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Senate Intelligence Chairman Rakes Democratic Darling on Iraq-Niger Story

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FLASHBACK: July 16, 2004Joe Wilson Was ‘Inaccurate, Unsubstantiated and Misleading’

Senate Intelligence Chairman Rakes Democratic Darling on Iraq-Niger Story

[Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on July 16, 2004.]

In the main body of its unanimous report on pre-war intelligence on Iraq, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence made a startling statement about former Amb. Joe Wilson–whom the CIA sent on a brief trip to Niger in February 2002, and who accused President Bush of lying when the President said in his 2003 State of the Union address that British intelligence indicated Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. The unanimous report states:

    "The former ambassador also told the committee staff that he was the source of a Washington Post article (‘CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data; Bush Used Report of Uranium Bid,’ June 12, 2003) which said, ‘among the envoy’s conclusions was that the documents may have been forged because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong"’ when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports. The former ambassador said that he may have ‘misspoken’ to the reporter when he said he concluded the documents were ‘forged.’ He also said he may have become confused about his own recollections after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in March 2003 that the names and dates on the documents were not correct and may have thought he had seen the names himself."

Six days after the committee released this report, the British determined in their own investigation of pre-war intelligence that their conclusion that Saddam was seeking uranium in Niger was credible. Their intelligence, it turns out, was not based on the forged documents cited by Wilson that purported to show an Iraq-Niger uranium deal. More interestingly, those forged documents, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported, did not even come into the hands of the CIA until October 2002, eight months after the agency sent Wilson to Niger.

While concurring in all the facts uncovered by the committee’s investigation of Wilson and Iraq’s suspected pursuit of uranium in Africa, the committee Democrats refused to include in the unanimous report two conclusions about Wilson drafted by the Republicans. Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R.-Kan.) placed the text of these conclusions, and an explanation of why he believed they were necessary, in an addendum he attached to the report. Senators Christopher Bond (R.-Mo.) and Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) joined him in this addendum. What follows is the key passage in that addendum:

INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN PAT ROBERTS:

While there was no dispute with the underlying facts, my Democrat colleagues refused to allow the following conclusions to appear in the report:

Conclusion: The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador’s wife, a CIA employee.

The former ambassador’s wife suggested her husband for the trip to Niger in February 2002. The former ambassador had traveled previously to Niger on behalf of the CIA, also at the suggestion of his wife, to look into another matter not related to Iraq. On Feb. 12, 2002, the former ambassador’s wife sent a memorandum to a Deputy Chief of a division in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations which said, "[m]y husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." This was just one day before the same Directorate of Operations division sent a cable to one of its overseas stations requesting concurrence with the division’s idea to send the former ambassador to Niger.

Conclusion: Rather than speaking publicly about his actual experiences during his inquiry of the Niger issue, the former ambassador seems to have included information he learned from press accounts and from his beliefs about how the Intelligence Community would have or should have handled the information he provided.

At the time the former ambassador traveled to Niger, the Intelligence Community did not have in its possession any actual documents on the alleged Niger-Iraq uranium deal, only second-hand reporting of the deal. The former ambassador’s comments to reporters that the Niger-Iraq uranium documents "may have been forged because ‘the dates were wrong and the names were wrong’" could not have been based on the former ambassador’s actual experiences because the Intelligence Community did not have the documents at the time of the ambassador’s trip. In addition, nothing in the report from the former ambassador’s trip said anything about documents having been forged or the names or dates in the reports having been incorrect. The former ambassador told committee staff that he, in fact, did not have access to any of the names and dates in the CIA’s reports and said he may have become confused about his own recollection after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in March 2003 that the names and dates on the documents were not correct. Of note, the names and dates in the documents that the IAEA found to be incorrect were not names or dates included in the CIA reports.

Following the Vice President’s review of an intelligence report regarding a possible uranium deal, he asked his briefer for the CIA’s analysis of the issue. It was this request that generated Mr. Wilson’s trip to Niger. The former ambassador’s public comments suggesting that the Vice President had been briefed on the information gathered during his trip is not correct, however. While the CIA responded to the Vice President’s request for the agency’s analysis, they never provided the information gathered by the former ambassador. The former ambassador, in an NBC "Meet the Press" interview on July 6, 2003, said, "The office of the Vice President, I am absolutely convinced, received a very specific response to the question it asked and that response was based upon my trip out there." The former ambassador was speaking on the basis of what he believed should have happened, but he had no knowledge that this did happen.

These and other public comments from the former ambassador, such as comments that his report ‘debunked’ the Niger-Iraq uranium story, were incorrect and have led to a distortion in the press and in the public’s understanding of the facts surrounding the Niger-Iraq uranium story. The committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador’s report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal.

During Mr. Wilson’s media blitz, he appeared on more than 30 television shows including entertainment venues. Time and again, Joe Wilson told anyone who would listen that the President had lied to the American people, that the Vice President had lied, and that he had "debunked" the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. As discussed in the Niger section of the report, not only did he NOT "debunk" the claim, he actually gave some intelligence analysts even more reason to believe that it may be true. I believed very strongly that it was important for the committee to conclude publicly that many of the statements by Ambassador Wilson were not only incorrect, but had no basis in fact.

In an interview with committee staff, Mr. Wilson was asked how he knew some of the things he was stating publicly with such confidence. On at least two occasions he admitted that he had no direct knowledge to support some of his claims and that he was drawing on either unrelated past experiences or no information at all. For example, when asked how he "knew" that the Intelligence Committee had rejected the possibility of a Niger-Iraq uranium deal, as he wrote in his book, he told committee staff that his assertion may have involved "a little literary flair."

The former ambassador, either by design or through ignorance, gave the American people and, for that matter, the world, a version of events that was inaccurate, unsubstantiated and misleading. Surely, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has unique access to all of the facts, should have been able to agree on a conclusion that would correct the public record. Unfortunately, we were unable to do so.

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