A year ago, The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation awarded former Ambassador Joseph Wilson the first annual Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling. I had something of a double connection to this event. Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran and whistleblower who exposed the My Lai massacre (and who later became a dogged investigative journalist), was a friend of mine. (He died at the age of 52 in 1998.) And I had suggested that Wilson be awarded this honor, for he had challenged the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq (particularly the claim that Iraq had been uranium-shopping in Niger) and then received a brutal payback: two administration officials revealed his wife's CIA identity to conservative columnist Robert Novak (thus ruining Valerie Wilson's career as an undercover counterproliferation officer, harming national security, and perhaps violating federal law).
This past summer, the Senate intelligence committee released a report on the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The report was an indictment of the intelligence community, noting that the community's critical findings on Iraq's WMDs were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." That was the big news: the war had been based on bad and overinflated intelligence. (And, by the way, Bush had even overstated the exaggerated intelligence.) But conservatives jumped on a portion of the report devoted to the Niger affair to mount an attack against Wilson. At the time, I debunked much of this assault in two columns (Click here and here). I didn't realize then that Representative J.D. Hayworth, a Republican from Arizona, and ten of his GOP House colleagues had written a letter to The Nation Institute to demand that the institute withdraw the award it had bestowed upon Wilson. Recently, this letter became an issue in Arizona when Wilson traveled to Phoenix and attended a fundraising event for local Democrats.
I have always enjoyed sparring with Hayworth, my dad's congressman. He is a large fellow with a large laugh. So it is my pleasure to post below his letter to The Nation Institute and the response from the institute and the Fertel Foundation. In my humble opinion, The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation--which drew upon my published columns in crafting their response--win this debate in a slam-dunk. Without further explanation...The Nation Institute versus J.D. Hayworth et. al.:
July 22, 2004
Dear Mr. Hamilton Fish:
You've been snookered and you shouldn't stand for it!
We are referring to the Nation Institute's giving the first Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling to Ambassador Joe Wilson, who has just been exposed as a liar on, well, pretty much everything.
In the interests of "Truth-Telling," we think you should withdraw Wilson's award so that your organization does not become a laughingstock. While it is doubtful Wilson would agree to give you the $10,000 prize back, maybe you could shame him into donating it to some charity, since it was undoubtedly received under false pretenses. Consider.
The award was given to Wilson for his "raising questions about the Bush Administration's truthfulness, and undermined its claim that it had ample evidence to justify an invasion of Iraq." Specifically, Wilson wrote in a 2003 New York Times op-ed that President Bush had "twisted" intelligence to "exaggerate the Iraqi threat." He allowed that he had been sent to Niger to look into claims that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake ore from that country. Wilson informed us "It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."
We now know, of course, that all of Wilson's claims were lies. First, there is the exhaustive British report put out by Lord Butler that concludes, "the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that 'The British Government has learned the Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa' was well-founded."
This assessment was backed up by the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which stated that Wilson's debriefing provided "some confirmation of foreign government service reporting," in other words, the British were right.
Then there is the claim by Wilson that his wife had nothing to do with his going to Niger on behalf of the CIA, saying "She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip." However, the Senate report quotes from a February 12, 2002 memo from Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, that does promote her husband for the mission, saying "my husband has good relations with both the PM and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity."
Finally, Wilson was not truthful when he told the Washington Post that documents about the uranium deal may have been forged because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong." When asked by the committee staff how he came to such a conclusion when he could not possibly have seen the documents in question, Wilson said he may have "misspoken." We'll say.
As you know, Wilson's fraudulent claims were the basis for many of the most scurrilous attacks on the president and vice president. These attacks continue today. By withdrawing your award you will be not only restoring integrity of the Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling, but you will also be sending a clear message about the importance of accuracy and fairness in political discourse.
For the sake of your organization and its honor, rescind Ambassador Joe Wilson's award.
