Wednesday, November 3, 2010

“Fair Game” Movie To Relive Iraq-Niger-Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame Controversy

The U.S. and the world are about to relive the Iraq-Niger-Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame affair when the movie “Fair Game” is released in theaters on November 5, 2010. Joe Wilson was a former American diplomat, and his wife Valerie Plame was a CIA analyst. In 2001 it was reported that Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger for its nuclear weapons program. In 2002, Wilson went on a trip to Niger for the CIA, and reported that he didn’t believe the story was true. In January 2003 President George Bush claimed that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa in his State of the Union address, and that began the controversy. Wilson and the White House began a war of words over the Niger story. Wilson ended up exaggerating and embellishing his role in the matter, while the White House tried to discredit him using his wife Plame over an event that proved to be false from the beginning.

In 2001 freelance spy Rocco Martino and Italy’s Italian Military Information and Security Service (SISMI) began disseminating the claim that Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from the western African nation of Niger. The two used forged and real documents that they put together in 2000 to make their case, with SISMI even breaking into the Niger embassy in Rome to steal letterhead and seals to make the papers seem more realistic. SISMI and Martino passed the story along to the French, British, and Americans. This created an echo chamber as Britain then forwarded the report to the CIA, and France told England.

Niger is in Western Africa (Luventicus)

In October 2001 the CIA began writing the first reports about Niger. On October 15, the CIA office in the U.S. Embassy in Rome wrote a summary of the SISMI report on Niger, but didn’t put much merit behind it. Three days later, an analyst at the CIA headquarters in Virginia wrote a more detailed report. SISMI claimed that Niger had talked about buying yellowcake since 1999, and that the deal was finalized in 2000 for 500 tons of uranium. There was a document claiming that the Niger president approved the sale, and that in October 2000 Niger’s Foreign Minister told an ambassador in Europe about the deal. The CIA thought the report was limited, lacked confirmation, needed more details, and that Iraq didn’t have the facilities to process uranium if it was true. It wrote a second paper on Niger in February 2002. Both were disseminated to other agencies in the U.S. government with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Energy Department thinking that the story was possible while the State Department’s intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research questioned it.

At the end of 2001 SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari tried to spread the story to receptive American think tanks as well. In December Pollari met with Michael Ledeen, a conservative analyst with ties to the White House about Niger and Iraq. Ledeen then told deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley about the conversation.

On February 12, 2002 the DIA wrote a paper about Niger, which caught the attention of Vice President Dick Cheney. The DIA report repeated the same claims as the previous two CIA ones, saying that Niger had agreed to sell 500 tons of uranium to Baghdad. When Cheney read the report, he asked the CIA for more information. The CIA summed up the SISMI claim, and said that a French consortium controlled Niger’s uranium industry, and they denied any sales to Iraq.

With the Vice President’s interest piqued, the CIA decided to investigate the story more. In February 2002 they decided to send someone to Niger. Valerie Plame a CIA analyst suggested that her husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson go. He had worked for the CIA before, and had been posted to Niger in the past. On February 19 the CIA and State Department met with Wilson to go over the details of his trip. The State Department was still critical of the original claim, and said that the U.S. Embassy in Niger would’ve been able to detect any large sale to Iraq. Others at the meeting questioned what Wilson could find. Despite the differences, Wilson left on February 20.

Former Ambassador Joe Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate the uranium claim in February 2002 (Slate)

On his trip Wilson met with U.S. and Niger officials. First, the U.S. Ambassador to Niger set up a conference with General Carlton Fulford, deputy U.S. commander of American forces in Europe, who had investigated the matter earlier in February already, and concluded that the story was not true. Wilson then talked with former and current Niger politicians and businessmen. The former prime minister told Wilson that in June 1999 a delegation led by Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican Wissam al-Zahawie arrived in Niger. The former premier thought the Iraqis wanted to talk about uranium, but he didn’t discuss the matter because of United Nations sanctions. Other Niger officials such as the former Minister of Energy and Mines said no uranium sales were made to Iraq, and that the industry was regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. A French-led consortium also ran the country’s two uranium mines, and would’ve been aware of any sale to Iraq. The U.S. Ambassador didn’t believe any deal had been made either. Wilson left thinking that the yellowcake story was not true.

Iraqi ambassador Wissam al-Zahawie’s trip to Niger in 1999 was of great interest to U.S. and English intelligence (Huffington Post)

On March 5, the CIA and State Department debriefed Wilson after he returned from Africa. Although Wilson didn’t think there was any substance to the claim, analysts were divided over his findings. The CIA believed his story about the 1999 Iraqi delegation to Niger supported the Italian story, while the State Department came away thinking the opposite. Overall, the CIA didn’t feel Wilson’s trip advanced the story much. On March 9 the CIA summed up Wilson’s trip in a memo, but it was not passed along to Vice President Cheney, as the former ambassador would later claim.

Nothing much happened with the story until the second half of 2002. In July the Department of Energy used the Niger story as one of three examples to prove that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program. Energy was the only agency in the U.S. government to give the alleged Niger-Iraq deal such a high profile. No other intelligence service thought it was that important

In September the White House picked up on the story and tried to include it in speeches about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. On September 11, the National Security Council (NSC) got the okay from the CIA to use Niger in a speech by President Bush, but it wasn’t used. On September 24 the NSC asked the CIA again about Niger, but decided not to use it a second time.

That same month, the British gave the first public hint of the Niger story. On September 24, it released a White Paper on Iraq entitled “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government.” (1) It said that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa. British Prime Minister Tony Blaire gave a speech on the paper repeating the Africa claim. Before the release of the White Paper, the CIA had warned the British about using Niger. That led to the wording being changed in the dossier, but England’s intelligence service MI6 stood by the report, saying that they had their own sources. In 2004 the Deputy Director of the CIA and the National Intelligence Officer both told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they thought the British had stretched the Africa story in the dossier.

MI6 had always been more receptive to the SISMI story than other intelligence agencies. When France passed along the Niger story to London, MI6 took that as confirmation, even though Paris was using the same faked Italian claim. In the autumn of 2001 Martino went to London and offered up the forgeries to the British as well. MI6 also believed that the 1999 delegation to Niger was about buying uranium

The British dossier got Wilson re-involved in the Niger story. Wilson claimed that when he saw the White Paper he called the CIA to urge them to consult with the British, and tell them about his February trip to Niger. The former ambassador also began talking to reporters as an anonymous source about his mission to Africa, and that he believed his findings were passed along to Cheney. Wilson would later tell the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he assumed that the Vice President would get his report, not that he knew that as a fact. Cheney wouldn’t find out who Wilson was until he wrote a piece for the New York Times in July 2003. 

At the beginning of October the Niger story was included in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. The Niger section was based upon the February DIA report, and was not included in the key judgments as only the Energy Department thought it was important. When the NIE was being drafted the State Department was the only agency that objected to the story being used. As a result, State got a sidebar voicing their skepticism.

That same month the White House again tried to include the Niger story in a Bush speech. On October 4, the NSC sent a draft of an address the president was going to give on Iraq in Cincinnati that included Niger. The CIA told them to remove it again. Two days later a revised version was delivered to the Agency that said Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa. CIA Director George Tenet told the Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that the story shouldn’t be used because it was single sourced, the French controlled the Niger mines, Iraqis already had a large stock of uranium, and that overall it was an overblown claim. That was enough to have Niger excised from the speech.

October was also when the SISMI story began to unravel. On October 7, Rocco Martino contacted an Italian reporter for Panorama magazine, Elisabetta Burba, about the Niger papers. Martino wanted $10,000 for them. Burba agreed to pay him only after the documents were verified. She showed them to her editor who suggested she take them to the U.S. embassy in Rome to see whether they were real or not since Washington was talking about Iraq’s weapons programs. October 9 she dropped off the papers at the embassy that then forwarded them to Washington. The State Department intelligence service immediately found problems with the papers, and passed them along to the CIA on October 16, warning them that the documents were questionable. The CIA wasn’t interested in them however, because they didn’t think the Niger story was that important to begin with. It didn’t receive the papers until January 16, and then sent them back to the State Department to be translated. They didn’t return until February. A CIA Africa analyst circulated a memo that the documents were questionable on February 11.

