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"'WILSON'S WIFE IS FAIR GAME.'" Those are fighting words for any man, and I'd just had them quoted to me by MSNBC'S Chris Matthews. It was July 21, 2003, barely a week since a column by Robert Novak in the Washington Post had named my wife, Valerie, as a CIA officer, and now the host of Hardball was calling to tell me that as far as the White House was concerned, they had declared open season on my family.
In his signature staccato, Matthews was blunt: "I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says, and I quote, 'Wilson's wife is fair game.'" Before abruptly hanging up, Matthews added: "I will confirm that if asked." As head of the White House political office and one of President George W. Bush's closest advisers, Rove was legendary for his right-wing zeal and take-no-prisoners operating style. But what he was doing now was tantamount to declaring war on two U.S. citizens, both of them with years of government service.
Together, my wife and I had been on the media equivalent of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride since the appearance of a piece I had written for the New York Times op-ed page on July 6. In it, I stated that the Bush administration had been informed a year and a half earlier that their claims of Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Niger were false. I knew what information the administration had about Niger because in early March 2002 I had briefed the CIA on the results of a trip I had made for them to that African country. As a former diplomat with years of experience in Africa, I had been asked by the Agency to go to Niger to investigate whether reports of a uranium deal that may have been made with Iraq were credible. I had found nothing to substantiate the rumors. But my report-and two others from American officials had apparently been disregarded, while an unsubstantiated report that first appeared in a British white paper in September 2002 had somehow found its way into the president's State of the Union address delivered on January 28, 2003. Speaking before Congress, the nation, and the world, President Bush had confidently declared: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
But his confidence was misplaced. The documents that formed the basis for that flat assertion were not submitted by the State Department to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until early February 2003, after the president's speech. On March 7, the IAEA went on the record with the verdict that the documents were "not authentic." The next day, the State Department claimed that it had been taken in by the forgeries.
However, while the administration was admitting that the reference in the State of the Union address had been based on now-discredited sources that claimed there had been a Niger-Iraq deal, White House officials also continued to dissemble what they had actually known at the time of the president's speech. In fact, they had chosen to ignore three reports that had been in their files for nearly a year: mine as well as two others-one submitted by the American ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, and the other by four-star Marine Corps General Carleton Fulford, who had also traveled there. Instead, the administration chose to give credence to forgeries so crude that even Panorama, the Italian weekly magazine that first received them, had declined to publish. The administration had ample evidence that there was nothing to the uranium charge but went ahead and placed the inflammatory claim in the State of the Union address anyway.
For four months, from March to July, I did what I could to encourage the White House to come clean on what it knew, including speaking to people close to the administration, senior officials at the State Department, and to the staffs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. One senior official told me frankly that I probably would have to write the story myself. I also spoke on background to reporters and voiced openly to Democrats and Republicans alike my dismay at the continued administration stonewalling in the face of reasonable queries from the press.
In late June, the story, began to spin out of control as journalists started to report speculation as fact. At this point I was warned by a reporter that I was about to be named in an article as the U.S. official in question. Learning this, I concluded that the time had come to speak out in my own name in order to set the record straight. Over the article I wrote for the New York Times op-ed page ran the words "What I Didn't Find in Africa." Instantly, the media spotlight found me, and the subsequent uproar included not-unexpected attacks on my credibility and my motives. I was accused of being a partisan Democrat who had long been against invading Iraq, and characterized as someone who had no particular qualifications to undertake such a mission. However, none of this criticism was credible, given my background and the positions I had taken with regard to Iraq and the possibility of war.
The problem for the White House was that despite their orchestrated efforts to focus attention on me as the subject of the controversy, there was still its own admission, made the day after the publication of my article, that the Africa uranium claim "does not rise to the level that we would put in a presidential speech."
I spoke to a number of people from both parties in the days immediately following my Times appearance. Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, was as cogent as he was concise. Since the Bush people never backed down, he pointed out, the fact that they had been so quick to admit their error this time meant that they must have something more important to protect. A Republican from the first Bush administration offered a different take, noting with delight that now "real" Republicans finally had the ammunition they needed to confront the neoconservatives whose influence permeated this administration. My favorite reaction came from John Prendergast, who worked with me at the National Security Council from 1997 to 1998. No doubt alluding to my many years in Africa, he had this to say: "Congratulations, you're like the baboon who's thrown the turd that finally hit the target and stuck."
Clearly, a consensus was emerging that the credibility of the president had taken a hit.
Eight days after my article appeared, on July 14, the focus of attack abruptly shifted when conservative pundit Robert Novak, writing about me in his syndicated column in the Washington Post, asserted that "his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report." No administration official came forth to acknowledge being the source of this leak-which was definitely a breach of national security and, quite possibly, a violation of federal law. David Corn, from The Nation magazine, had alerted me and later written the first article pointing out that the disclosure by way of the Novak article might have violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. But, whether illegal or not, it was still an unwelcome intrusion into my wife's private life.
Then came the call from Chris Matthews. Now I have a name, I thought. The political director of the White House, Karl Rove, condoned the attack on Valerie and was retailing it to reporters, whether or not he had actually been the source behind it. For a president who had promised to restore dignity and honor to the White House, this behavior from a trusted adviser was neither dignified nor honorable. In fact, it was downright dirty and highly unethical even in a town where the politics of personal destruction are the local pastime.