Thank you for your consideration.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Steve King, Rep. Michael Burgess, Rep. Randy Neugebauer, Rep. Steve Chabot, Rep. Trent Franks, Rep. Wally Herger, Rep. Cass Ballenger, Rep. Robin Hayes. Rep. Bob Beauprez
October 20, 2004
Dear Representatives Hayworth, Wilson, King, Burgess, Neugebauer, Chabot, Franks, Herger, Ballenger, Hayes, and Beauprez,
We are in receipt of your letter of July 21, 2004, regarding The Nation Institute's Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling, which was awarded last year to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
You claim that the Institute has been "snookered" by Ambassador Wilson and "shouldn't stand for it." That is not so. We humbly suggest that you have been misinformed by staffers who have not read the full record and have presented you with selective information. Please allow us--two nonprofit organizations that seek to encourage the dissemination of important information--to provide you with a fuller picture.
Your letter refers to three points. Let's take them in order.
1. Regarding Wilson's New York Times op-ed--in which he reported that it was "highly doubtful" that Iraq had been able to purchase yellowcake uranium from Iraq--you state, "We now know, of course, that all of Wilson's claims were lies." That is a rather broad statement. Are you suggesting that Wilson was not sent to Niger by the CIA in February 2002, as he maintained? That he did not meet with people in the private sector and with former Niger officials? That he did not conclude--as a result of these conversations--that the structure of the Nigerien uranium industry (which is controlled by an international consortium) made it "highly doubtful" that such a transaction could have happened? That his conclusions were at odds with the assertion that President Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Africa? The Senate Intelligence Committee report that you cite does not challenge Wilson's account. It reports:
"[Wilson] told Committee staff that he had told...U.S. officials [in Niger] that he thought there was 'nothing to the story.' [U.S.] Ambassador [to Niger] Owens-Kirkpatrick told Committee staff she recalled the former ambassador saying 'he had reached the same conclusions that the embassy had reached, that it was highly unlikely that anything was going on.'"
The Senate Intelligence Committee report notes that Wilson had met with former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki, who had also been foreign minister. A CIA report written after Wilson returned to the United States said that Mayaki had told Wilson about a meeting he had in the late 1990s with an Iraqi business delegation to discuss expanding commercial relations. Mayaki told Wilson that he had assumed the Iraqis were interested in uranium sales, though the matter had not been explicitly discussed. Mayaki maintained that nothing happened after this meeting. Mai Manga, a former minister for energy and mines, told Wilson that there had been no uranium sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency channels since the mid-1980s, and that he knew of no contracts signed between Niger and any rogue state for the sale of uranium. The intelligence committee report states:
"Mai Manga also described how the French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transport overseas. Mai Manga believed it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special shipment of uranium to a pariah state given these controls."
In your letter, you cite two statements in your attempt to brand "all of Wilson's claims" lies. You note that the Butler report released in England said "the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that 'The British Government has learned the [sic] Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa' was well-founded." And you point to a sentence in the Senate Intelligence Committee report that stated that Wilson's trip to Niger provided "some confirmation of foreign government service reporting." You conclude, "In other words, the British were right."
That is not a fair reading of the record. The Senate Intelligence Committee report said much more on this point than you indicate. It noted that Wilson's trip was interpreted differently by different US intelligence analysts. Some took Mayaki's recollection of his meeting with Iraqi businesspeople as possible confirmation of the Niger allegation; others believed the information Wilson had obtained offered additional reason to doubt the charge. As the report stated:
"For most analysts, the information in the report [that was written by the CIA following Wilson's trip to Niger] lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal, but State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq."
In other words, Wilson's work was thrown into the stew. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee's account of this episode, the CIA went on to disseminate a report noting that a foreign intelligence service had told US intelligence that Niger had agreed to supply Iraq with hundreds of tons of uranium. And in the National Intelligence Estimate produced in October 2002, the intelligence community reported that Iraq had been trying to strike a uranium deal with Niger in 2001. But the NIE noted that INR strongly disagreed with this assessment. Moreover, when the deputy CIA director testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 2, 2002, he said that in the judgment of US intelligence, the British had "reached a little" on Iraq's purported uranium-shopping in Iraq. He testified, "We've looked at these reports, and we don't think they are very credible."