Back in Italy, Burba checked on the papers herself, and thought they were fakes. Later in October she flew to Niger to continue her investigation, and found nothing. Her story on the documents didn’t appear in Panorama until July 2003.

At the end of 2002 United Nations inspectors returned to Iraq. As part of that process, on December 7 Baghdad provided the U.N. with a declaration of its weapons programs. That month, the CIA and State Department both issued reports saying that Iraq failed to include Niger in its declaration. This was the first time that Niger was mentioned in public. Neither the CIA nor State Department believed that it was a major issue still. The State Department even conceded later that the CIA told them not to mention Niger, but the warning came to late to have it removed from the fact sheet. 

That didn’t stop the administration from picking up on the Niger claim and running with it. In January 2003 the White House released a fact sheet, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, and Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. They all mentioned the fact that Iraq had not included its attempt to buy uranium overseas in its weapons declaration. That culminated with President Bush saying that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa in his January 28 State of the Union speech. One of Rice’s aides had it included in the speech only after a CIA official told him to change the language from Niger to Africa, and accredit it to England. The Agency member still didn’t want the matter included in the State of the Union, but then gave in. CIA Director Tenet didn’t read the draft of the speech, which allowed it to go through. In December 2003 the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board reported that the White House was desperate for new information on Iraq’s nuclear program, so it ignored warnings about the Niger story and pushed for its inclusion in Bush’s speech. 

The publication of the Niger story caught the attention of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In January 2003 they asked the State Department and England (2) for information about Niger. They then interviewed Wissam al-Zahawie who visited Niger in 1999. He told the inspectors that he was on a trip to four African countries at the time to try to get officials to visit Baghdad, and didn’t even know that Niger produced uranium.

At the beginning of February the CIA turned over the Niger documents that it had received from the Italian journalist Burba to the IAEA. The Americans told them they had questions about the papers themselves. There were obvious problems in them as others had discovered. One letter dated July 2000 signed by the Niger president discussing Iraq buying 500 tones of uranium oxide had the 1965 constitution on it. Niger passed a new constitution in 1999 and the signature was not that of the president. Another letter from 1999 signed by the Niger foreign minister had letterhead belonging to the former military government, and the signature on it was from an official that left office in 1989. These issues and others were quickly identified by the IAEA that told the U.S. and the world that they were forgeries in early March. Shortly afterward the CIA issued a statement saying that they did not disagree with the IAEA’s assessment about the documents, and that their own reporting had always been fragmentary about Niger. The next month the CIA issued a recall notice for the three reports it made on Niger.

In the aftermath of the IAEAs findings Joe Wilson re-entered the scene. In early May 2003 Wilson mentioned his trip to Niger at a conference. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was present, and got Wilson’s permission to write about it. On May 6 Kristof’s piece was published. He wrote that Vice President Cheney was interested in the Niger story, and asked for an investigation. That led to a former ambassador being sent to Niger to check on it in February 2002. He told the CIA and State Department that there was no basis for the story, and that the supporting documents were forgeries. His report was distributed within the U.S. government and accepted, but the White House kept mentioning Niger. Wilson’s version of events had several major problems. First off, he had no idea what impact his trip had upon American intelligence, let alone the White House. As noted before, the CIA and State Department were split over Wilson’s trip, and Cheney at least never heard about him until 2003. He also never saw the faked Italian documents. Wilson told to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004 that he got mixed up about the papers because of all the press that they were receiving at the time. It seems more likely that he exaggerated and embellished his own story since he brought up the documents over and over with reporters. He would go on to be the source of stories in the Washington Post, the New Republic, and England’s Independent about the forged Niger documents that he had no experience with. He even went as far as to tell the Independent that MI6 must have gotten his report about Niger, implying that they too ignored his findings.

The Kristof column raised the ire of the Vice President’s office. Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby wanted to find out who the unnamed diplomat was in the article. He called the Undersecretary of State for Information, while Cheney’s press secretary called the CIA to find out. They told Cheney’s staff that Wilson was Kristof’s source, and that his wife Valerie Plame worked at the Agency and sent him.

VP Cheney and his Chief of Staff Libby orchestrated a covert media campaign to discredit Wilson after his comments to the press about Niger (New York Times)

Later Cheney told his staff to begin tracking stories about Niger and Wilson. He also came up with a series of points that aides should use with the press to counter Wilson, namely that he only went to Africa because his wife worked at the CIA. The Vice President wanted to not only prove that he was not the one that sent Wilson on his trip, but also hoped to paint Wilson’s trip as a form of nepotism with his wife that would raise questions about his credibility. Libby was then directed to call up journalists to refute the Kristof piece using this argument. Cheney even went as far as getting permission from Bush to leak classified material from the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to defend himself from Wilson’s charges. The Vice President was incensed by the claim that he sent Wilson personally to Niger, and that the former ambassador was criticizing the administration over its justification to invade Iraq. Wilson became an obsession, and Cheney was intent on discrediting him through a covert media campaign

Cheney’s office for example, would call six different journalists about Wilson. Libby contacted the New York Times’ Judith Miller on three separate occasions, and each time told her the story of Wilson and his CIA wife. One time, Libby and Miller met for lunch, and the Vice President’s Chief of Staff told her that the NIE confirmed the Niger story, and that there was plenty more classified evidence behind it as well, which was not true. (3)

In the meantime the administration had to deal with the IAEA and CIA’s statements about Niger. In June, Rice admitted that the story was false and shouldn’t have been included in Bush’s State of the Union address. The White House also told reporters that there was more than one source on the Niger story, which was why Bush said Africa in the State of the Union. They were referring to the British White Paper. Rice later told This Week With George Stephanapolous that there were reports about Niger outside of even the British, but those didn’t prove to be credible. The administration also tried to place the blame for Bush’s comments on the CIA, saying that they had okayed the speech. That eventually led CIA Director Tenet to take personal responsibility for the matter in early July.

On July 6, Wilson went public with his complaints. He wrote an article of the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” He claimed that the Niger story was an example of how the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to justify its war with Iraq. He said that in February 2002 the CIA was asked by Cheney to look into the Niger claim. That led the CIA to ask him to go to Niger to investigate, where he found nothing to support it. He then changed his story by saying that he never saw the forged Niger documents, but that the press reported that they had problems. He believed that the issue was over until England released its September 2002 White Paper that claimed Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa. That was followed by the December 2002 State Department fact sheet on Iraq’s declaration to weapons inspectors that said Iraq didn’t mention its attempt to obtain uranium, and then Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. Wilson believed that he had disproved the Niger story, and that his findings must have been ignored by the White House, otherwise they wouldn’t have kept mentioning it after his trip.

The day the article came out Wilson also appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press. (4) He claimed that Cheney’s office must have heard about his trip since the Vice President was the reason why he went to Niger in the first place. He went on to say that the White House must have had other intelligence on the matter or they were distorting the story after he went to Africa.

The White House immediately responded to Wilson’s new charges. It admitted that the administration relied upon bad intelligence when it included Africa in Bush’s State of the Union, but they claimed they had other intelligence on the matter. Behind the scenes though, the White House joined in Cheney’s on-going campaign to attack Wilson by bringing up his wife as the reason why he went to Niger. Both the president’s top political advisor Karl Rove and the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeated this line to reporters.