After Matthews's call. I started cursing a blue streak, for he hadn't been the first to tell me that the White House was actively promoting the leak of my wife's name and employment. The night before, on July 20, NBC'S Andrea Mitchell had phoned to say that "senior White House sources" had stressed to her that "the real story here is not the sixteen words in the State of the Union but Wilson and his wife." But, unlike Matthews, Mitchell had stopped short of naming her sources to me.
After a deep breath and a pensive moment staring out my office window down onto Pennsylvania Avenue barely a block from the White House, I tried to figure out why the administration would take this tack. What were they trying to suggest to the press? Were they suggesting that my wife had somehow influenced a decision to send me to the middle of the Sahara Desert? Were they implying that this had been nepotism, or some kind of a junket? At the time of my Niger trip, Valerie and I had had two-year old twins at home, a full-time job for both of us. My trip had cost the government nothing except travel and expenses, as I had given my time pro bono. Niamey was not Nassau in the Bahamas, but rather the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world.
Apart from being the conduit of a message from a colleague in her office asking if I would be willing to have a conversation about Niger's uranium industry, Valerie had had nothing to do with the matter. Though she worked on weapons of mass destruction issues, she was not at the meeting I attended where the subject of Niger's uranium was discussed, when the possibility of my actually traveling to the country was broached. She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.
Then it struck me that the attack by Rove and the administration on my wife had little to do with her but a lot to do with others who might also be tempted to speak out. There had been a number of anonymous leaks to reporters from the intelligence community during the late spring and early summer of 2003, claiming that Vice President Cheney, his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and even former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich had pressured analysts to skew intelligence analyses to back up the administration's preconceived political intentions.
On June 12, Walter Pincus filed this report in the Washington Post: "a senior CIA analyst said the case 'is indicative of larger problems' involving the handling of intelligence about Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and its links to al Qaeda, which the administration cited as justification for war. 'Information not consistent with the administration agenda was discarded and information that was [consistent] was not seriously scrutinized,' the analyst said.
"As the controversy over Iraq intelligence has expanded with the failure so far of U.S. teams in Iraq to uncover proscribed weapons, intelligence officials have accused senior administration policymakers of pressuring the CIA or exaggerating intelligence information to make the case for war."
Congressional leaders had expressed a desire to hear from these analysts, and had spoken out to reassure them that there would be no negative consequences for coming forward.
This attack on Valerie may have been the White House's way of saying that yes, indeed, there would be consequences if anybody else dared to speak out publicly. The message to mid-career intelligence officers was clear: Should you decide to speak, we will come after you and your family. Anyone not accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics would naturally wonder if the game was worth the candle.
But how stupid, I thought. The suggestion that Valerie might have improperly influenced the decision to send me to Niger was easy to disprove. The White House had already acknowledged that the Niger uranium link was unsubstantiated. Yes, I had been among those who early on reported this but at the moment, it should have been the administration's priority to find out who had betrayed the president by putting lies in his mouth, rather than to attack someone who had brought the truth to him.
The White House gained nothing by publicizing Valerie's name, and actually stood to lose a lot. It marked a terrible breach of faith between the clandestine service of the CIA and the government it served, and it made my wife a victim. What the White House seemed not to understand, however, was that this attempt to divert the media's attention from the lie in the State of the Union address was only going to complicate matters for them. In addition to the question of who was responsible for putting the offending sixteen words into the president's speech, the press now had a possible violation of law to pursue, not to mention an ugly violation of the code of cowboy chivalry promoted by this administration as the warmer, fuzzier side of its image.
Whoever had okayed dragging my wife into my disagreement with the administration wanted to punish me for bringing to light a lie-a lie that, when exposed, undermined the administration's public rationale for invading Iraq. This was the situation as I understood it, and no part of it was acceptable to me. I was committed to the truth, and it was clear that that meant not just speaking out about it, but also pursuing any untruths to their source, no matter how highly placed.
Seventeen months earlier, on a cold, clear morning in early February 2002, I had driven across the Potomac River ten minutes from my Washington, D.C., home to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to discuss the Niger uranium industry. This meeting was not unusual for me. During my twenty-three-year career as a diplomat, I had often met with members of the intelligence community to share my knowledge of the countries I worked in. It is the job of the CIA's deputy directorate for intelligence (DDI) to analyze the millions of bits of data the U.S. government receives daily. Like researchers everywhere, the analysts are a close-knit group of experts in a cloistered world of paper and computers, working side by side in windowless cubicles. Their exposure to real life, as it goes on every day out in the field, is limited. They don't often come into contact with the subjects of their study or have the chance to walk the ground, smell the smells, and immerse themselves in the habits and mores of the cultures from which this information is steadily being gleaned.
And while we policy types rely on the analysts to provide necessary underpinning for decisions the U.S. government makes, so too do the analysts want to hear what we have to say. It gives them a chance to test their working hypotheses and also to get closer to the nitty-gritty. It is not unlike the sports bettor, whose chances for a winning wager are enhanced if he has access to insider information on the health and fitness of the players in the contest.
Excerpted from The Politics of Truth by Joseph Carter Wilson Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Carter Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 29, 2011
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