In his oral report to the CIA, Wilson said he found no evidence that Iraq had sought yellowcake and – considering the international controls governing shipments of uranium – most of his sources doubted that a sale would even be possible.
Wilson did add a caveat, that one senior Nigerien, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki, said he had suspected that an Iraqi commercial delegation to Niger in 1999 might be interested in buying yellowcake, but the uranium topic never came up at the meeting and nothing was sold to Iraq.
State Department intelligence analysts, who had already correctly concluded that the Iraq-Niger-yellowcake claims were baseless, reviewed Wilson’s information and believed that it corroborated their judgment.
But some CIA analysts, who then were pushing the Niger allegations, seized on Wilson’s comment about Mayaki suspecting that Iraq might be in the market for yellowcake as corroboration for their position. In effect, they “cherry-picked” one inconsequential fact from Wilson’s report that could be used to support their position.
Wilson’s negative findings were soon backed up by other U.S. government reports arriving from the field. Nevertheless, since the White House was scouring for any indication that Saddam Hussein might be reconstituting his nuclear program, the dubious Niger-yellowcake story proved hard to kill.
‘Uranium from Africa’
U.S. intelligence agencies did get the allegation stripped out of some administration speeches, but it kept returning, most notably when it was inserted into Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union Address, attributed to the British.
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” Bush said in a sentence that later became known as “the sixteen words.”
However, in spring 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the administration’s dire WMD warnings were hollow. Wilson began to speak privately with journalists about his trip.
New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an article that cited an unnamed former ambassador who had gone on a fact-finding mission to Africa and had returned discounting the suspicions of Iraqis buying uranium. Cheney grew curious about this mission that had been undertaken because of his expressed interest but that had not led to a formal report back to the Vice President.
After figuring out the identity of Kristof’s source, the White House also prepared to retaliate against Wilson, who was emerging as the first Washington establishment figure to accuse the administration of manipulating the WMD intelligence.
The White House was determined to nip in the bud any “revisionist history” about the integrity behind the march to war. In his memoir, Wilson cited sources telling him that a meeting in Cheney’s office led to a decision “to produce a workup” to discredit Wilson.
Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, asked Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, a neoconservative ally in the State Department, to prepare a memo on Wilson. Dated June 10, 2003, Grossman’s report included a paragraph, marked secret, that referred to CIA officer “Valerie Plame” as Wilson wife. [NYT, July 16, 2005]
On June 11, Libby also heard from CIA official Robert Grenier that Wilson’s wife worked in the CIA unit that sent Wilson to Africa, Grenier later testified.
CIA Director George Tenet also mentioned to Cheney that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Niger. Cheney passed that information on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]
While these senior officials who were bandying about the name of Valerie Plame might have had sufficient clearance to know Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA officer, their behavior was highly unusual.