By David Ignatius
Friday, February 2, 2007
Why was the White House so nervous in the summer of 2003 about the CIA's reporting on alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger to build a nuclear bomb? That's the big question that runs through the many little details that have emerged in the perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's former top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
The trial record suggests a simple answer: The White House was worried that the CIA would reveal that it had been pressured in 2002 and early 2003 to support administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and that in the Niger case, the CIA had tried hard to resist this pressure. The machinations of Cheney, Libby and others were an attempt to weave an alternative narrative that blamed the CIA.
The truth began to emerge on July 11, 2003, when CIA Director George Tenet issued a public statement disclosing that the agency had tried to warn the White House off the Niger allegations. In that sense, the Libby trial is about a cover-up that failed.
What helped start the whole brouhaha was a 2003 op-ed article by former ambassador Joseph Wilson, disclosing that his fact-finding trip to Niger the previous year had yielded no evidence of Iraqi uranium purchases. His piece opened with a devastating question: "Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?" A frantic White House tried to rebut Wilson's criticism by leaking the fact that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA and had suggested sending him to Niger -- as if the CIA connection somehow contaminated Wilson's allegations and made the White House less culpable.
The record begins with a Feb. 13, 2002, memo from a CIA briefer who had been "tasked" by Cheney on the uranium issue: "The VP was 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." The CIA briefer responded the next day with a comment that should have aroused skepticism on whether Iraq needed to buy any more uranium: Iraq already had 550 tons of "yellowcake" ore -- 200 tons of it from Niger. But the CIA, eager to please, asked Wilson a few days later to go to Niger to investigate the claim.
A glimpse of the pressure coming from the vice president's office emerges from a memo from CIA briefer Craig R. Schmall, after he was interviewed in January 2004 by FBI agents investigating the leak of Plame's covert identity: "I mentioned also to the agents that Libby was in charge within the administration (or at least the White House side) for producing papers arguing the case for Iraqi WMD and ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, which explains Libby's and the Vice President's interest in the Iraq/Niger/Uranium case."
CIA and State Department documents show that analysts at both agencies became increasingly skeptical about the Niger allegation and tried to warn the White House. A memo from Schmall to Eric Edelman, then Cheney's national security adviser, recalled: "CIA on several occasions has cautioned . . . that available information on this issue was fragmentary and unconfirmed." A memo from Carl W. Ford Jr., then head of the State Department's intelligence bureau, noted that his analysts had found the Niger claims "highly dubious."
The Niger issue wasn't included in Secretary of State Colin Powell's famous U.N. speech on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, according to Ford, "due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement." But despite CIA warnings, Bush referred to uranium purchases from Africa in his January 2003 State of the Union address, attributing it to British sources.
So we begin to understand why the White House was worried about the CIA in the summer of 2003: It feared the agency would breach the wall of silence about the claims regarding weapons of mass destruction. Robert Grenier, a CIA official who was the agency's Iraq mission manager, told colleagues that he remembered "a series of insistent phone calls" that month from Libby, who wanted the CIA to tell reporters that "other community elements such as State and DOD" had encouraged Wilson's Niger trip, not just Cheney.
The bottom line? Grenier was asked in court last week to explain the White House's 2003 machinations. Here's what he said: "I think they were trying to avoid blame for not providing [the truth] about whether or not Iraq had attempted to buy uranium." Let me say it again: This trial is about a cover-up that failed.
The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.