Correction to This Article
An Oct. 30 article about the disclosure that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative gave an incorrect date for a burglary at Niger's embassy in Rome, when official letterhead stationery was stolen. The burglary occurred in 2001, not 1991. In some editions, the article gave conflicting dates for Vice President Cheney's trip to Norfolk. It was July 12, 2003, not June 12. Also, a reference to the vice president's principal deputy chief of staff should have identified him as Eric Edelman, not John Hannah.
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A Leak, Then a Deluge

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The threat Wilson posed was that his charges were equally simple and marketable. He charged that Cheney asked a question and then disregarded, as did the president and his staff, an answer he did not like.

Why some White House officials -- Rove among them -- used Wilson's wife in their counterattack has yet to be made entirely clear. Wilson himself described the outing as punishment, a threat to his family's safety meant to deter future whistle-blowers. Fragments of testimony unveiled Friday, and in published accounts by journalists who testified, suggest that the White House intended to challenge Wilson's competence by asserting that his wife selected him for the mission to Niger.

Novak, whose July 14 column was the first to expose Plame, wrote three months later that nepotism provided "the missing explanation of an otherwise incredible choice by the CIA."

Burglary, Forgery, Delivery

The chain of events that led to Friday's indictment can be traced as far back as 1991, when an unremarkable burglary took place at the embassy of Niger in Rome. All that turned up missing was a quantity of official letterhead with "Republique du Niger" at its top.

More than 10 years later, according to a retired high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, a businessman named Rocco Martino approached the CIA station chief in Rome. An occasional informant for U.S., British, French and Italian intelligence services, Martino brought documents on Niger government letterhead describing secret plans for the sale of uranium to Iraq.

The station chief "saw they were fakes and threw [Martino] out," the former CIA official said. But Italy shared a similar report with the Americans in October 2001, he said, and the CIA gave it circulation because it did not know the Italians relied on the same source.

On Feb. 12, 2002, Cheney received an expanded version of the unconfirmed Italian report. It said Iraq's then-ambassador to the Vatican had led a mission to Niger in 1999 and sealed a deal for the purchase of 500 tons of uranium in July 2000. Cheney asked for more information.

The same day, Plame wrote to her superior in the CIA's Counterproliferation Division that "my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." Wilson -- who had undertaken a similar mission three years before -- soon departed for Niamey, the Niger capital. He said he found no support for the uranium report and said so when he returned.

Martino continued to peddle his documents, with an asking price of more than 10,000 euros -- this time to Panorama, an Italian magazine owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Panorama editor Carlo Rossella said his staff concluded the letters were bogus but in the interim sent copies to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October 2002. "I believed the Americans were the best source for verifying authenticity," he said. When the documents reached the State Department, according to a commission that investigated prewar intelligence this year, analysts there said they had "serious doubts about the authenticity" of the "transparently forged" documents.

By summer 2002, the White House Iraq Group assigned Communications Director James R. Wilkinson to prepare a white paper for public release, describing the "grave and gathering danger" of Iraq's allegedly "reconstituted" nuclear weapons program. Wilkinson gave prominent place to the claim that Iraq "sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa." That claim, along with repeated use of the "mushroom cloud" image by top officials beginning in September, became the emotional heart of the case against Iraq.

President Bush invoked the mushroom cloud in an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati. References to African uranium remained in his speech until its fifth draft, but a last-minute intervention by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet excised them.

Tenet's success was short-lived. The uranium returned repeatedly to Bush administration rhetoric in December and January. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice cited the report in a Jan. 23 newspaper column, and three days later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell demanded, "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for a nuclear weapon?"


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