Plame's Lame Game
What Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife forgot to tell us about the yellow-cake scandal.
Two recent reports allow us to revisit one of the great non-stories, and one of the great missed stories, of the Iraq war argument. The non-story is the alleged martyrdom of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Wilson, supposed by many to have suffered cruel exposure for their commitment to the truth. The missed story is the increasing evidence that Niger, in West Africa, was indeed the locus of an illegal trade in uranium ore for rogue states including Iraq.
The Senate's report on intelligence failures would appear to confirm that Valerie Plame did recommend her husband Joseph Wilson for the mission to Niger. In a memo written to a deputy chief in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, she asserted that Wilson had "good relations with both the Prime Minister and the former Minister of Mines [of Niger], not to mention lots of French contacts." This makes a poor fit with Wilson's claim, in a recent book, that "Valerie had nothing to do with the matter. She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip." (It incidentally seems that she was able to recommend him for the trip because of the contacts he'd made on an earlier trip, for which she had also proposed him.)
Wilson's earlier claim to the Washington Post that, in the CIA reports and documents on the Niger case, "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong," was also false, according to the Senate report. The relevant papers were not in CIA hands until eight months after he made his trip. Wilson now lamely says he may have "misspoken" on this. (See Susan Schmidt's article in the July 10 Washington Post.)
Now turn to the front page of the June 28 Financial Times for a report from the paper's national security correspondent, Mark Huband. He describes a strong consensus among European intelligence services that between 1999 and 2001 Niger was engaged in illicit negotiations over the export of its "yellow cake" uranium ore with North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and China. The British intelligence report on this matter, once cited by President Bush, has never been disowned or withdrawn by its authors. The bogus document produced by an Italian con man in October 2002, which has caused such embarrassment, was therefore more like a forgery than a fake: It was a fabricated version of a true bill.
Given the CIA's institutional hostility to the "regime change" case, the blatantly partisan line taken in public by Wilson himself, and the high probability that an Iraqi delegation had at least met with suppliers from Niger, how wrong was it of Robert Novak to draw attention to the connection between Plame and Wilson's trip? Or of someone who knew of it to tell Novak?
The Intelligence Identities Protection Act, notionally violated by this disclosure, is a ridiculous piece of legislation to begin with. It relies in practice on a high standard of proof, effectively requiring that the government demonstrate that someone knowingly intended to divulge the identity of an American secret agent operating under cover, with the intention of harming that agent. The United States managed to get through World War II and most of the Cold War without such an act on its books. The obvious disadvantage of the law, apart from its opacity, is that it could be used to stifle legitimate inquiry about what the CIA was up to. Indeed, that was its original intent. It was put forward by right-wingers who wanted to stifle and if possible arrest Philip Agee, a defector from the 1970s whose whistle-blowing book Inside The Company had exposed much CIA wrongdoing. The act is now being piously cited by liberals to criminalize the disclosure that someone who shuttles dangerously "under cover" between Georgetown and Virginia and takes a surreptitious part in an open public debate, works for the agency and has a track record on a major issue.
To say this is not to defend the Bush administration, which typically managed to flourish the only allegation made about Niger that had been faked, and which did not have the courage to confront Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in public with their covert political agenda. But it does draw attention to an interesting aspect of this whole debate: the increasing solidarity of the left with the CIA. The agency disliked Ahmad Chalabi and was institutionally committed to the view that the Saddam regime in Iraq was a) secular and b) rationally interested in self-preservation. It repeatedly overlooked important evidence to the contrary, even as it failed entirely to infiltrate jihadist groups or to act upon FBI field reports about their activity within our borders. Bob Woodward has a marvelous encapsulating anecdote in his recent book: George Tenet on Sept. 11 saying that he sure hopes this isn't anything to do with those people acting suspiciously in the flight schools. ... The case for closing the CIA and starting again has been overwhelming for some time. But many liberals lately prefer, for reasons of opportunism, to take CIA evidence at face value.
I prefer the good old days. It was always alleged against Philip Agee, quite falsely, that he had identified Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens who was gunned down by Greek anarchists in 1975. In fact, Agee had never mentioned his name in any connection. This did not inhibit the authors of the Protection Act from going ahead, or Barbara Bush from saying in her memoirs that Agee had fingered Welch. I actually contacted Agee at that time, pointing out that the book was being published in London and suggesting that he sue. He successfully got Mrs. Bush to change the wording of her paperback version. But we are still stuck with the gag law that resulted from the original defamation, and it is still being invoked to prevent us from discovering what our single worst federal agency is really up to.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph on Slate's home page by Philip Reynaers/Agence France-Presse.