The Scandal That Could Eat Bush's Brain

For the past month, a nearly concluded year-and-a-half-long special investigation of who leaked a CIA agent's identity to the press has been making headlines and generating furious speculation that key members of the Bush administration could be indicted soon on criminal charges. Here's a Rove/Plame FAQ list that summarizes reported developments in the case through the end of last week.

What's the deal? Where did all this start?

The short answer is that it started with the infamous "16 words" in George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, a couple of months prior to the invasion of Iraq: "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." In fact, CIA analysts had rejected that claim well before Bush included it in his prime-time case for war in January 2003, and so had numerous others in and around the administration.

AP Photo/Lauren Shay

One of those peripheral figures--a career diplomat named Joseph Wilson who had undertaken a trip to Niger to investigate the uranium story and proclaimed it bogus--wrote a July 6, 2003 op-ed column in the New York Times claiming that what Bush said about the reports on Saddam's nuclear program "was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." Within a day or two, both Karl Rove and Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were swapping calls with reporters in which they discussed the fact that Wilson's wife was CIA. Bob Novak published it on July 14, after which critics pointed out that she was undercover, and that it was a crime to expose the identity of a US intelligence undercover agent.

The longer answer is that the Plame Affair began in Italy in October 2002, when a Rome "businessman" named Rocco Martino, a murky figure with extensive ties to Italian and other European intelligence agencies, delivered to journalist Elisabetta Burba a pair of documents professing to show that Saddam Hussein tried to buy 500 tons of yellowcake (milled uranium oxide, suitable for weapons manufacture) from Niger. Burba relayed the documents to the US embassy in Rome for authentication. Bush administration hawks were all in a lather about the find, since it underwrote the case for war, and forwarded the two documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But according to a subsequent story by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff (linked below), "Within two hours, using the Google search engine, IAEA officials in Vienna determined the documents to be a crude forgery." The first document apparently consisted of dummied-up telexes, letters, and contracts pertaining to a uranium sale. The second purported to be a Nigerian government document, but the French in which it was written was so clumsy as to preclude its having been written by any official of Niger, where French is the primary language. (Matthew Yglesias of the American Prospect writes about the forged documents here.)

So the Bush administration could not make the documents part of their case for war--directly, anyway. But UK intelligence services had got hold of the Niger documents as well. The same forgeries in turn became the basis for a British intelligence report that credited the belief Saddam was trying to buy uranium. (The British government has never publicly conceded that its report was based solely on the forgeries from Italy, but when the International Atomic Energy Agency asked for copies of whatever else it had to document Saddam's shopping spree, not a single document was forthcoming.) The UK report was the one that George W. Bush cited in his State of the Union address, and thus did the administration skirt, barely, any citation of the forged documents themselves.

The paper-thin nature of this central Bush argument for invading Iraq practically assured that anyone challenging it would face a full frontal assault on his or her credibility, and that's exactly what Wilson got when he published his Niger op-ed: White House officials working the phones with half a dozen or more Beltway media tone-setters, implying that Wilson was some inconsequential crank who only made the trip to Africa because it was a perk bestowed by his CIA wife. (Valerie Plame Wilson did recommend her husband for the trip, but did not have the authority to send him on it.) Wilson was not the only one who got roughed up in the White House's efforts to discourage further questions. It's little-remembered now, but when Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) initially brought up the Plame affair in July 2003, the White House roared that he was discussing classified information publicly and tried to ride him off the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The uproar persisted in fits and starts through the summer/fall of 2003, and on December 30 of that year, the Ashcroft Justice Department appointed a special counsel, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, to explore claims of criminal actions by the White House in blowing Valerie Plame Wilson's cover.

(Footnote: There's an absolutely brutal bit of irony in the saga of the forged Niger documents. When CBS rushed to air last year with its now-infamous Bush National Guard memos story, the piece it pre-empted was the first and to date the only in-depth network TV report about the Italian forgeries. That report has never aired--though Michael Isikoff did disclose much of its contents in a 9/22/04 Newsweek article--meaning that, in the end, CBS canned an important story about forged documents for a trivial one based on forged documents. Goodnight, Dan.)

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