The origin of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's trip to Niger in 2002 to check out intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase uranium has become a contentious side issue to the inquiry by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is looking into whether a crime was committed with the exposure of Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife, as a covert CIA employee.
After he went public in 2003 about the trip, senior Bush administration officials, trying to discredit Wilson's findings, told reporters that Wilson's wife, who worked at the CIA, was the one who suggested the Niger mission for her husband. Days later, Plame was named as an "agency operative" by syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who has said he did not realize he was, in effect, exposing a covert officer. A Senate committee report would later say evidence indicated Plame suggested Wilson for the trip.
Over the past months, however, the CIA has maintained that Wilson was chosen for the trip by senior officials in the Directorate of Operations counterproliferation division (CPD) -- not by his wife -- largely because he had handled a similar agency inquiry in Niger in 1999. On that trip, Plame, who worked in that division, had suggested him because he was planning to go there, according to Wilson and the Senate committee report.
The 2002 mission grew out of a request by Vice President Cheney on Feb. 12 for more information about a Defense Intelligence Agency report he had received that day, according to a 2004 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. An aide to Cheney would later say he did not realize at the time that this request would generate such a trip.
Wilson maintains that his wife was asked that day by one of her bosses to write a memo about his credentials for the mission -- after they had selected him. That memo apparently was included in a cable to officials in Africa seeking concurrence with the choice of Wilson, the Senate report said.
Valerie Wilson's other role, according to intelligence officials, was to tell Wilson he had been selected, and then to introduce him at a meeting at the CIA on Feb. 19, 2002, in which analysts from different agencies discussed the Niger trip. She told the Senate committee she left the session after her introduction.
Senior Bush administration officials told a different story about the trip's origin in the days between July 8 and July 12, 2003. They said that Wilson's wife was working at the CIA dealing with weapons of mass destruction and that she suggested him for the Niger trip, according to three reporters.
The Bush officials passing on this version were apparently attempting to undercut the credibility of Wilson, who on Sunday, July 6, 2003, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" and in The Washington Post and the New York Times that he had checked out the allegation in Niger and found it to be wrong. He criticized President Bush for misrepresenting the facts in his January 2003 State of the Union address when he said Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Africa.
Time magazine's Matthew Cooper has written that he was told by Karl Rove on July 11 "don't get too far out on Wilson" because information was going to be declassified soon that would cast doubt on Wilson's mission and findings. Cooper also wrote that Rove told him that Wilson's wife worked for the agency on weapons of mass destruction and that "she was responsible for sending Wilson."
This Washington Post reporter spoke the next day to an administration official, who talked on the condition of anonymity, and was told in substance "that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction," as reported in an Oct. 14 article.
Novak had been told earlier in the week about Wilson's wife. He has written that he asked a senior administration official why Wilson, who had held a National Security Council staff position in the Clinton administration, had been given that assignment. The response, Novak wrote, was that "Wilson had been sent by the CIA's counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife." Novak then called another Bush official for confirmation and got the response "Oh, you know about it." Novak said he called the CIA on July 10, 2003, to get the agency's version. The then-CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, told the columnist that the story he had gotten about Wilson's wife's role was not correct. Novak has written that Harlow said the CPD officials selected Wilson but that she "was delegated to request his help."
Harlow has said that he told Novak that if he wrote about the trip, he should not mention Wilson's wife's name. Novak, who published her maiden name -- Valerie Plame -- has written that Harlow's request was "meaningless" because "once it was determined that Wilson's wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as 'Valerie Plame' by reading her husband's entry in 'Who's Who in America.' "
In the July 14, 2003, column, Novak wrote that Plame was an "agency operative" and that "two senior administration officials" told him that she "suggested sending him to Niger." He also wrote that "CIA officials did not regard Wilson's intelligence as definitive" because they would expect the Niger officials to deny the allegation. Although Novak cited the two officials' version of events, he also included the CIA's opposing view: that "its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."
Two other sources appear to support the view that Wilson's wife suggested her husband's trip. One is a June 2003 memo by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The other, which depends in good part on the INR document, is a statement of the views of Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and two other Republican members. That statement was attached to the full committee report on its 2004 inquiry into the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The INR document's reference to the Wilson trip is contained in two sentences in a three-page memo on why the State Department disagreed with the idea that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa -- a view that would ultimately be endorsed after the Iraq invasion by the U.S. weapons hunter David Kay. The notes supporting those two sentences in the INR document say that the Feb. 19, 2002, meeting at the CIA was "apparently convened by [the former ambassador's] wife who had the idea to dispatch [him] to use his contacts to sort out the Iraq-Niger uranium issue," according to the Senate intelligence committee report. But one Senate Democratic staff member said, "That was speculation, that was not true."
The full Senate committee report says that CPD officials "could not recall how the office decided to contact" Wilson but that "interviews and documents indicate his wife suggested his name for the trip." The three Republican senators wrote that they were more certain: "The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador's wife, a CIA employee."