Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security–and break the law–in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?
It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.
In a recent column on Nigergate, Novak examined the role of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV in the affair. Two weeks ago, Wilson went public, writing in The New York Times and telling The Washington Post about the trip he took to Niger in February 2002–at the request of the CIA–to check out allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium for a nuclear weapons program from Niger. Wilson was a good pick for the job. He had been a State Department officer there in the mid-1970s. He was ambassador to Gabon in the early 1990s. And in 1997 and 1998, he was the senior director for Africa at the National Security Council and in that capacity spent a lot of time dealing with the Niger government. Wilson was also the last acting US ambassador in Iraq before the Gulf War, a military action he supported. In that post, he helped evacuate thousands of foreigners from Kuwait, worked to get over 120 American hostages out Iraq, and sheltered about 800 Americans in the embassy compound. At the time, Novak’s then-partner, Rowland Evans, wrote that Wilson displayed “the stuff of heroism.” And President George H. W. Bush commended Wilson: “Your courageous leadership during this period of great danger for American interests and American citizens has my admiration and respect. I salute, too, your skillful conduct of our tense dealings with the government of Iraq….The courage and tenacity you have exhibited throughout this ordeal prove that you are the right person for the job.”
The current Bush administration has not been so appreciative of Wilson’s more recent efforts. In Niger, he met with past and present government officials and persons involved in the uranium business and concluded that it was “highly doubtful” that Hussein had been able to purchase uranium from that nation. On June 12, The Washington Post revealed that an unnamed ambassador had traveled to Niger and had reported back that the Niger caper probably never happened. This article revved up the controversy over Bush’s claim–which he made in the state of the union speech–that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapons program.
Critics were charging that this allegation had been part of a Bush effort to mislead the country to war, and the administration was maintaining that at the time of the speech the White House had no reason to suspect this particular sentence was based on faulty intelligence. “Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said days before the Post article ran. “But no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions.” Wilson’s mission to Niger provided more reason to wonder if the administration’s denials were on the level. And once Wilson went public, he prompted a new round of inconvenient and troubling questions for the White House. (Wilson, who opposed the latest war in Iraq, had not revealed his trip to Niger during the prewar months, when he was a key participant in the media debate over whether the country should go to war.)