Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The golden couple targeted by White House machine

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
Published: 07 March 2007

The way Joe Wilson tells it, the first time he met the woman who would become his third wife the world went into slow motion. He smiled at Valerie Plame at a reception at the Washington home of the Turkish ambassador. "Suddenly I saw nobody else in a throng that must have numbered 200 people," he later recalled.

Yet if their first meeting was the stuff of fairy tales the past four years have been anything but. The couple have found themselves at the centre of a bitter controversy linked directly to the American and British governments' use and manipulation of faulty intelligence to make the case for war against Iraq.

The backdrop to the controversy were "the 16 words" included in President George Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address. In that speech, Mr Bush said: 'The British Government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Mr Wilson, 57, knew that claim to be false. In 2002, the former diplomat had travelled to Niger at the behest of the CIA to investigate "intelligence" that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from the west African nation to develop a nuclear weapons programme. The "intelligence" was based on documents that the CIA had obtained from Italian intelligence agents. These documents were later proved to be forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr Wilson, who had once served as a US diplomat in Niamey, the capital of Niger, took less than a week to conclude the claims were false. Because of the structure of the country's uranium industry and its control by an international consortium, there was no way Niger could have exported more uranium without drawing attention. He had reported as much to the CIA.

Yet neither the Bush or Blair governments took any notice. In September 2002 a British dossier on Iraq claimed Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa and four months later came Mr Bush's speech. Mr Wilson started hinting to journalists that this was an area worthy of investigation.

In June 2003, speaking on the understanding that he not be named, Mr Wilson told the Independent on Sunday that not only had the administration misled the American people but that his report debunking the claims had almost certainly been passed to London. A week later he wrote a signed piece in the New York Times entitled "What I Did not Find in Africa". He wrote: "Questioning the selective use of intelligence to justify the war in Iraq is neither idle sniping nor 'revisionist history' as Mr Bush has suggested. The act of war is the last option of a democracy, taken when there is a grave threat to our national security."

The White House was furious. Led by Mr Bush's special adviser, Karl Rove, and the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, it set out to discredit Mr Wilson. It did so by going after his wife.

A week after Mr Wilson's article appeared, a piece written by the conservative columnist Robert Novak claimed the former diplomat had been sent to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, whom he named and identified as a CIA officer - potentially a federal crime. In reality, Novak's offence was potentially much greater; Ms Plame was not just a CIA employee, she was apparently working as a NOC or non-official cover, considered among the most covert.

It was Mr Novak's column and the effort to discover who had been its source that led federal prosecutors to investigate and ultimately charge Mr Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Ironically, while it emerged Libby did speak to journalists, it was Richard Armitage - then the deputy secretary of state - who was Mr Novak's primary source.

The couple, who have two young children, have now become fixtures on the liberal party circuit in Washington. Mr Wilson penned a memoir, The Politics of Truth while Ms Plame secured $2.5m to write her own book, Fair Game. The couple also filed a civil lawsuit against Mr Cheney, Mr Libby and Mr Rove seeking damages.

Key figures in Plame leak case

Patrick Fitzgerald

The federal attorney for Northern Illinois was appointed to the Plame leak case in 2003, and had earlier exposed a network of bribery involving the state's then governor George Ryan, who was jailed for corruption.

Judith Miller

The former New York Times reporter was jailed in 2005, after refusing to reveal to the grand jury that Mr Libby was her source for the fact that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Dick Cheney

Madevisits to the CIA, in what critics say was a deliberate effort to pressure analysts to draw the most ominous conclusions from available intelligence.

No comments: