Senate Report Clouds Leak Investigation
Sparring Over Veracity Of CIA Operative's Husband
Could Delay Indictments Past Election
By DAVID S. CLOUD and GARY FIELDS
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 19, 2004; Page A4
WASHINGTON -- A long-running Justice Department investigation into which Bush-administration official leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame's name is back where it started: Her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, is finding his credibility under severe assault. And that could have implications for how the leak case is resolved.
A Senate Intelligence Committee report released this month, citing internal Central Intelligence Agency e-mails and interviews, says Ms. Plame suggested that her CIA superiors use Mr. Wilson for a 2002 mission to Niger to investigate now-discredited reports about prewar attempts by Iraq to purchase uranium "yellowcake." That contradicts Mr. Wilson's repeated claim that his wife played no part in the decision to send him on the trip. The report also portrayed Mr. Wilson as embellishing the role he played in investigating the Niger story. Mr. Wilson hit back on Friday with a six-page rebuttal, accusing the committee of "errors and distortions."
Yet the sparring about Mr. Wilson's veracity could give the Justice Department an excuse to back away from indictments, at least until after the November presidential election. Even if charges are brought, the details in the Senate report about Mr. Wilson give the White House more ammunition to use against him, blunting the blow if someone in the administration is accused of being behind the leak.
Mr. Wilson says the question of whether his wife suggested him for the trip "is absolutely irrelevant" to the decision on bringing charges against whoever leaked her name. In his letter to the committee last week, he argued that his wife simply recited his credentials to CIA officials making the choice.
Yet Republican Party officials have seized on the Senate Intelligence Committee's findings in an effort to counteract the damage done to President Bush from the leak affair and, more broadly, from Mr. Wilson's criticism in dozens of speeches and television appearances over the past year of Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie in a statement calls Mr. Wilson "a liar" who has made "allegations against the president that have now been proven false." On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Mr. Gillespie said that Mr. Wilson "is an adviser to the Kerry campaign" who has been "entirely discredited."
That overstates the report's findings about Mr. Wilson. But whether it damages him or not, the report, in strictly legal terms, shouldn't have any effect on Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into whether the White House violated a law that makes it a crime to disclose the name of a clandestine intelligence officer. At the same time, Mr. Fitzgerald must weigh whether to push his case all the way to its potentially messy end -- namely, indicting administration officials before the election.
Whatever action Mr. Fitzgerald takes will have political implications. "I think this [Senate report] was an effort on behalf of the Republicans to discredit Mr. Wilson by showing why the White House outed his wife and maybe head off an indictment. Nice try, but the law says you don't out a clandestine operative no matter what the reason," says Larry Johnson, one of a group of former CIA officers that has pushed for indictments in the case.
Mr. Bush started the whole affair in his 2003 State of the Union speech before invading Iraq. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said. His statement was based in part on documents purportedly from Niger recounting Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium; the documents are now considered to be forgeries and the White House later acknowledged the sentence shouldn't have been included in the speech.
The Senate report and a similar one by British authorities released this month make clear that the question of whether Iraq sought uranium in Africa is a murky one that may never be fully resolved. The reports show that intelligence agencies from both countries have multiple unconfirmed reports that Iraq made such an attempt in Niger and elsewhere. French and British intelligence separately told the U.S. about possible Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Niger, the U.S. report said. There were other unverified reports as well. As a result, the 511-page British report backed the U.K. government's claim that it had intelligence that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa, and said Mr. Bush's claim on the subject and a similar one by British Prime Minister Tony Blair were "well-founded."
But the U.S. report criticizes the CIA for "inconsistent and at times contradictory" reports to policy-makers on the uranium issue. It says it was reasonable for the agency to think the Niger purchase attempt may have occurred until October 2002, when the U.S. government received documents purporting to describe Iraqi purchase attempts but which were clearly forgeries. Even so, the report says, the CIA didn't warn Mr. Bush against raising the issue in his State of the Union speech. Only later, on June 17, 2003, did the agency conclude in an internal memo that "We no longer believe there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."
A former U.S. ambassador to Gabon and National Security Council Africa expert, Mr. Wilson was sent to Niger to check out reports that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake, which is milled uranium oxide that is refined to make nuclear-weapons material. A year later, after the U.S. invasion, Mr. Wilson wrote a newspaper opinion piece asserting that the intelligence on Iraq and yellowcake had been "twisted" to exaggerate the Iraq threat.
Eight days after Mr. Wilson's piece appeared, conservative newspaper columnist Robert Novak wrote a column naming Ms. Plame, and saying he had been told by administration officials that she was the one who "suggested sending [Mr. Wilson] to Niger," implying he hadn't gotten the job on his merits.
Disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity prompted former CIA Director George Tenet to ask for a Justice Department investigation. Federal law makes it a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert intelligence officer with the intention of damaging national security. It is also a felony for any U.S. official with a security clearance to disclose an intelligence officer's identity to anyone not authorized to receive such information.
Prosecutors are still trying to determine who leaked Ms. Plame's identity and why. The question, says a law-enforcement official, is whether the individual had a security clearance that gave him or her access to Ms. Plame's identity -- and also leaked her name to damage national security. "We still have to prove that, and it's not easy to do," the official says. "That's why nothing ever happens with these cases."
Dozens of White House employees, including the president and vice president, have been interviewed. Most recently, several reporters have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Mr. Novak has repeatedly declined to say whether he has been subpoenaed.
Under Justice Department guidelines, prosecutors must show they have pursued nearly all other means of obtaining information before calling a reporter before a grand jury, a Justice Department official says. Because it is considered a last resort, sending subpoenas to journalists may indicate the investigation is winding down, Justice Department and FBI lawyers say.