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A 'Concerted Effort' to Discredit Bush Critic

Vice President Cheney
Vice President Cheney "specifically directed" his then-top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, far right, to tell reporters about a 2002 report that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, according to prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)

Iraq's alleged uranium shopping had been strongly disputed in the intelligence community from the start. In a closed Senate hearing in late September 2002, shortly before the October NIE was completed, then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet and his top weapons analyst, Robert Walpole, expressed strong doubts about the uranium story, which had recently been unveiled publicly by the British government. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, likewise, called the claim "highly dubious." For those reasons, the uranium story was relegated to a brief inside passage in the October estimate.

But the White House Iraq Group, formed in August 2002 to foster "public education" about Iraq's "grave and gathering danger" to the United States, repeatedly pitched the uranium story. The alleged procurement was a minor issue for most U.S. analysts -- the hard part for Iraq would be enriching uranium, not obtaining the ore, and Niger's controlled market made it an unlikely seller -- but the Niger story proved irresistible to speechwriters. Most nuclear arguments were highly technical, but the public could easily grasp the link between uranium and a bomb.

Tenet interceded to keep the claim out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, but by Dec. 19 it reappeared in a State Department "fact sheet." After that, the Pentagon asked for an authoritative judgment from the National Intelligence Council, the senior coordinating body for the 15 agencies that then constituted the U.S. intelligence community. Did Iraq and Niger discuss a uranium sale, or not? If they had, the Pentagon would need to reconsider its ties with Niger.

The council's reply, drafted in a January 2003 memo by the national intelligence officer for Africa, was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq.

Bush put his prestige behind the uranium story in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address. Less than two months later, the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the principal U.S. evidence as bogus. A Bush-appointed commission later concluded that the evidence, a set of contracts and correspondence sold by an Italian informant, was "transparently forged."

On the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction was producing no results, and as the bad news converged on the White House -- weeks after a banner behind Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln -- Wilson emerged as a key critic. He focused his ire on Cheney, who had made the administration's earliest and strongest claims about Iraq's alleged nuclear program.

Fitzgerald wrote that Cheney and his aides saw Wilson as a threat to "the credibility of the Vice President (and the President) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq." They decided to respond by implying that Wilson got his CIA assignment by "nepotism."

They were not alone. Fitzgerald reported for the first time this week that "multiple officials in the White House"-- not only Libby and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who have previously been identified -- discussed Plame's CIA employment with reporters before and after publication of her name on July 14, 2003, in a column by Robert D. Novak. Fitzgerald said the grand jury has collected so much testimony and so many documents that "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson."

At the same time, top officials such as then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley were pressing the CIA to declassify more documents in hopes of defending the president's use of the uranium claim in his State of the Union speech. It was a losing battle. A "senior Bush administration official," speaking on the condition of anonymity as the president departed for Africa on July 7, 2003, told The Post that "the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech." The comment appeared on the front page of the July 8 paper, the same morning that Libby met Miller at the St. Regis hotel.

Libby was still defending the uranium claim as the administration's internal battle burst into the open. White House officials tried to blame Tenet for the debacle, but Tenet made public his intervention to keep uranium out of Bush's speech a few months earlier. Hadley then acknowledged that he had known of Tenet's objections but forgot them as the State of the Union approached.

Hoping to lay the controversy to rest, Hadley claimed responsibility for the Niger remarks.

In a speech two days later, at the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney defended the war by saying that no responsible leader could ignore the evidence in the NIE. Before a roomful of conservative policymakers, Cheney listed four of the "key judgments" on Iraq's alleged weapons capabilities but made no mention of Niger or uranium.

On July 30, 2003, two senior intelligence officials said in an interview that Niger was never an important part of the CIA's analysis, and that the language of Iraq's vigorous pursuit of uranium came verbatim from a Defense Intelligence Agency report that had caught the vice president's attention. The same day, the CIA referred the Plame leak to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, the fateful step that would eventually lead to Libby's indictment.

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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