Americans have been bombarded in recent weeks with overwhelming evidence that our government has bungled its way into the desert equivalent of a quagmire. Former administration loyalists Paul O'Neill and Richard Clarke essentially said so, arguing that the White House was so focused on overthrowing Saddam Hussein that it pushed aside other priorities, including fighting Al Qaeda.
With the publication of my book, The Politics of Truth, I am adding my voice to that group in the hope that it will shine a light on deceitful and secretive leaders who refuse even to entertain information that could challenge their assumptions and keep them from making grave errors of judgment. Like invading Iraq.
The book includes the story of how the administration went after me and my wife, Valerie -- a CIA operative -- because I blew the whistle on its claims that we knew Hussein was busily reconstituting his nuclear weapons program. Those claims were based, in good part, on reports that the African country of Niger had tried to sell uranium yellowcake to Iraq.
That charge made it into President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address in 16 words that the administration has since admitted should never have been uttered. I knew the Niger story was flat wrong because I was the man the CIA asked to check out the reports months earlier, in February 2002.
The most damning thing I learned while living through the swirl of rumors after the attack on my wife and me was that the conspiracy to destroy us was most likely conceived -- and carried out -- within the office of the vice president of the United States by people at the very center of power. If true, this is especially shocking because revealing the name of a CIA operative is not only dangerous -- to her and her sources -- it also can be against the law.
Here's how my story unfolded and how I know that the administration was well aware that the Niger claim was wrong before the State of the Union address -- and before the war started.
For months before the State of the Union, I had been publicly critical of the administration's increasingly loud drumbeat for war. I supported, instead, an aggressive disarmament policy backed by the threat of force if diplomacy failed. I had been the highest ranking diplomat in Baghdad before the 1991 Gulf War, which I strongly supported. But now I was fearful that we would become occupiers in a country that loathes having foreign rulers, and we would create legions of new terrorists in the process.
When I heard the State of the Union address, which talked about Iraq's attempting to purchase significant quantities of uranium from Africa, I assumed the president was referring to one of the other African uranium producers. But not long before the war started, the State Department admitted that he was, in fact, referring to Niger.
Just days before the war, I said in a TV interview with CNN that I believed the administration knew more about the Niger allegations than it was saying.
According to numerous journalists who have looked into the case, shortly after I made that statement on CNN, senior administration officials in the vice president's office ordered a ''workup'' on me, to collect information that could be used in a smear campaign when and if it became necessary. Those and other sources tell me the person who likely directed that campaign is I. Lewis ''Scooter'' Libby, the vice president's chief of staff and a leading neoconservative. I believe he is also quite possibly the person responsible for exposing my wife's identity.
[On Friday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Libby, White House political advisor Karl Rove and National Security Council staff member Elliot Abrams -- all three named by Wilson in his book as having played a role in the leak -- have denied responsibility.
[''Mr. Wilson himself has said that his primary objective is a political agenda to defeat the president of the United States,'' McClellan told reporters. ``I don't plan on doing any book review of someone who has clearly stated that his main objective is a political agenda.'']
It would not surprise me if the vice president's aides knew immediately that my statement spelled trouble. The vice president, after all, had been interested enough in the Niger claims a year earlier to ask the CIA about them. At the time, an agent told him they had nothing yet to support the claims. (We know this because Cheney has since said so to NBC's Tim Russert.) Wouldn't the 16 words in the State of the Union address have raised questions for him then?
You could argue, and some have, that the speech cited British intelligence. But if the last report Cheney had from our own agents was that there was no support for the claims, why would he blindly accept conflicting information? Wouldn't he double check with our own intelligence agencies? If he did, he would likely have discovered that the CIA had insisted that similar words be removed from another presidential speech four months earlier because it knew there was no intelligence to back up the claim. In fact the British intelligence was the same that we had determined not to be true.
After months of trying to get the administration to fess up on Niger by nudging reporters to investigate, I decided to go public with what I knew. I wrote an oped that appeared in The New York Times July 6, 2003. It said that the president's claims about Niger were false, and that the administration knew it because I had told them.
Instead of acknowledging the deception, administration officials stonewalled. On July 11, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice contended that ``if there were doubts about the underlying intelligence, those doubts were not communicated to the president , the vice president or me.''
By then the administration had already ''pulled the trigger'' on the plans made months earlier to discredit me. Two (unnamed) White House officials called six journalists, according to The Washington Post. They offered up Valerie's name and profession, suggesting by innuendo that nepotism had played a role in the CIA's selecting me to travel -- pro bono -- to investigate the charge.
One journalist, Robert Novak, decided to publish the information in his syndicated column.
Instead of firing the official who had put the lie about Niger in the president's mouth, the administration had turned its sights on me.
I've sometimes asked myself why the administration would be so vicious in its attacks on my family. Now that we know just how flimsy the justification for the war really was, it is clear to me that it knew that the Niger case could send its house of cards toppling.
The administration had justified military action on the threat posed by Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. While chemical and biological weapons are of great concern to terrorism experts, the doomsday weapon that terrifies most Americans is the atomic bomb. The president's case on whether Hussein was trying to make that bomb rested on three pillars: that only the absence of fissile material stood between Hussein and a nuclear weapon; that aluminum tubes intercepted by American intelligence could be used in centrifuges to produce the fissile material from uranium yellowcake; and, of course, that Hussein was trying to get that yellowcake from Africa.
We now know that the aluminum tubes were not for centrifuges and that there was no attempt to buy yellowcake. Without yellowcake and centrifuges you have no fissile material. Without those claims, you have one fewer reason to wage war.
In the end, the administration's attack on me deflected public opinion from the chilling reality that this war was waged on false pretenses. And it changed my family's lives forever. Our security is a real concern because of the bulls-eye put on Valerie's back by the White House, and her anonymity is forever lost. But that's nothing compared to what the families of American soldiers have suffered in this war. Not to mention Iraqi families, who find themselves increasingly caught in the crossfire in a conflict that never had to happen.
Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in a position as a lonely, feared and hated superpower, our military power at its peak, our political and moral authority at its nadir?
Joseph C. Wilson IV served for 23 years in the foreign service. His book The Politics of Truth: A Diplomat's Memoir was published Friday.
© 2004 The Miami Herald and wire service sources.