About that time, the National Security Council was drafting a speech for President Bush, and the CIA recommended that the address not include the Niger allegation because it was "debatable" whether the yellowcake could have been obtained from Niger. As the speech was being prepared, CIA Director George Tenet called the deputy national security adviser and said he did not want President Bush to repeat the British allegations--that Bush should not be a "fact witness" on this matter--because CIA analysts had concluded that the reporting was weak. In a follow-up fax to the NSC, the CIA reiterated that "the evidence is weak" and "the procurement is not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already have a large stock of uranium oxide in their inventory." The fax noted, "The Africa story is overblown."
Still, in late January 2003--after INR's Iraq analyst had concluded that papers recently obtained by US intelligence related to the supposed Iraqi-Niger uranium deal were "clearly a forgery"--Bush went ahead and accused Iraq of seeking uranium in Africa. He did so to bolster his case for war against Iraq.
On April 5, 2003, according to the Senate report, the National Intelligence Council issued a memo that noted, "We judge it highly unlikely that Niamey [the capital of Niger] has sold uranium yellowcake to Baghdad in recent years." It added that the government of Niger would have been unlikely to proceed with such a deal. And on June 17, 2003, the CIA produced a memo that said, "Since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."
So Wilson's assessment, rather than being false, ended up being accepted by the CIA. And, of course, the White House conceded in July 2003 that the allegation should not have been included in the State of the Union address.
Wilson's reporting may not have been conclusive. But as we have been told often, such is frequently the case in intelligence collection. After coming back from Niger, Wilson's view--which he did not express publicly for nearly a year and a half--was different from that held by CIA analysts. Yet his conclusion--that the Niger allegation was probably bunk--was in line with the thinking of the State Department on this matter. And Wilson's reasoning came to prevail and to be shared by the intelligence community.
The British government seems to be standing by the original allegation, and Butler has provided it backup. But the CIA, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, ended up concluding that the charge was not well-founded. You are free to point to the Butler report and accept its word over that of our own intelligence system, which you supposedly oversee, but you (or your staffers) should be aware that US intelligence reached the opposite conclusion.
2. In claiming that Wilson is a liar, you noted that Wilson said that his wife "definitely HAD not proposed that I make the trip" to Niger. But you maintain that the Senate report quoted from a memo from his wife that did (in your words) "promote her husband for the mission, saying 'my husband has good relations with both the PM and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.'"
This strikes us as rather a small point. So what if Valerie Wilson had suggested her husband? A week in Niamey for no pay was hardly a junket. What would have been wrong with a CIA officer telling another CIA officer that her husband, a former ambassador, is an Africa expert with experience in Niger and that perhaps he should be dispatched to Niger to see what he can learn? But because Wilson is on record saying it did not happen this way, his truthfulness and in fact his character are being questioned.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report stated,
"Some [CIA Counterproliferation Division] officials could not recall how the office decided to contact the former ambassador, however, interviews and documents provided to the Committee indicate that his wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip. The CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador's wife 'offered up his name' and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002, from [Valerie Wilson] says, 'my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.'"
This passage can be read two ways. It could be that Valerie Wilson "offered up" her husband as someone that CIA officials should talk to about the Niger allegation. It could be that she proposed him specifically for the trip. The record presented by the Senate report does not support a definitive reading. By the way, at least two media reports--a July 22, 2003, Newsday article and a July 13, 2004, CNN report--quote senior unnamed intelligence officers saying Valerie Wilson did not propose her husband for the mission to Niger. The Senate report does not mention these denials. Wilson says that the CPD reports officer quoted in the passage above has told Valerie Wilson that he was misquoted. Wilson has asked the Senate Intelligence Committee to re-interview him. Wilson also says that the chief of the CIA task force that sent him to Niger was never questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the manner in which he was selected to go to Niger.
