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The Nation

A CIA Cover Blown, a White House Exposed

August 25, 2005|Tom Hamburger and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Toward the end of a steamy summer week in 2003, reporters were peppering the White House with phone calls and e-mails, looking for someone to defend the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

About to emerge as a key critic was Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who asserted that the administration had manipulated intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.

At the White House, there wasn't much interest in responding to critics like Wilson that Fourth of July weekend. The communications staff faced more pressing concerns -- the president's imminent trip to Africa, growing questions about the war and declining ratings in public opinion polls.

Wilson's accusations were based on an investigation he undertook for the CIA. But he was seen inside the White House as a "showboater" whose stature didn't warrant a high-level administration response. "Let him spout off solo on a holiday weekend," one White House official recalled saying. "Few will listen."

In fact, millions were riveted that Sunday as Wilson -- on NBC's "Meet the Press" and in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post -- accused the administration of ignoring intelligence that didn't support its rationale for war.

Underestimating the impact of Wilson's allegations was one in a series of misjudgments by White House officials.

In the days that followed, they would cast doubt on Wilson's CIA mission to Africa by suggesting to reporters that his wife was responsible for his trip. In the process, her identity as a covert CIA agent was divulged -- possibly illegally.

For the last 20 months, a tough-minded special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has been looking into how the media learned that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative.

Top administration officials, along with several influential journalists, have been questioned by prosecutors.

Beyond the whodunit, the affair raises questions about the credibility of the Bush White House, the tactics it employs against political opponents and the justification it used for going to war.

What motivated President Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove; Vice President Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby; and others to counter Wilson so aggressively? How did their roles remain secret until after the president was reelected? Have they fully cooperated with the investigation?

The answers remain elusive. As Fitzgerald's team has moved ahead, few witnesses have been willing to speak publicly. White House officials declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing inquiry.

But a close examination of events inside the White House two summers ago, and interviews with administration officials, offer new insights into the White House response, the people who shaped it, the deep disdain Cheney and other administration officials felt for the CIA, and the far-reaching consequences of the effort to manage the crisis.

July 6, 2003

Ten weeks after Bush landed aboard an aircraft carrier in front of a banner that proclaimed "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, Wilson created his own media moment by questioning one of the central reasons for going to war.

He told how he was dispatched by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate the claim that Iraq had sought large quantities of uranium from the African nation of Niger. Wilson told "Meet the Press" that he and others had "effectively debunked" the claim -- only to see it show up nearly a year later in the president's State of the Union speech.

Wilson appeared to be an eyewitness to administration dishonesty in the march to war.

The State of the Union speech had been a pillar of the administration's case for war, and Wilson was raising questions about one of its key elements: the claim that Iraq was a nuclear threat.

At the time of Wilson's disclosure, U.S. and United Nations officials had yet to turn up evidence of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. A ragtag Iraqi insurgency had begun to strike back.

In public, the White House was predicting that weapons of mass destruction would be found. But behind the scenes, officials were worried about the failure to find those weapons and the possibility that the CIA would blame the White House for prewar intelligence failures.

Wilson seemed a credible critic: His diplomatic leadership as charge d'affaires in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq just before the 1991 bombing of Baghdad had earned him letters of praise from President George H.W. Bush.

That made him dangerous to the administration.

July 7, 2003

Within 24 hours, the White House reversed its view of the damage Wilson could do. He began to receive the attention of Rove, a man with a reputation for discrediting critics and disciplining political enemies, and of Libby, a longtime Cheney advisor and CIA critic.

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