We've been thinking for over two years that the Plame Affair is about the outing of a CIA NOC, Valerie Plame Wilson. With Judy Miller's acknowledgement that she met with Libby in June 2003 to talk about Wilson, the most important details become how and when the White House learned of Joe Wilson's identity and what they did with it. The outing of Wilson, not Plame. If this thing will be traced back to Cheney, as rumors suggest, it will be through the way he outed Joe Wilson.
Let's start with the story the Bush Administration would have us believe.They acknowledge Dick Cheney asked CIA for more information on Niger, a request we know led to Wilson's trip to Niger. But they say they never learned of the results of his trip. On June 8 2003, Condi told Tim Russert no one had known about Wilson's (and other) investigations into Niger. "Maybe somebody in the bowels of the Agency knew something about this, but nobody in my circles." A month later, Condi would say that taht Russert question was the first she had heard of Wilson's trip.
[DR.RICE} But I will tell you that, for instance, on Ambassador Wilson's going out to Niger, I learned of that when I was sitting on whatever TV show it was, because that mission was not known to anybody in the White House. And you should ask the Agency at what level it was known in the Agency.
Q When was that TV show, when you learned about it?
DR. RICE: A month ago, about a month ago.
Then after Wilson's op-ed appeared--the story goes--because it was so odd that someone who worked in the Clinton White House would have been sent on this trip, a number of journalists called Rove and Libby to inquire about the backstory to Wilson's trip. Only then did Rove and Libby admit they had heard about Plame's purported involvement in Wilson's trip.
Already, we know this story to be inoperative, since we've got Judy testifying before the grand jury today that she met with Scooter Libby on June 25 2003 about Joe Wilson. We don't know yet whether Judy will say she told Libby or he told Judy about Wilson. But according to Murray Waas, we do know they were talking about Plame, not just Wilson.
a crucial conversation that he had with New York Times reporter Judith Miller in June 2003 about the operative, Valerie Plame, [emphasis original]
The earlier conversation--aside from getting Libby into serious perjury and obstruction jeopardy--negates three aspects of of their operative story:
- It proves they knew that Wilson was the envoy to Niger and that Plame was his wife in June, not July as they had said.
- It shows they were actively working this story with journalists, rather than hearing about it acceidentally as they had said.
- It proves their conversations about Wilson were not simply a response to Wilson's July 6 op-ed, as they had suggested, but were a more active and sustained campaign.
Beyond invalidating the bulk of Rove's and Libby's operative story, however, the June 25 meeting raises the question of when the Bush Administration first paid attention to Wilson and how they found out he was the Ambassador who took the trip to Niger in February 2002.
Wilson, undoubtedly, had made it pretty clear he was the envoy well before his July 6 column. If we suspend disbelief for a second and pretend no one in the Bush Administration had heard of him before Kristof's first column, this is what they would have learned.
I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
They would have known the guy refuting their lies was a former ambassador to Africa. Not a whole lot of those, true, but still, this doesn't name him definitively.
The following month, Kristof's follow-up column provided little more detail.
The agency chose a former ambassador to Africa to undertake the mission, and that person flew to Niamey, Niger, in the last week of February 2002. This envoy spent one week in Niger, staying at the Sofitel and discussing his findings with the U.S. ambassador to Niger, and then flew back to Washington via Paris.
Walter Pincus writes an article at the same time that describes Wilson the same way, "a retired U.S. ambassador." These articles could have at least sparked the Administration to start looking for the reports on the trip. But they don't include any big tip-off such as "a former ambassador once called 'a true American hero' by Poppy Bush for his role in pre-Gulf War Iraq." Not even "former Senior Director for African Affairs in Clinton's NSC" Nothing obvious or anything.