All the talk of the White House, Niger, Wilson, and his wife eventually led to columnist Robert Novak writing about it on July 14. The piece said that Wilson’s wife suggested that he go to Niger, and named her. That was the first time Valerie Plame’s name was printed in public. Democrats, some in the press, and Wilson and Plame claimed that this was part of the administration’s smear campaign against Wilson. It eventually came out that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was Novak’s source, not someone in the administration who was out to get Wilson. Nonetheless, the CIA was angered that Plame’s name was used in Novak’s article, and got the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the leak.

By July 2004 the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on pre-war intelligence on Iraq. It concluded that before the forged documents arrived, it was reasonable for U.S. intelligence to believe that Iraq might have been seeking to buy uranium from Africa. It noted that Wilson’s trip did not change analysts’ ideas about the story. In fact, some thought that Wilson confirmed the story because of the 1999 Iraqi delegation, which Niger’s premier thought was about buying yellowcake. It did fault the CIA for not passing along Wilson’s report to Cheney and other top officials in the administration. The intelligence community was also at fault for overstating the Niger story in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimated, and the CIA for not being interested in the forged Italian documents when they arrived in the U.S. That led the Agency to allow the administration to continue to talk about Niger even though they had proof that the story was a fake. In fact, the CIA and DIA did not tell the rest of the government when it discounted the claim.

The British on the other hand, continued to stand by their September 2002 White Paper that said Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa. In July 2003 Prime Minister Blair’s office said that England still stood by its story because it had other intelligence, which it could not share with the U.S. on the matter. A year later in July 2004 the Butler Inquiry repeated the same thing. As stated before, that other information was the 1999 Iraq delegation to Niger, and France, which only passed along the Italian story that was the original basis for MI6’s dossier.

In September 2004 the Iraq Survey Group seemed to finally put the matter to rest. They found that there was no evidence that Iraq tried to buy uranium from abroad. Iraq was offered uranium twice from Africa, and turned it down each time. With regards to Niger, Iraq only had two contacts with it after 1998, and neither was about uranium. The 1999 visit by Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican Wissam Zahawie was about inviting the Niger president to visit Baghdad to rebuke sanctions, not buying yellowcake.

In October 2005 the investigation into the Plame leak came to fruition when Cheney’s chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was indicted for obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury. Lewis’ lawyers presented an implausible defense that he heard Plame’s name first from NBC Meet The Press host Tim Russert. Russert disputed that claim. During the trial, the White House’s covert media campaign to discredit Wilson using his wife was exposed, and Libby was eventually found guilty of four of five counts in March 2007. Special Investigator and prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made it clear in court that he felt that Cheney was the one that should’ve been on trial, and that Lewis was just a fall guy. President Bush would later pardon him.

Cheney’s Chief of Staff Libby was found guilty for his role in the Plame affair, but was then pardoned by Pres. Bush (Esquire)

In the end, the Iraq-Niger-Wilson-Plame affair turned out to be a sordid one. All along the British and Americans were using a fake story made up by Italian intelligence. When the two went public with it, Wilson exaggerated his role in the affair, and embellished his story by initially saying that he disproved the Niger documents, even though he had never seen them. His actions angered the White House, who then decided to get back at him by using his wife. Robert Novak wrote about the feud, and in the process publicized Plame’s name. Wilson and others took this as another form of payback by the administration, but it turned out not to be. Still the ensuing investigation led to Cheney’s Chief of Staff Libby being convicted for his role in the mess. Oddly enough, when the whole Niger story seemed to be put to rest the British still stood by its claims, even though it had been discredited. Through each twist and turn government officials and individuals such as Wilson wanted to use the Niger story for their own political ends. U.S. intelligence never gave it much credence, yet the White House came back to it again and again. Wilson then exploited it to attack Bush’s decision to go to war. The administration then tried to use it against Wilson. Italy’s SISMI seemed to get the last laugh as it caused the entire controversy, and yet was never held accountable. Instead, the whole story got caught up in partisan politics in America with supporters and detractors of the Iraq war trying to spin it for their own cause. The movie “Fair Game” is likely to play right into this history.


1. Mukhopandhyay, Dipali, “The Bush Administration on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2004

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