Whatever happened in this regard, the report noted that the CIA people in charge of investigating the Niger allegation deliberated over what to do and then reached the decision to ask Wilson to perform a pro bono act of public service. And Wilson said yes. He had the experience for the job. His trip was no boondoggle arranged by his wife for his or their benefit.
3. Your final charge against Wilson is that he told the Washington Post that documents about the uranium deal may have been forged because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong," though he could not have possibly seen the documents in question at the time of his mission to Niger. The Post story you are referring to was published on June 12, 2003, and Wilson was an unnamed source for this article. It reported,
"After returning to the United States, the envoy [Wilson] reported to the CIA that the uranium-purchase story was false, the sources said. Among the envoy's conclusions was that the documents may have been forged because the 'dates were wrong and the names were wrong,' the former U.S. government official said."
Indeed, Wilson could not have rendered a judgment on the documents at the time of his February 2002, mission to Niger, for they were not yet in US hands. And Wilson has said that he did not see the forged documents until months after they became public in 2003. (He says he first saw them when NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell handed them to him during a July 22, 2003, interview, but since he did not have his glasses with him he could not read them.) By the time he spoke to Walter Pincus, who wrote the Post article in question, the forgeries were already well-known. It could well have been that during this conversation Wilson referred to what was already in the public record. And Wilson would not have been wrong to say at this time that his trip provided additional cause to suspect the documents were phony. He cannot be held responsible for how a newspaper characterized his off-the-record remarks. More importantly--and more to the point--when Wilson finally did go public about his trip to Niger (three weeks after this Post article appeared), he made certain to note that he had never seen the forged documents. In his July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed, he wrote:
"As for the actual [forged] memorandum [on the alleged Niger deal], I never saw it. But news accounts have 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."
This seems another minor dispute to us. But since you bring it up, you should note that the record shows that Wilson did clearly state he had not seen the forged documents. While there may have been some miscommunication between him and Pincus--or inartful editing at the Post--Wilson subsequently made certain the record was accurate.
In your letter, you refer to the "importance of accuracy and fairness in political discourse." To that, we say amen. We applaud Ambassador Wilson's truthful contribution to the national discourse. And we have a modest suggestion for you. Rather than obsess over the Wilson episode--and we note you say nothing in your letter about the Bush Administration leak that outed his wife as a CIA officer, ruining her career and possibly harming national security--perhaps you ought to ponder the larger issues presented by the Senate Intelligence Committee's report.
Two days before the Iraq war, George W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq by saying "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal" weapons of mass destruction. Later on, he claimed his decision to attack Iraq had been predicated upon "good, solid intelligence." The report--which you might have seen covered in the media--concluded that the intelligence community's critical findings on Iraq's WMDs were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." In other words, President Bush presented a false picture to the American public. Furthermore, the Senate report said, "The Central Intelligence Agency reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship." This means that when President Bush said before the war that Saddam Hussein was "a threat because he's dealing with Al Qaeda," he was not basing this significant assertion on the findings of the US intelligence community. The report also indicated that President Bush ignored the intelligence when he called Saddam Hussein "an ally" of Al Qaeda during his May 1, 2003, speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
In your capacity as public officials devoted to truth in public discourse, we encourage you to pressure the House leadership to investigate whether the Bush White House accurately represented the intelligence on WMDs and the supposed connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. As you might know, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has postponed such an inquiry until after the election. Given that more than 1,000 Americans have been killed in a war that was (according to the Senate report you passionately cite) sold to the public with bad information, you have a profound constitutional duty to rise above partisan inhibitions and unite in a call for a complete and truthful accounting.
Please join us in requesting an immediate Congressional investigation into how the Bush Administration handled and depicted the intelligence it received before the war. We look forward to your response.
Hamilton Fish, President of The Nation Institute, and Randy Fertel, President of the Fertel Foundation
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation magazine and author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
© 2004 The Nation