I supported the war, with misgivings about the haste, the America-knows-best attitude and our ability to win the peace. The deciding factor for me was not the monstrosity of the regime (routing tyrants is a noble cause, but where do you stop?), nor the opportunity to detoxify the Middle East (another noble cause, but dubious justification for a war when hardly anyone else in the world supports you). No, I supported it mainly because of the convergence of a real threat and a real opportunity.
The threat was a dictator with a proven, insatiable desire for dreadful weapons that would eventually have made him, or perhaps one of his sadistic sons, a god in the region. The fact that he gave aid and at least occasional sanctuary to practitioners of terror added to his menace. And at the end his brazen defiance made us seem weak and vulnerable, an impression we can ill afford. The opportunity was a moment of awareness and political will created by Sept. 11, combined with the legal sanction reaffirmed by U.N. Resolution 1441. The important thing to me was never that Saddam Hussein's threat was "imminent" — although Sept. 11 taught us that is not such an easy thing to know — but that the opportunity to do something about him was finite. In a year or two, we would be distracted and Iraq would be back in the nuke-building business.
The Niger uranium story first started making the rounds of Western intelligence agencies late in 2001. The charges seemed plausible because Iraq was known to have been trying to enrich uranium in the late 1980's and Niger was one possible source of uranium fuel. But the supporting documents never checked out. Some bore what was alleged to be the signature of Niger's minister of energy and mines, but the man in question had been out of office many years before the sales negotiations were supposed to have taken place. And any actual sales contracts would have had to be arranged not with Niger's government, but with the international consortium that actually controls the country's entire uranium supply.
The C.I.A. heard about at least some of these problems from a former ambassador with African experience who looked into the matter at the agency's request in early 2002. His report that Niger denied the allegations was passed along to other government agencies, including the White House. But the C.I.A. appears not to have concluded that the story was unreliable. As a result, no effort was made by administration officials to keep it out of speeches and documents dealing with Iraq, including the State of the Union address.
As of mid-June, the Times editors grasped that the Wilson report was not viewed by the CIA as conclusive, and that he had been sent at the request of the CIA. That jibes with the contemporaneous reporting from Walter Pincus (June 12, June 13), as well as with the SSCI released in July 2004.
Well. As of mid-June, one might say that the Administration push-back against the May 6 Kristof column had been a resounding success.
However, the wheels obviously fell off in July - Wilson published his op-ed, the Administration retracted the "16 Words", and away we went.
So what went happened? I have a partial guess. Remember, Wilson did not submit a written report - the CIA circulated a written report based on his oral debriefing. Per the SSCI, Wilson's description of what he told the CIA is much more impressive than the report the CIA actually prepared.
Did the CIA not hear Joe as he spoke, did they deliberately suppress some of his more convincing claims, or did his memory trick him a bit, so that in subsequent retellings his debunking became more convincing?
If the Times editors were inclined to believe the official denials in June, then switched sides and believed Joe in July, well - bad guess.
Doubts about the accusation were raised in March 2002 by Joseph Wilson, a former American diplomat, after he was dispatched to Niger by the C.I.A. to look into the issue.
Mr. Wilson has said he is confident that his concerns were circulated not only within the agency but also at the State Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Tenet, in his statement yesterday, confirmed that the Wilson findings had been given wide distribution, although he reported that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and other high officials had not been directly informed about them by the C.I.A. The uranium charge should never have found its way into Mr. Bush's speech.
So, by this timeline, there were two waves of Wilson rebuttals. The first pushback, against the May 6 Kristof column, was a success by mid-June.
The second wave, in response to Wilson's July 6 op-ed, did not go as well. Of course, retracting the 16 Words on July 7 didn't exactly help. And retracting the retraction a week later did not enhance the picture of an Administration in command of the basic facts.
Well, our original question, now well disguised, was this - how many reporters were involved in the mid-June pushback and got a leak about Wilson and wife?
Bob Woodward got the tip, although he did not write a story.
Judy Miller got a tip, possibly as early as June 23.
Andrea Mitchell says she knew before she didn't know.
And I am still wondering about Nick Kristof (who may have left for Iraq), Walter Pincus, and many others.
MORE: After spending a bit of time with Lexis a la Carte (the poor man's Lexis - searches are free, downloads are $3 each), I have a modest attempt to chart the Niger scandal.
First, for what's its worth, the phrase "16 Words" seems to have been popularized on July 12 by (hmm, I just read it....) Condi Rice (or Ari?).
However - I did searches for articles that included uranium, Saddam, and Bush. Here is a table with the number of articles found in US newspapers for the week starting with the date shown:
May 1 - 31
May 8 - 34
May 15 - 34
May 22 - 27
May 29 - 14
June 5 - 35
June 12 - 74
June 19 - 37
June 26 - 43
July 3 - 57
July 10 - 428
July 17 - 529
July 24 - 207
July 31 - 147
And, to carve out the Wilson effect - from June 25 to July 5, there were 25 articles; on July 6, 7 and 8 there were a total of 33 articles.
However, for July 9/10 there were 74; for July 11/12, 87; July 13/14, 93; and July 15/16, 191.
Tenet took the fall for the 16 Words on the afternoon of Friday, July 11, which gave the story increased life.
And Condi Rice evidently had an opinion piece on July 15. But something else happened, I'll bet, and I doubt it was Novak - his column was widely ignored until David Corn promoted it on July 16.