Joseph C. Wilson, the retired United States ambassador whose CIA-directed mission to Niger in early 2002 helped debunk claims that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium there for nuclear weapons, has said for the first time publicly that U.S. and British officials ignored his findings and exaggerated the public case for invading Iraq.
Wilson, whose 23-year career included senior positions in Africa and Iraq, where he was acting ambassador in 1991, said the false allegations that Iraq was trying to buy uranium oxide from Niger about three years ago were used by President Bush and senior administration officials as a central piece of evidence to support their assertions that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.
"It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war," Wilson said yesterday. "It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"
The Niger story -- one piece of the administration's larger argument that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat -- was not debunked until shortly before the war began, when the United Nations' chief nuclear inspector told the Security Council the documents were forgeries. The White House has acknowledged that some documents were bogus, but a spokesman has said there was "a larger body of evidence suggesting Iraq attempted to purchase uranium in Africa," indicating it may have involved a country other than Niger.
For the past year, Wilson has spoken out against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but until he was interviewed by The Post and wrote an op-ed article published in today's New York Times, he had never disclosed his key role in the Niger controversy.
The CIA turned to Wilson in February 2002 because of his extensive experience with intelligence and his relationship with senior officials in Niger.
Wilson's account of his eight-day mission to Niger, including a statement he was told Vice President Cheney's staff was interested in the truth of the allegations, has not been contradicted by administration officials, but they have played down his importance and denied his accusations.
A senior administration official said yesterday that Wilson's mission originated within the CIA's clandestine service after Cheney aides raised questions during a briefing. "It was not orchestrated by the vice president," the official said. He added that it was reported in a routine way, did not mention Wilson's name and did not say anything about forgeries.
Wilson has been interviewed recently by the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are expected to focus on who in the National Security Council and the vice president's office had access to a CIA cable, sent March 9, 2002, that did not name Wilson but said Niger officials had denied the allegations.
Wilson said he went to Niger skeptical, knowing that the structure of the uranium industry -- controlled by a consortium of French, Spanish, German and Japanese firms -- made it highly unlikely that anyone would officially deal with Iraq because of U.N. sanctions. Wilson never saw the disputed documents but talked with officials whose signatures would have been required and concluded the allegations were almost certainly false. Back in Washington, he briefed CIA officers but did not draft his own report.
In September 2002, the story of Iraq purchasing uranium in Africa made its way into a published British dossier on Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that got wide coverage. Wilson was perplexed.
""[I]t was unfathomable to me that this information would not have been shared" with the British, he said.
In late September, CIA Director George J. Tenet and top aides made two presentations in closed session on Capitol Hill. They said there was information that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium but that there was some doubt the information was credible. But on Dec. 19, 2002, a State Department fact sheet listed attempts to purchase uranium, specifically from Niger, as an item omitted from Iraq's supposedly full disclosure of its weapons of mass destruction program.
Bush, in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 23, declared that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
After Bush's speech, Wilson said he contacted the State Department, noted that the Niger story had been debunked and said, "You might want to make sure the facts are straight."
In early February, the CIA received a translation of the Niger documents and in early March, copies of the documents, which it turned over to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
After IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei announced they were bogus, Wilson read a March 8 front-page story in The Washington Post that quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying, "We fell for it."
The quote provided "a wake-up call . . . that somebody was not being candid about this Niger business," he said. Interviewed that day on CNN, Wilson said: "I think it's safe to say that the U.S. government should have or did know that this report was a fake before Dr. ElBaradei mentioned it in his report at the U.N. yesterday."
In June, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that top administration officials were unaware of the faked documents at the time of the State of the Union. "Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery."
But Wilson said he considers that "inconceivable." Based on his experience at the NSC, Wilson does not believe his report would have been buried. Having been told the vice president's office was interested, he said, "If you are senior enough to ask this question, you are well above the bowels of the bureaucracy. You are in that circle."
Last week, Wilson said of Hussein: "I'm glad the tyrant is gone." But he does not believe the war was ever about eliminating Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. It was, he said, a political push to "redraw the map of the Middle East."
While his family prepared for a Fourth of July dinner, he proudly showed a reporter photos of himself with Bush's parents. On a den wall was a framed cable to him in Baghdad, from the first President Bush, dated Nov. 20, 1990:
"What you are doing day in and day out under the most trying conditions is truly inspiring," the cable states. "Keep fighting the good fight. You and your stalwart colleagues are always in our thoughts and prayers."
Wilson observed: "I guess he didn't realize that one of these days I would carry that fight against his son's administration."
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