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First, on July 14, 2003 the Washington Post and other papers carried a column by Robert Novak titled “Mission to Niger,” in which he set out to do the White House’s bidding by disparaging former ambassador Joseph Wilson and punishing him by making it impossible for his wife, Valerie Plame, to continue working in her chosen (covert) profession. The White House offensive against Wilson had been in the planning stage for several months. Novak’s column was, in effect, the first shot in a sustained, rapid-fire volley aimed at neutralizing Wilson and deterring other potential truth-tellers who might be tempted to follow his example.
The former ambassador had spent several days in the African country of Niger at the CIA’s behest to investigate a dubious report in which Vice President Dick Cheney had taken inordinate interest—a strange story that Iraq was seeking to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger. For substantive reasons, serious intelligence analysts had judged the report false on its face, well before they learned it was based on forged documents.
But the vice president had taken quite a shine to it. As a result, in February 2002 four-star Marine General Carlton Fulford, Jr. (then deputy commander of the United States European Command with purview over most of Africa) and Ambassador Wilson made separate journeys to Niger to investigate the report. They both found it spurious. Hence, they and U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, were amazed when President George W. Bush used the same cockamamie report in his state-of-the union address on January 28, 2003 to help build a case for attacking Iraq.
Lying the Country Into War
Reflecting the concern driving the White House counteroffensive, Novak wrote that the administration’s “mistake” in using the Iraq-Niger report “led the Democrats ever closer to saying the president lied the country into war.” That concern, coupled with the priority need to protect the vice president, showed through in the defensive tone of Novak’s protestation that it was “not just Vice President Dick Cheney” who had asked the CIA to look into the report.
That this was a matter of protesting too much can be seen in Libby’s Herculean effort earlier in the year to crank the Iraq-Niger story—as well as a host of other far-fetched charges against Iraq—into then-secretary of state Colin Powell’s embarrassing speech at the UN on February 5, 2003. While Powell let himself be browbeaten into using much of the spurious material urged on him by Libby, the Iraq-Niger fairy tale had long since taken on an acrid smell. Besides, Powell’s own intelligence analysts had branded the report “highly dubious” and, for once, he listened.
In the end, Powell decided to throw virtually everything but the kitchen sink into his UN speech condemning Saddam Hussein. The kitchen sink was the Iraq-Niger report. When asked why he did not include that story, when President Bush had featured it with such solemnity just a week before in his state-of-the-union address, Powell damned it with faint praise, publicly describing the report as “not totally outrageous.”
White House officials calculated correctly that a four-star Marine general, even a retired one, could be counted on to keep his mouth shut rather than expose his former commander-in-chief in a bald-faced lie. But they “misunderestimated” Joseph Wilson, who turned out to be a man of substantial integrity and courage. Wilson saw the Iraq-Niger report as a consequential lie—a monstrous one, in that it greased the skids for launching a war of aggression, condemned at the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal as the “supreme international crime.” And rather than grouse about it with knowing smirk, cigar, and sherry in Georgetown drawing rooms, as is the more familiar practice among retired ambassadors, Wilson went public.
And so on July 14, 2003, Robert Novak slipped into his familiar role as “conservative” pundit and launched the White House counteroffensive. As for friends Cheney and Libby, the best idea they could come up with to divert the focus from themselves was to spread the word that Wilson’s wife, a CIA employee, had sent him to Niger on some kind of boondoggle. (I know; I know. Please stop laughing, those of you who have been in Niger. And Wilson performed his investigation gratis).
The Vice President’s Man
Cheney’s chief of staff, “Scooter” Libby, agreed to take the hit and was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. In his closing argument, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald made it clear that the role of Vice President Dick Cheney in blowing Valerie Plame’s cover remains the key mystery, and that Libby’s lies ensured that Cheney’s role would remain a mystery. Fitzgerald could hardly have made this key finding clearer: