Clueless Joe Wilson
How did the CIA's special envoy miss Zahawie's trip to Niger?
Nobody appears to dispute what I wrote in last week's Slate to the effect that in February 1999, Saddam Hussein dispatched his former envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and former delegate to non-proliferation conferences at the United Nations, to Niger. Wissam al-Zahawie was, at the time of his visit, the accredited ambassador of Iraq to the Vatican: a more senior post than it may sound, given that the Vatican was almost the only full European embassy that Iraq then possessed. And nobody has proposed an answer to my question: Given the fact that Niger is synonymous with uranium (and was Iraq's source of "yellowcake" in 1981), and given that Zahawie had been Iraq's main man in nuclear diplomacy, what innocent explanation can be found for his trip?
The person whose response I most wanted is Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has claimed to discover that Saddam was guiltless on the charge of seeking uranium from Niger, and has further claimed to be the object, along with his CIA wife, of a campaign of government persecution. On Keith Olbermann's show on April 10, Wilson was asked about my article and about Zahawie. He replied that Zahawie:
is a man that I know from my time as acting ambassador in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. ... He was ambassador to the Vatican, and he made a trip in 1999 to several West and Central African countries for the express purpose of inviting chiefs of state to violate the ban on travel to Iraq. He has said repeatedly to the press, he's now in retirement, and also to the International Atomic Energy Agency, to their satisfaction, that uranium was not on his agenda.
Once again, the details and implications of Zahawie's own IAEA background are ignored (as they were in the IAEA's own report to the United Nations about the forged Italian documents that were later circulated about Zahawie's visit). In the same press interviews to which Wilson alludes (and which I cited last week), Zahawie went a bit further than saying that uranium was "not on his agenda." He claimed not to know that Niger produced uranium at all! You may if you wish choose to take that at face value—along with his story that all he was trying to do was violate sanctions on flights to Iraq. Joseph Wilson appears to be, as they say, "comfortable" with that explanation.
And it's true that the two men knew each other during the Gulf crisis of 1990-1991. Indeed, in his book The Politics of Truth, Wilson records Zahawie as having been in the room, as under-secretary for foreign affairs, during his last meeting with Saddam Hussein. (Quite a senior guy for a humble mission like violating flight-bans from distant Niger and Burkina Faso.) I cite this because it is the only mention of Zahawie that Wilson makes in his entire narrative.
In other words (I am prepared to keep on repeating this until at least one cow comes home), Joseph Wilson went to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether or not the country had renewed its uranium-based relationship with Iraq, spent a few days (by his own account) sipping mint tea with officials of that country who were (by his wife's account) already friendly to him, and came back with the news that all was above-board. Again to repeat myself, this must mean either that A) he did not know that Zahawie had come calling or B) that he did know but didn't think it worth mentioning that one of Saddam's point men on nukes had been in town. In neither case, it seems to me, should he be trusted with another mission that requires any sort of curiosity.
Wilson has had to alter his story so many times—he first denied that the CIA had anything to do with selecting him for the Niger mission and later claimed that he had exposed a forgery that wasn't disclosed until after he returned—that the mind reels at having to reread his conceited book. However, dear reader, on your behalf I was prepared to do it. The closest Wilson ever comes to a notional Iraq-Niger contact is at second hand, when one of his government sources tells of an approach, through a Niger businessman, to meet an Iraqi official at a conference of the Organization of African Unity in Algiers in 1999. Looking back on this event, his source now thinks that he recognizes the Iraqi as Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. Wilson likes this story enough to tell it twice (on Pages 28 and 424 of his book). And it's a jolly good story, too, since Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf is more widely known as "Baghdad Bob," the information minister who furnished some low comic relief during the last days of the regime in 2003. Relieved laughter all around. Nothing to worry about after all. As Wilson asks with triumphant sarcasm: "Was that the smoking gun that could supposedly have become a mushroom cloud?"
Take that permanent smirk off your face, Ambassador (and the look of martyrdom as well, while you are at it). It seems that your contacts in the Niger Ministry of Mines—the ones that your wife told the CIA made you such a good choice for the trip—didn't rate you highly enough to tell you about the Zahawie visit. It would, interestingly, have been a name you already knew. But you didn't even get as far as having to explain it away—or not until last week—because you were that far in the dark. It was left to Italian, French, and British intelligence to discover the suggestive fact and transmit it to Washington. And it's been left to someone else, most probably in the Niger embassy in Rome, to produce a much later fabrication, either for gain or in order to discredit a true story. The forged account has no bearing at all on the authentic one: It bears the same relationship as a fake $100 bill does to a genuine bill. The rip-off remake movie, "Mr. Wilson Goes to Niger," now playing to packed houses of the credulous everywhere, has precisely the same relationship to its own original.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Joseph Wilson by Win McNamee/Getty Images.