Well, we've all been having a lot of fun talking about the INR memo on Plame. But I'm beginning to suspect--strongly--that it's one giant red herring, or at least only one of several central clues to this investigation. There are some concrete reasons to suspect it's not the only crucial document in this investigation. The memo doesn't mention Plame as Plame (leaving open the question of who directed Novak to use Plame instead of Wilson). From the AP yesterday, we learned the INR memo supported Wilson's take on the Niger documents, which seems unlikely to be the source of Novak's column given how negative Novak's column was. And there seem to be an overabundence of leaks about the document, which makes me wonder if someone isn't trying to distract attention away from something else.
But the real reason I think the INR memo is not the key piece of evidence here is that Novak revealed other classified information in his original column, information that may not have been in the INR memo--but may have been in a different report on Wilson's trip.
Consider that, in the SSCI report, the name of the foreign country that supplied the initial Niger-Iraq intelligence is treated as classified. For example, the paragraph describing the intelligence that spurred Cheney to ask for more information reads:
Reporting on the uranium transaction did not surface again until Februrary 5, 2002 when the CIA's DO issued a second intelligence report _________ which again cited the source as a "[foreign] government service." Although not identified in the report, this source was also from the foreign service. The second report provided more details about the previously reported Iraq-Niger uranium agreement and provided what awas said to be "verbatim text" of the accord. (37)
Rather than naming which country's intelligence service sent the report, the SSCI consistently says, "foreign government service report." Even in many of the citations from intelligence community documents, the foreign country is not named (which says the intelligence community wasn't even referring to the document in some classified communications). And later, when discussing the differences between Wilson's testimony and that of the CIA reports officer, the SSCI report blacks out the name of the country.
Third, the former ambassador noted that his CIA contacts told him there were documents pertaining to the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction and that the source of the information was the ______ intelligence service. (44)
We know, however, that Dick Cheney learned which country this was (and this is the briefing that got him all excited about Niger in the first place).
The CIA sent a separate version of the assessment to the Vice President which differed only in that it named the foreign government service __________. (39)
From the way the SSCI treats the name of the country, it's clear that it is still considered classified. People have sometimes assumed that the country was England, but we're never supposed to have learned it definitively.
But right there, in the middle of Novak's Plame column, he says,
Wilson's mission was created after an early 2002 report by the Italian intelligence service about attempted uranium purchases from Niger, derived from forged documents prepared by what the CIA calls a "con man."
In 2003, Novak revealed information that the Intelligence Community still treats as classified.
So why do I think this may have come from something besides the INR report (or at least that it suggests Novak had learned the contents of more than the INR report)?
Well, to begin with, we know from Novak that the Bush Administration was trying to gain permission to declassify a memo that described Wilson's trip. But that wasn't the INR memo. Rather, it was a CIA summary relating to Wilson's trip. From Novak again:
The story, actually, is whether the administration deliberately ignored Wilson's advice, and that requires scrutinizing the CIA summary of what their envoy reported. The Agency never before has declassified that kind of information, but the White House would like it to do just that now.
We know that Rove mentioned declassifying something to Cooper as well--presumably this was the same CIA summary.
The reason I think Fitzgerald is keying on this summary or another document in addition to the famous INR memo is because Fitzgerald subpoenaed a press briefing Ari gave while on the trip to Africa, which had been removed from the White House website.
That subpoena also sought a complete transcript of a July 12 press "gaggle," or informal briefing, by then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer while at the National Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria.
That transcript is missing from the White House Web site containing transcripts of other press briefings. In a transcript the White House released at the time to Federal News Service, Fleischer discusses Wilson and his CIA report.
So we know that Fitzgerald examined the press briefings from the Africa trip closely. John Aravosis asked a question about (and provided a link for) a different press briefing, from July 9, that has also been removed from the White House site. From that briefing:
Q: Ambassador Wilson said he made a case months before that there was no basis to the belief --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he reported that Niger denied the allegation. That's what Ambassador Wilson reported.
Q: Was that report weighed against other --
MR. FLEISCHER: And of course they would deny the allegation. That doesn't make it untrue. It was only later -- you can ask Ambassador Wilson if he reported that the yellow cake documents were forged. He did not. His report did not address whether the documents were forged or not. His report stated that Niger denied the accusation. He spent eight days in Niger and concluded that Niger denied the allegation. Well, typically, nations don't admit to going around nuclear nonproliferation.
Q: But he said there was a basis to believe their denials.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's different from what he reported. The issue here is whether the documents on yellow cake were forged. He didn't address that issue. That's the information that subsequently came to light, not prior to the speech.
Ari makes it pretty clear he knows exactly what Wilson reported to the CIA. Particularly given Novak's comment that BushCo wanted to declassify the CIA summary of Wilson's trip, I think it highly likely that Ari not only had the INR memo in his grubby little paws on Air Force One, but he also had the CIA summary. White House staffers were not just looking at the INR document, they were also looking at other documents.
But there's one major problem with this theory. We know from the SSCI that the CIA intelligence report didn't mention Plame by name either.
The report did not identify the former ambassador by name or as a former ambassador, but described him as "a contact with excellent access who does not have an established reporting record."
So it's not possible that this CIA report by itself would have outed Plame (but then of course, the INR report didn't do that fully either--it only revealed her relationship with Wilson, not that she was covert under the name Plame).
It appears, then, that the source of Novak's leak was relying on more than one document. That whatever discussions were going on on Air Force One referred to more than the INR memo. And probably, given Novak's use of the name Plame, there is at least one more document out there that refers to Wilson's wife by her covert name.
Novak says one more thing in his original column that may shed some light on this:
Even after a belated admission of error last Monday, finger-pointing between Bush administration agencies continued. Messages between Washington and the presidential entourage traveling in Africa hashed over the mission to Niger.
This doesn't tell us anything that we're not already seeing in coverage--Administration officials were communicating back and forth during the flight on Air Force One. But it does suggest the content of those communications: accusations between different agencies about who should have known about Wilson. Now we know that Armitage had gotten State's best summary of Niger intelligence for Powell in anticipation of this trip.
Armitage called Ford after Wilson's op-ed piece in The New York Times and his TV appearance on July 6, 2003 in which he challenged the White House's claim that Iraq had purchased uranium yellowcake from Niger.
Armitage asked that Powell, who was traveling to Africa with Bush, be given an account of the Wilson trip, said the former official.
I have got to assume the heads of other agencies were doing exactly what Powell had done, get a summary of what their agency knew and did about Wilson's trip. Presumably, Tenet did so, which explains why Ari would have seen the CIA summary of Wilson's trip. Probably, Cheney, Condi, and Rummy did so too. I suspect there were a whole bunch of documents flying around on Air Force One that week, with each principal giving his or her version of what was known.
The thing is, we don't know what kind of documents OVP, NSA, OSP would have had related to Wilson's trip--or even the Niger story. Little appears in the SSCI report that directly reports communication within the OVP, NSA, or OSP on the Niger story--most of what appears is discussion about speeches the NSC was trying to get cleared. But look at how such language appears:
In a response to questions from Committee staff, the White House said that on September 24, 2002, NSC staff contacted the CIA to clear another statement for use by the President. The statement said, "we also have intelligence that Iraq has sought large amounts of uranium and uranium oxide, known as yellowcake, from Africa. (51)
Note the language. The report doesn't seem to be reporting the statement directly. Rather, it seems to be reporting what the White House said was in the document. In other words, the White House didn't hand over the documents.
I'm not sure if that's correct--that the White House didn't release some of its documentation related to Niger. But I do know they were refusing to do so in 2003, during the SSCI investigation (and during the period, I suggest, when the White House was most aggressively stonewalling the Plame investigation). From an October 26, 2003 Meet the Press transcript:
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: My sense of it is that on the Intelligence Committee, we’re going through some of the same problems. A lot of the documents that we’ve requested from the Department of Defense, from the White House and the National Security Agency, we do not yet have.
MR. RUSSERT: Why?
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: I don’t know why, but we’re going to get them one way or another.
I'm not sure whether the White House ever handed over those documents (I'm trying to find that out.) But they certainly don't appear in the SSCI report.
It may very well be that Novak found out about the source of the Niger documents from the INR memo. But he seems to have had reports from more than that document, including at least the CIA summary of the trip. And given the fact that there's one piece of information that doesn't appear in either the CIA report or the INR report--the name Plame--there's a really good chance there's something more out there. Something, incidentally, that the White House may have held back from the SSCI.