that remain uncertain. The most important -- did anyone commit a crime?
This article, based on interviews with lawyers and officials involved in the case, is an effort to step back from the rapidly unfolding events of recent weeks and clarify what is known about the Plame affair and what key factors are still obscure. Those people declined to be identified by name because special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has asked that closed-door proceedings not be discussed.
It all started in the early days of 2002 with Joseph C. Wilson IV, a flamboyant ex-diplomat who had left government for a more lucrative life of business consulting. Wilson was a veteran of the diplomatic wars of Iraq and Africa, so it seemed logical to some in the CIA, including his wife, Plame, to send him on a secret mission to Niger. Wilson's task was to determine if Iraqis had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Africa to build nuclear weapons.
To a Bush administration intent on selling the American public on war based on the threat posed by Iraq's weapons program, the yellowcake was no small deal. The White House would soon cite it as evidence that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear weapons.
Wilson spent a week in Niger chatting with locals about the allegation, coming to the conclusion that the yellowcake charges were probably unfounded. He reported his findings to the agency -- but they never made their way to the White House.
The story might have ended there, but Bush, Vice President Cheney and other officials decided to make the yellowcake charges a central piece of the administration's evidence in arguing Hussein had designs on a dangerous program of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs. On the march to war, Bush officials rebuffed concerns from some at the CIA and included in his January 2003 State of the Union the now-famous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Wilson was floored, then furious.
Wilson set out to discredit the charge, working largely through back channels at first to debunk it. He called friends inside the government and the media, and told the New York Times's Nicholas D. Kristof of his findings in Niger. Kristof aired them publicly for the first time in his May 6, 2003, column but did not name Wilson. This caught the attention of officials inside Cheney's office, as well as others involved in war planning, according to people who had talked with them.
The White House, hailing the lightning-quick toppling of Hussein, suddenly found itself on the defensive at home over its WMD claims. It was not just Wilson, but Democrats, reporters and a few former officials who were publicly wondering if Bush had led the nation to war based on flimsy, if not outright false, intelligence.