But it wouldn't take too much to put two and two together to guess that the guy running around criticizing the rush to war--who happened to be a former ambassador to Africa--was the same guy who had been sent to Niger. Wilson had spoken publicly about Iraq as far back as May 2002 (on a panel with Richard Perle, as luck would have it). He wrote a column on how best to disarm Saddam for the San Jose Merc News in October 2002--a copy of which Brent Scowcroft personally showed to some people (presumably Condi) in the White House and about which Poppy Bush admitted, in a letter to Wilson, he "agreed with almost everything [Wilson] had written." Wilson appeared in lefty websites and righty TV shows. Thus far, though, Wilson's criticisms were based on his experience dealing with Saddam. They didn't touch on his trip to Niger.
That changed a few days after the State Department claimed they "fell for" the Niger forgeries. On CNN, David Ensor prompted the newscaster to ask about Wilson the claim.
I replied that if the U.S. government checked its files, it would, I believed, discover that it knew more about the case than the spokesman was letting on. I then added that either the spokesman was being disingenuous, or he was ill-informed.(Politics of Truth 326)
This was the first time Wilson had accused the Bush Administration of deliberately ignoring evidence. And it was the first time he said anything that might tip them off he had been the envoy to Niger.
Except that, they now claim they didn't know anything about the envoy to Niger at this time.
Whether or not they knew about Wilson (I'll return to that in a bit), this is, according to Wilson's sources, when the whole attack on Wilson started.
After my appearance on CNN in early March 2003, when I first asserted that the U.S. government knew more about the Niger uranium matter than it was letting on, I am told by a source close to the House Judiciary Committee that the Office of the Vice President -- either the vice president himself or, more likely, his chief of staff, Lewis ("Scooter") Libby -- chaired a meeting at which a decision was made to do a "workup" on me. As I understand it, this meant they were going to take a close look at who I was and what my agenda might be.
And this story comes not just from someone with ties to the House Judiciary Committee. In his book, Wilson describes a similar story coming from "a respected reporter close to the subsequent inquiry into the later disclosure of Valerie's status." (326)
Let me clear. This was in March 2003. Not May, not June, but March. Four months before Valerie Plame was outed by Robert Novak.
It is this four month period, I believe, that Judy's testimony links to the eventual leak (and possibly, links to Cheney). It is this four month period that may yield the kind of exciting story that WSJ and Bloomberg seem to be hunting down.
There are signs that prosecutors now are looking into contacts between administration officials and journalists that took place much earlier than previously thought. Earlier conversations are potentially significant, because that suggests the special prosecutor leading the investigation is exploring whether there was an effort within the administration at an early stage to develop and disseminate confidential information to the press that could undercut former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Central Intelligence Agency official Valerie Plame.
And here's why it matters. March is four months before Wilson wrote his op-ed. It's still three months earlier than it became clear in the news (and to blogger manyoso) that the critic Wilson was the same guy as the envoy who had gone to Niger to investigate. It's still two months before Kristof first publicly revealed there had been an envoy to Niger. So the question becomes, did the Bush Administration learn of Wilson's trip to Niger from news reports. Or did they learn it from some other source.
There are ways they could find out about Wilson's trip to Niger before he revealed it. The SSCI indicates the Bush Adminsitration could not have just gone to the CIA report on the trip to find out who Wilson was.
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." (43)
But Wilson's name does appearin the INR analyst's notes of the Feburary 19 2002 meeting with him.
An INR analyst's notes indicate that the meeting 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. (40; brackets in the SSCI; I assume the original used Wilson's name)
The White House, presumably wouldn't have had these notes, they would have had to go get them. But there's the famous INR memo, originally dated June 10, which definitely referred to Wilson by name. Or, perhaps they asked the people who attended the February 19 2002 meeting, maybe the skeptical WINPAC analyst who seemed to distrust Wilson from the start.
"it appears that the results from this source will be suspect at best and not believable under most scenarios." (SSCI 41)
That guy seems like he was trying to prevent Wilson from being sent. And he certainly seems like the kind of guy who would be happy to foster distrust of Wilson in others.
So it is clear that they could have found out about Wilson and his trip. Either they stumbled upon it, when doing the work-up on Wilson. Or Bolton just happened to notice Wilson's name when he was vetting the INR memo. Both of these scenarios--particularly any ones not involving Bolton--seem like they would have to have gotten awfully lucky while looking for a needle in a haystack. If they didn't know about Wilson's trip, it is incredibly amazing they found details on it (at least before May, when Kristof mentioned the trip), unless Bolton is even more of a hand's-on guy than he's reputed to be.
Which is one reason I don't buy their claim that they had never heard of Wilson or his trip.
There are two more reasons why I don't believe that claim. First, if they hadn't heard of Wilson's trip, then you have to assume they would treat Wilson like any other critic of the Administration. And there were plenty of critics. Consider Rand Beers, a guy who went from the Bush Administration to Kerry's campaign in a matter of days, who openly criticized the war. They attacked Beers as a partisan. But they didn't go so far as to reveal his classified secrets. Which, considering the career he has had, must be legion. Similarly, they don't seem to have outed the identity of any of the critics quoted in a March 22 2003 article questioning the intelligence behind the Iraq war.
"I have seen all the stuff. I certainly have doubts," said a senior administration official with access to the latest intelligence. Based on the material he has reviewed, the official said, the United States will "face significant problems in trying to find" such weapons. "It will be very difficult."
According to several officials, decisions about what information to declassify and use to make the administration's public case have been made by a small group that includes top CIA and National Security Council officials. "The policy guys make decisions about things like this," said one official, referring to the uranium evidence. When the State Department "fact sheet" was issued, the official said, "people winced and thought, 'Why are you repeating this trash?'"
Presumably some of these same sources are the same people intelligence officials who referred to a report from Italy (which doesn't show up in the SSCI) which discredits the Niger documents in September, before they even arrive in the US.
The source of their information, and their doubts, officials said, was a written summary provided more than six months ago by the Italian intelligence service, which first obtained the documents.
But the White House apparently didn't go after these guys. Perhaps they went after Wilson as a warning to all these critics to shut up. But why did they choose Wilson, as opposed to all the others who presumably have secrets they'd like to keep.
There's one more reason to think they knew about Wilson earlier than they've let on. From Kristof's second column:
Officials now claim that the C.I.A. inexplicably did not report back to the White House with this envoy's findings and reasoning, or with an assessment of its own that the information was false. I hear something different. My understanding is that while Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet may not have told Mr. Bush that the Niger documents were forged, lower C.I.A. officials did tell both the vice president's office and National Security Council staff members.
Kristof has at least one source who attests to people in Cheney's office and the NSC learning of Wilson's trip. And why wouldn't they have? Cheney specifically asked about Niger. After he asked a second time, WINPAC sent analysis indicating they were debriefing Wilson (named only as a source) that very same day. (SSCI 43) After Wilson was debriefed, DO alerted WINPAC analysts of the report, because they knew the "high priority of the issue." Clearly, there is a lot of evidence to suggest Cheney did know of Wilson's trip when it happened.
Which would mean Cheney's office either buried evidence they had been briefed on the trip in February 2002. Or they buried that evidence by the time they testified to the SSCI.
This is what I think Fitzgerald may be closing in on. True, he might just have Cheney going after Wilson in response to his Meet the Press statements, and stumbling on the INR memo. That would already require enough of a conspiracy to communicate to John Bolton (or whoever discovered the information on the trip from the INR memo) that they were looking for information on Wilson.
But as news reports indicate Fitzgerald is closing in on Cheney and as more news of Cheney's apparent estrangement from this Administration appears, I think it's bigger than that. I think Fitzgerald may be piecing together evidence that Cheney deliberately ignored the results of Wilson's trip ... and then buried evidence he had done so.
I have no idea whether that means he's also getting close to solving the Niger forgery mystery. But if Cheney knew of Wilson and ignored his intelligence--then lashed out precisely because Wilson could prove that he deliberately ignored intelligence that proved the case for war was fraudulent, it would be damning enough.