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December 03, 2003

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Rock

Also note the incorrect statement:

"... after Wilson began debunking President Bush's State of the Union claim that Iraq had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium from Niger."

Kurtz should know better.

HH

This Vanity Fair shoot is hardly an isolated incident... the self-promotion of Wilson and the apparent recklessness of Plame are well documented.

HH

Noah finally wises up... too bad he didn't after reading your letter.

Alex Parker

Yeah, I knew I was right to be worried....

Just because this was a not-well-thought-out measure doesn't mean it's right for you guys to jump at their throats.

I find it very hard to believe that Plame or Vanity Fair wouldn't have cleared this with the CIA. Unless you guys have information which states otherwise, I don't see how you can say that she is violating national security.

And, kudos to Maguire for noting that ultimately, the scandal and the Wilsons are separate. Despite what Instapundit implies, none of the information that I used to make my conclusion that the Bushies had broken the law came from Joseph Wilson or Plame.

Richard Swan

If the Wilson's cleared this with the CIA, then the outing scandal is probably nothing. Bob Novak claims he got the CIA to confirm she was an employee. They would have prefered Bob not use her name but they didn't strongly object to it.
so if the CIA thought it was okay for her picture to be taken, then they probably thought her name being printed was okay. So no story.

HH

Haven't seen anyone claim this violates national security...

Alex Parker

Richard,

As you note, the CIA specifically asked Novak not to print Plame's name. I and others have argued that if they wanted to have a decent shot at talking Novak out of naming her, they had to identify her. What were there other options? "Plame? Never heard of her! But, uh, don't write it anyways."

HH: I'll start arguing that Wilson violated national security when the CIA announces an internal investigation, like it did when Novak squealed. Until then, I don't see how there is any equivalence.

capt joe

Alex,

I just re-read Novak's stuff. The way he plays it is that the CIA did not make a strong stand on his statement about Plame. They said they did not like it but not "under no circumstances do so".

I think this stands in line with her status. She was a NOC but after Ames outed here in the mid 90's that was finished so she became an analyst. I think this is what happened. The CIA knew she wasn't covered by NOC protection anymore but did not want coverage because of her former status. They knew they couldn't push it because her status was no longer covered by the NOC protections. Novak took it to be not a big deal and so we have the story.

HH

Alex - Methinks you missed the point. To argue that this picture is not a violation of national security is a bit of a straw man.

Tom Bowler

I still come back to the question of why Wilson was sent to Nigeria. If it had been a CIA employee of any kind who undertook the mission, would that person have been allowed to go public with the supposed contradiction as Wilson did? Anybody working at the CIA ultimately reports to George W. Bush. How do you publically contradict the boss, by going public with internal information, and still keep your job?

Is it a stretch to think that the "debunking" of the claim that Iraq sought "yellowcake from Nigeria" was premeditated on the part of someone at the CIA, Valerie perhaps? Maybe. But as the story unfolds it becomes less of a stretch to think that the outcome of Wilson's "investigation" was decided before he went. Is there a faction at the CIA that is involved in domestic political dirty tricks? I think it will be very instructive to find out who leaked the name Plame, but I don't think we will.

Mithras

Publishing Plame's photograph doesn't undercut the charge that the White House outed her as an undercover CIA agent. Her picture has been taken before - she was there when the Washington Post interviewed Wilson before the Novak piece ran. Whether Wilson likes publicity or not is hardly the point. What possible significance to the underlying crime does this article have?

HH

She had her picture taken before? This makes this better how? The mainstream media, especially of late, has relied unquestioningly on the word of Wilson in covering this story. His credibility has never been great, now it's down the tubes.

Mithras

Whether she had her picture taken or not is irrelevant. The issue is the crime of exposing her identity as a CIA undercover agent. Wilson did not do that. This is just another red herring.

TM

What possible significance to the underlying crime does this article have?

I am firmly on both sides of this question. The short answer is, none.

The longer answer is, we are only talking about this Plame-outing as a major breach of national security and a possible threat to the safety of a CIA agent (and her networks) because of Wilson's interview with Corn which started this. People have extrapolated from Wilson's Kim Philby reference to conclude that lives were lost as a result of this leak.

Suppose that, in the first interview with Corn, Wilson had said something closer to the truth. He would have said something like, she worked overseas years ago under different cover, a lot of her work was thought to be compromised by Ames, she hasn't been doing recruiting for years, this leak is a breach of proper CIA security and ought to be investigated, but it is probably not that big a deal.

Suppose that, in addition, Wilson never appeared on a talk show. A routine investigation was underway, it would have continued, and this topic would have probably been ignored (as it was for quite a while, anyway). Wilson hit the talk show circuit long before it was clear that the investigation was going nowhere, and has appeared to be reliably partisan and phony ever since.

Without the hype, a routine investigation of a minor leak goes nowhere, and goes unnoticed.

With Wilson's hype, the investigation gets more attention for partisan purposes, but ultimately goes nowhere.

I am watching the press wring their hands about whether Bush held a "real" turkey in the classic Baghdad photo, and worrying about whether they were duped into some sort of photo-op. Are they having similar doubts about their coverage of Ms. Plame?

Mithras

As far as I can tell, whether or not any of our agents died or were captured as a result of outing Plame is not an element of the crime. It's like firing a gun blindly through someone's door, and then arguing it is no big deal if the bullets didn't hit anyone.

TM

Well, that is why you lean towards the short answer.

But as a casual reader of the NY Post, I have observed the following - random firings of guns don't normally make the front page unless the bullet randomly strikes someone's baby, or a nun, or some such.

Cecil Turner

If the White House outed Plame to intimidate Wilson, as he claims, it’s very likely a crime (dependent only on a couple of technical points concerning her cover and the leaker’s knowledge thereof), and a serious national security issue. However, if a “senior administration official” mentioned her in background because it was part of interagency gossip after her husband wrote a NYTimes editorial about his CIA fact-finding trip, it’s not a crime. Nor is it particularly troubling to national security. (Arguably less so than failing to have Wilson sign a non-disclosure agreement before sending him on a CIA mission, or him violating said agreement.)

Deciding which is most likely is entirely dependent on who to believe. Wilson’s credibility is a central issue, and it’s never been particularly strong. This latest stunt has shot it right in the a__.

Mithras

Cecil - However, if a “senior administration official” mentioned her in background because it was part of interagency gossip

If I understand you correctly, you're arguing that it's not a big deal if the official didn't have the clearance that the criminal statute covers. That's speculation at odds with the facts, first of all. And I don't think that running a CIA's name in the paper is a small deal, "technically" legal or not.

HH

Josh Marshall, of course, conducted an interview with Wilson and many of his posts are based on what Wilson said. Instead he's posted paragraphs about the "credibility gap" represented by a turkey and praising Mike Allen for his left-wing bias.

Meanwhile Atrios asserts that the real scandal is that Bush wasn't very polite, gosh-durn it. Oh, and Bush and company posed in Vanity Fair too, which we all know is exactly the same.

Alex Parker

Yes, Tom, but when if the President randomly fired guns around, and no one was hit, I still think it would make the front page.

Cecil Turner

“If I understand you correctly, you're arguing that it's not a big deal if the official didn't have the clearance that the criminal statute covers. That's speculation at odds with the facts, first of all. And I don't think that running a CIA's name in the paper is a small deal, "technically" legal or not.”

You brought up elements of the crime. If you’re claiming it’s a crime, you have to prove all of them . . . including that one. (And it’s the access that’s in question, not the clearance.)

But what I’m really arguing is that it’s possible Wilson’s op-ed about his CIA mission generated gossip about his analyst wife. And if it was bandied about by people who knew she was an analyst, but were unaware of her NOC status (if it was in fact still active), then no crime has been committed. Nor in that case does Wilson have anyone to blame but himself.

Mithras

I think most of the reporting has shown pretty clearly that Plame was not rumored to be an analyst or anything else connected with CIA before the phone calls from the administration that prompted the Novak article - that is, after the Wilson op-ed. But you're right, burden of proof is on me. Can we get to the bottom of it, please?

Alex Parker

What Turner is arguing is that by mentioning his mission to the national spotlight at all, Wilson should have realized the risk to his wife.

Writers connected with the CIA will typically send such op-ed pieces to the CIA for confirmation. Wilson may or may not have done this in regards to the NY Times op-ed, or his earlier anonymous sourcing. But at the very least the CIA never formally announced a leak, or asked the DOJ for investigation into a leak, as it did with the Novak article.

If you're going to argue that Wilson's disclosures were technically legal but shows near-criminal recklessness, then certainly the recklessness of the leakers is just as bad, if not worse. This was not just one isolated incident, but a disclosure to at least two other journalists besides Novak. (Someone at TIME magazine,and someone at The Washington Post.)

Cecil Turner

“I think most of the reporting has shown pretty clearly that Plame was not rumored to be an analyst or anything else connected with CIA before the phone calls from the administration that prompted the Novak article –“

Two problems with that statement. The first asserts a negative, and is obviously unprovable. Besides, nobody here has any idea what rumors circulated at CIA headquarters (the most likely source), and presumably many there knew she was an analyst. The second is the “phone calls from the administration” statement, which isn’t proven and contradicts Novak’s version.

IMO, a very likely scenario has somebody in the Administration calling CIA headquarters after Wilson’s article broke, asking who the f*** he was, and if he in fact was sent to Africa. A response such as, “yeah, his wife sent him . . . she’s a WMD analyst” is perfectly plausible, and would explain all the known facts (including Novak’s claim that her identity was a tangential point in the conversation). If that’s what happened, it’s not a crime.

TM is correct that this all started with Wilson’s NYTimes op-ed. His subsequent actions do not appear consistent with someone who’s worried about his wife’s cover. And all this moral outrage about leaks—while ignoring Wilson’s first one—is a bit hard to credit.

IceCold

First, I'm completely agnostic on the legal aspects of this, the Plame outing, etc. Whatever you guys say. I'm willing to be unmoved or outraged when the facts are finally in.

I've never gotten past the fact (that was fact) that Wilson's NYT op-ed was premised on a non-fact. The President didn't mention Niger (or Nigeria, as was mistakenly written in a previous comment -- though I think this nicely underlines the point). Wilson went to Niger. His mission to Niger was probably useful but in itself hardly dispositive. He's never claimed any inside info on other African uranium sources at all. The President referred to a British assessment concerning "Africa."

So, leaving aside the "Plame affair" (entirely a side-effect of the Wilson/Niger/SOTU/non-debunking) what are we talking about?

Given the departure of most elite media to an alternative universe some time ago, the bogus "scandal" back in the summer over the non-debunking was pathetic but unsurprising.

To me the mystery of importance here doesn't concern the tehnicalities or facts of leaking info on covert agents, or Wilson/Plame's credibility or motives -- it's the incomprehensible failure of the White House, from the first day, to say "excuse me, what's the question?".

Was on the road when the non-scandal "broke"; fully expected a spokesman type (not even Rice) to just eviscerate the "question" by answering: "the SOTU referred to a British assessment in Africa; the British stand by it; Amb. Wilson's views on Niger are taken seriously, but they're not the whole story and in any case Niger wasn't mentioned in the SOTU. So I'm not sure I understand what the question is here."

Anybody have a guess as to why this wasn't the way things played out?


Alex Parker

I've heard that defense so many times, but what I haven't heard is what other country Bush was talking about.

IceCold

"Defense"???

It's not a "defense" to point out that the premise of a question is incorrect. If you ask me about "X" in my speech -- and there was no "X" in my speech -- it's a "defense" to say "uh, well, there WAS no X in my speech"?

Couldn't there be an infinite string of baseless questions if one must "defend" things one hasn't actually said?

Moving beyond the technical (but critical) matter of relevance, your question about other countries (the ones presumably involved in the Brit report) is of course legit and on-point. Besides Niger, apparently Congo, South Africa, Malawi, Namibia, Gabon, Zambia and Zimbabwe have recoverable deposits -- don't know the current status on actual mining in each of them. But clearly Niger is merely one piece of a bigger puzzle.

Wilson is mocked for "sipping sweet tea" and so on, and the overt nature of his mission. This is unjustified. An overt mission can have value, and often is used in conjunction with other efforts to develop a fuller picture. There's no reason, knowing what we know, to denigrate the Wilson mission per se.

The problem remains that Wilson looked at one side of one element of the problem -- not even one specifically referenced in the SOTU. Thus he has no standing or information to touch the SOTU Sixteen, one way or the other.
He could be completely wrong about Niger, or completely right -- it doesn't matter. That was my point. And the WH should have immediately and forever responded along those lines.

Two troubling things about Wilson's NYT op-ed. Any editor should have demanded back-up for the sweeping assertion that administration claims such as those in the SOTU were baseless (OK, it's hard to see much editing of this sort in any part of the NYT any more, but that's a different point).

This back-up of course would have been impossible to produce -- unless Wilson had access to and was thereby leaking a highly sensitive intel assessment that went way, way beyond his own Niger mandate -- which is very doubtful.

These two thoughts -- why isn't the WH correcting the questioner instead of trying to answer an unanswerable question; and how can Wilson make such sweeping claims when he's seen just one sub-part of one part of the picture -- occurred to me instantly in July, as I sat at my laptop reading the op-ed and the initial WH response.

As I said before, the troubling bit here is the WH response. It makes no sense. Nothing that's come out since makes it any more comprehensible.

sym

Nigergate, such as it was, began when the Bush admin themselves admitted the line should not have been in the SOTU. Wilson's op-ed just added fuel to the fire.

"What Turner is arguing is that by mentioning his mission to the national spotlight at all, Wilson should have realized the risk to his wife."
Yeah, he should have expected Karl Rove to blow his wife's cover for revenge. This theory is just blaming the victim.

I really don't understand the significance of these photos. The scandal has nothing to do with Wilson's cred. It's just about whether a "senior admin official" told Novak what Plame did for a living.
I also seem to have missed the memo that automatically equates posing in Vanity Fair with being a pathological liar. Just because it's true for the Bush administration doesn't mean it's true for everybody, right?

Plame changed her mind about whether or not she can be photographed. It's not a felony, unlike some admin official's actions.

Alex Parker

Here is Wilson's NYT op-ed, let's take a look at his charges:

I thought the Niger matter was settled and went back to my life. (I did take part in the Iraq debate, arguing that a strict containment regime backed by the threat of force was preferable to an invasion.) In September 2002, however, Niger re-emerged. The British government published a "white paper" asserting that Saddam Hussein and his unconventional arms posed an immediate danger. As evidence, the report cited Iraq's attempts to purchase uranium from an African country.

Then, in January, President Bush, citing the British dossier, repeated the charges about Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa.

The next day, I reminded a friend at the State Department of my trip and suggested that if the president had been referring to Niger, then his conclusion was not borne out by the facts as I understood them. He replied that perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I accepted the explanation. I didn't know that in December, a month before the president's address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that mentioned the Niger case.

Yes, Mr. Bush did mention Niger in later speeches, and the State Department and Condi Rice used it to push the case for war. This is all documented in Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece.

If you're interested in knowing more about Mr. Wilson's mission, a good place to start is his interview with Josh Marshall. He describes how he was sent to verify a memo supposedly issued between Niger and Iraq. He concluded, convincingly to me, that such a memo could not possibly exist.

When this came up in Bush's address, Wilson assumed that there was some other evidence. When it became clear that the memo was crudely forged, Condi Rice defended the administration by saying that, besides perhaps someone in "the bowels" of the CIA, no one knew about it. Wilson knew that this was at least somewhat inaccurate, and decided to respond, first by being an anonymous source in some articles, and then by writing his op-ed.

My response earlier was a bit snarky, I should have laid out my argument more. Seymour Hersh, and virtually everyone else who has been covering this, has said that the British report refers to Niger. I have yet to hear anyone mention any other African country that could have been what Mr. Bush was referring to. As you pointed out, the response to this from the administration has been mystifying...unless Niger was in fact the country in question.

Cecil Turner

“"What Turner is arguing is that by mentioning his mission to the national spotlight at all, Wilson should have realized the risk to his wife."
Yeah, he should have expected Karl Rove to blow his wife's cover for revenge. This theory is just blaming the victim.”

Umm, not quite. What I’m arguing is that Wilson generated a conversation on the topic (intentionally), and one of the byproducts was his wife’s cover being blown. I would also contend it’s foreseeable, and that he apparently didn’t care . . . but whether he foresaw it or not, it’s his fault. The “Karl Rove blew her cover for revenge” theory makes little objective sense, and AFAICT there’s exactly zero evidence to support it.

This “crime” and “victim” thing is also overblown. Wilson’s actions make no sense in a vacuum (he obviously didn’t canvass all of Africa and determine there were no attempts by Iraq to acquire uranium . . . and in fact he documented one probable attempt). His actions make perfect sense if they reflect Plame’s disgruntlement over her WMD analysis being ignored—and him using a tangentially related trip to complain. It’s perfectly legal for her to out herself, even if she uses her husband to do it, but then she’s hardly a victim.

Cecil Turner

"Seymour Hersh, and virtually everyone else who has been covering this, has said that the British report refers to Niger."

That's not correct. A Times of London article from the next day states it was from all over Africa, but that the primary concern was the Congo:

There were signs that the Iraqis concentrated on the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is a black market in uranium. Large uranium deposits there have not been mined for some years. The largest mine is at Mbuji Mayi, from where the uranium used in the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was extracted. The mine, in an area controlled by Zimbabwean troops, is in disrepair.

The same day, the Guardian said:
It comes as the dossier unveiled by Tony Blair accused Saddam Hussein of trying to buy African uranium to give Iraq’s weapons programme a nuclear capability. The dossier did not identify any country allegedly approached by Baghdad but security analysts said the Congo was the likeliest, followed by South Africa.

Two days later, the Telegraph said:
The Democratic Republic of Congo has emerged as the likeliest target of Iraq's attempts to secure uranium for its nuclear weapons programme, after Britain gave warning that Saddam Hussein has sought "significant quantities" of the radioactive metal somewhere in Africa.

"I have yet to hear anyone mention any other African country that could have been what Mr. Bush was referring to."
Mr Bush quoted the British Intelligence dossier. They apparently removed a line claiming a connection with "Niger," because the CIA said it wasn't supportable, and went with the more generic British Intelligence claim: "Africa."

TM

Wow, I had not seen all of those Brit papers (although I had seen The Guardian).

Anyway, the excerpted US National Intelligence Estimate from Oct. 2002 said this:

Uranium Acquisition.

...A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of "pure uranium" (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. We do not know the status of this arrangement.

Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources. Reports suggest Iraq is shifting from domestic mining and milling of uranium to foreign acquisition....

Alex Parker

Here is George Tenet's apology for the 16 words in Bush's SOTU address. Now, it does mention the two other African countries in the October NIE estimate, although the same estimate also noted INR's skepticism of these reports.

I keep looking for the tell-tale line that states that the reports of uranium from Congo or Somalia were innaccurate, but it's not there. The closest he gets is here: "Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct -- i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a Presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for Presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed."

However, if there was any evidence at all that Iraq had sought uranium from Congo or Somalia, or any other African nation besides Niger, why on earth would they admit that it was a mistake?

And furthermore, you guys keep overstating Wilson's op-ed piece in the NY Times. He never states that the 16 words in the SOTU speech were false. He singles out the times when the administration specified Niger, and he invites the administration to bring forth what evidence might have proved him wrong.

The administration replied by admitting he was right.

Cecil Turner

"I keep looking for the tell-tale line that states that the reports of uranium from Congo or Somalia were innaccurate, but it's not there. The closest he gets is here: "Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct -- i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa."

I'm not sure what you're arguing here. Tenet admits the CIA couldn't verify British intelligence cited in the SOTU (in fact, they'd warned the Brits so earlier).

"And furthermore, you guys keep overstating Wilson's op-ed piece in the NY Times. He never states that the 16 words in the SOTU speech were false. He singles out the times when the administration specified Niger, and he invites the administration to bring forth what evidence might have proved him wrong."

No, he doesn't. The only administration statement he "singles out" is the SOTU speech: "Then, in January, President Bush, citing the British dossier, repeated the charges about Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa."

Again, I'm not sure where you're trying to go with this. The only people who can speak authoritatively about the British intelligence are the Brits, and they aren't talking (except to stand by their story). Speculation seems a waste of time.

TM

Speculation seems a waste of time.

I'm filing that under "Why Do I Blog?".

Cecil Turner

Thanks Henry, that's a particularly good article and nicely disposes of most of Wilson's implications.

I still think this whole thing is mainly about disgruntled WMD analysts (just like in the UK), and those who think their views weren't properly emphasized in the estimates. That'd make Wilson's motive at least understandable. (Or, he could just be a left-wing wacko trying to score political points . . . )

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