The web of deceit on which the Bush administration built its case for war with Iraq continues to unravel.
The latest revelation of wrongdoing comes from Joseph Wilson, a former National Security Council aide, who has raised the prospect that Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides knew that the "case" President Bush made for going to war with Iraq was based on fabricated data.
Wilson, the former U.S. ambassador to the West African nation of Gabon, traveled to Africa in February 2002 at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency to investigate murky allegations regarding Iraq's supposed attempt to buy uranium from Niger. On Sunday, in a damning New York Times opinion piece and in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Wilson argued that his inquiry found little evidence to support the allegation that the government of Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase materials needed for nuclear weapons development from Niger, the world's third-largest producer of mined uranium.
Wilson says he concluded in short order "that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place." (All indications are that Wilson came to the right conclusion, as a United Nations review of documents that purported to detail the Iraq-Niger uranium dealings revealed them to be forgeries.)
What is most significant about Wilson's revelation is his assertion that his conclusions regarding the dubious nature of the Iraq-Niger "connection" were communicated to high-level officials in the Bush administration long before the president ordered the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the country posed an imminent threat.
How high up in the Bush administration are the officials in question?
Referring to inquiries regarding a possible Iraq-Niger link, Wilson says, "The question was asked of the CIA by the office of the vice president. 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."
There is no reason to doubt Wilson, an experienced and respected diplomat who served in the 1990s as director of Africa policy for the National Security Council. Yet long after Wilson indicated to top policy makers that there was little evidence of an Iraq-Niger connection, President Bush used his 2003 State of the Union address to assert that Saddam was seeking to obtain uranium from an African state.
Since Wilson spoke out, the Bush administration has moved from initial defensiveness to a murky acknowledgement that there is no credible evidence to back up President Bush's claim that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in Niger or other African states. A senior official, when asked on Monday about the claim, told the New York Times that "we couldn't prove it, and it might in fact be wrong."
Why, in making the case for war with Iraq, would Bush, Cheney and other members of the administration traffic in incendiary information that, in Wilson's words, appears to have been "erroneous"? And when did they know that their "case" for war might in fact be based on information that "might in fact be wrong"?
These are the questions that the Congress ought to be asking. And they should be asked with the same vigor that members of the British Parliament have employed in their inquiries regarding Prime Minister Tony Blair's use of discredited information to make the case for war with Iraq. Wilson has provided members of the U.S. House and Senate with all the rationale they need for launching the inquiry that this issue demands. And some senators seem to be starting to grasp the seriousness of the matter. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN he thought that Wilson's revelations raise the question of "was there an abuse in intelligence or was the intelligence wrong?"
There is, of course, another question: If intelligence information was manipulated by the Bush administration in an apparent attempt to strengthen the argument for war, which members of the administration were involved in the manipulation? Wilson's statements suggest that a good place for the Senate to start looking for answers is in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
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