Though Wilson's article focused on his own investigation, it represented the first time a Washington insider had gone public with evidence regarding the Bush administration's fraudulent case for war. Thus, Wilson became a major target for retribution from the White House and particularly Cheney's office.
As part of the campaign to destroy Wilson's credibility, senior Bush administration officials leaked to journalists that Wilson's wife worked in the CIA office that had dispatched him to Niger, a suggestion that the trip might have been some kind of junket. When right-wing columnist Robert Novak published Plame's covert identity in The Washington Post's op-ed section, Plame's CIA career was destroyed.
Accusations of Lying
However, instead of showing any remorse for the harm his editorial section had done, Hiatt simply enlisted in the Bush administration's war against Wilson, promoting every anti-Wilson talking point that the White House could dream up. The Post's assault on Wilson went on for years.
For instance, in a Sept. 1, 2006, editorial, Hiatt accused Wilson of lying when he had claimed the White House had leaked his wife's name. The context of Hiatt's broadside was the disclosure that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first administration official to tell Novak that Plame was a CIA officer and had played a small role in Wilson's Niger trip.
Because Armitage was considered a reluctant supporter of the Iraq War, the Post editorial jumped to the conclusion that "it follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House -- that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame's identity -- is untrue."
But Hiatt's logic was faulty for several reasons. First, Armitage may have been cozier with some senior officials in Bush's White House than was generally understood. And, just because Armitage may have been the first to share the classified information with Novak didn't mean that there was no parallel White House operation to peddle Plame's identity to reporters.
In fact, evidence uncovered by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who examined the Plame leak, supported a conclusion that White House officials, under the direction of Vice President Cheney and including Cheney aide Lewis Libby and Bush political adviser Karl Rove, approached a number of reporters with this information.
Indeed, Rove appears to have confirmed Plame's identity for Novak and also leaked the information to Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. Meanwhile, Libby, who was indicted on perjury and obstruction charges in the case, had pitched the information to The New York Times' Judith Miller. The Post's editorial acknowledged that Libby and other White House officials were not "blameless," since they allegedly released Plame's identity while "trying to discredit Mr. Wilson." But the Post reserved its harshest condemnation for Wilson.
"It now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame's CIA career is Mr. Wilson," the editorial said. "Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials.
"He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush's closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It's unfortunate that so many people took him seriously."
A Smear or a Lie
The Post's editorial, however, was at best an argumentative smear and most likely a willful lie. By then, the evidence was clear that Wilson, along with other government investigators, had debunked the reports of Iraq acquiring yellowcake in Niger and that those findings did circulate to senior levels, explaining why CIA Director George Tenet struck the yellowcake claims from other Bush speeches.
The Post's accusation about Wilson "falsely" claiming to have debunked the yellowcake reports apparently was based on Wilson's inclusion in his report of speculation from one Niger official who suspected that Iraq might have been interested in buying yellowcake, although the Iraqi officials never mentioned yellowcake and made no effort to buy any. This irrelevant point had become a centerpiece of Republican attacks on Wilson and was recycled by the Post.
Plus, contrary to the Post's assertion that Wilson "ought to have expected" that the White House and Novak would zero in on Wilson's wife, a reasonable expectation in a normal world would have been just the opposite. Even amid the ugly partisanship of modern Washington, it was shocking to many long-time observers of government that any administration official or an experienced journalist would disclose the name of a covert CIA officer for such a flimsy reason as trying to discredit her husband.
Hiatt also bought into the Republican argument that Plame really wasn't "covert" at all -- and thus there was nothing wrong in exposing her counter-proliferation work for the CIA. The Post was among the U.S. media outlets that gave a podium for right-wing lawyer Victoria Toensing to make this bogus argument in defense of Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby.