For the last two weeks, I have been subjected — along with my wife, Valerie Plame — to a partisan Republican smear campaign. In right-wing blogs and on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, I've been accused of being a liar and, worse, a traitor.
This is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2002 when I was asked by the CIA to investigate a report that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase several hundred tons of uranium yellowcake from the West African country of Niger in order to reconstruct Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
I went to Niger, investigated and told the CIA that the report was unfounded. Then, in July 2003, I revealed some details of my investigation in a New York Times Op-Ed article. I did that because President Bush had used the Niger claim to support going to war in Iraq — to support his contention that we could not wait "for the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud" — even though the administration knew that evidence for it was all but nonexistent. Shortly after that article was published, the attacks began: Administration sources leaked to the media that my wife was an undercover CIA operative — an unprecedented betrayal of national security and a possible felony.
In the last two weeks, since the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on intelligence failures, the smear attacks have intensified. Based on distortions in the report, they appear to have three purposes: to sow confusion; to distract attention from the fact that the White House used the Niger claim even after CIA Director George Tenet told Bush that "the reporting was weak"; and to protect whoever it was who told the press about Valerie.
The primary new charge from the Republicans is that I lied when I said Valerie had nothing to do with my being assigned to go to Niger. That's important to the administration because there's a criminal investigation underway, and if she did play a role, divulging her CIA status may be defendable. In fact, though the Senate committee cites a CIA source saying Valerie had a role in the assignment, it ignores what the agency told Newsday reporters as early as July 2003, long before I ever acknowledged Valerie's CIA employment.
"A senior intelligence officer," the reporters wrote, "confirmed that Plame was a Directorate of Operations undercover officer who worked 'alongside' the operations officers who asked her husband to travel to Niger.
"But he said she did not recommend her husband to undertake the Niger assignment. 'They [the officers who did ask Wilson to check the uranium story] were aware of who she was married to, which is not surprising,' he said. 'There are people elsewhere in government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason,' he said. 'I can't figure out what it could be.' " Last week, a CIA source repeated this to CNN and the Los Angeles Times.
On another front, my enemies claim I based my conclusions about the Niger claim on documents that the Senate report now suggests I couldn't have seen. But the truth is that I made it clear in the New York Times article that I had never seen the written documents concerning the alleged sale between Iraq and Niger. By then, however, as I wrote, news accounts had already "pointed out that the documents had glaring errors — they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government — and were probably forged."
Finally, it has been suggested that my work for the CIA, rather than debunking the Niger claim, supported it. Although some analysts continued to believe that the Iraqis were interested in purchasing Niger uranium, that is a far cry from Bush's claim in the State of the Union: "British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." My report said there was no evidence that such a thing occurred in Niger.
The attacks against me should not obscure the facts. The day after my article in the Times appeared in July 2003, the president's spokesman acknowledged that "the 16 words did not merit inclusion in the State of the Union address."
The Senate report makes clear that senior leadership of the CIA tried repeatedly to keep this unsubstantiated claim out of presidential addresses. Three months before the State of the Union, on Oct. 6, 2002, the CIA sent a fax to the White House stating that "the Africa story is overblown." Tenet testified that on that day he told the deputy national security advisor the "president should not be a fact witness on this issue" because "the reporting was weak."
The right-wing campaign against me and Valerie does not alter the reality that someone in the Bush administration exposed her identity and compromised national security. I believe it was a malicious act meant to keep others from crossing a vindictive administration.
Most important, when it comes to the Niger claim — and so many other claims underlying the decision to go to war in Iraq — it is the Bush administration, not Joe Wilson, who spoke the words that have cost us more than 900 lives and billions of dollars and have left our international reputation in tatters.
Joseph C. Wilson IV is the author of "The Politics of Truth" (Carroll & Graff, 2004). He was in the diplomatic service for 23 years
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times