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A CIA Cover Blown, a White House Exposed
By Tom Hamburger and Sonni Efron, Times Staff Writers
August 25, 2005
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.

Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson
The couple appeared in Vanity Fair magazine last year, months after she was revealed to be a CIA agent.
(Jonas Karlssom / Vanity Fair)

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.

There were grounds to challenge the former diplomat on the substance of his uranium findings: Wilson had no special training for that kind of mission; his conclusions about Niger were not definitive and were based on a few days of informal interviews; and they differed from the conclusions of British intelligence.

But it appears Rove was more focused on Wilson's background, politics and claims he ostensibly had made that his mission was initiated at the request of the vice president.

Karl Rove Karl Rove
President Bush's strategist tried to discredit Joseph Wilson by saying Wilson's wife, not the vice president, was behind the trip to Niger.
Rove mentioned to reporters that Wilson's wife had suggested or arranged the trip. The idea apparently was to undermine its import by suggesting that the mission was really "a boondoggle set up by his wife," as an administration official described the trip to a reporter, according to an account in the Washington Post.

This approach depended largely on a falsehood: that Wilson had claimed Cheney sent him to Niger. Wilson never made such a claim.

Libby reportedly told prosecutors that he did not know Plame's identity until a journalist told him. His lawyer did not return calls for comment.

Rove's lawyer has said his client did not know Plame's name or her undercover status when he first talked with reporters after Wilson's public statements.

"The one thing that's absolutely clear is that Karl was not the source for the leak and there's no basis for any additional speculation," attorney Robert Luskin said, adding that he was told Rove was not a target of the inquiry.

A Rove ally has said it was necessary for Rove to counter Wilson's exaggerated claims about the import of his mission.

However, some of Rove's colleagues say that he and others used poor judgment in talking about Wilson's wife.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear our focus should have been on Wilson's facts, not his conclusions or his wife or his politics," said one official who was helping with White House strategy at the time.

In one White House conversation, investigators have learned, Rove was asked why he was focused so intently on discrediting the former diplomat.

"He's a Democrat," Rove said, citing Wilson's campaign contributions. By that time, Wilson had begun advising Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign.

Wilson's Mission

Joe Wilson's mission was launched in early 2002, after the Italian government came into possession of documents — later believed to have been forged — suggesting Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Cheney had been briefed about this, a Senate Intelligence Committee report said, and had asked for more information.

At CIA headquarters, agency officials cast about for ways to respond to the vice president's interest. An official recommended sending Wilson to Niger because of his experience there, including a previous mission for the CIA.

What role Plame played in securing the mission for her husband has become a noisy sideshow to the substantive questions his trip raised about prewar intelligence. It is not clear why Plame's role would have been relevant to Wilson's uranium findings. But it was very important in the campaign to discredit him.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper wrote that when he first asked Rove about Wilson on July 11, the presidential advisor told him Wilson's wife was "responsible" for her husband's trip.
Plame was then working in Washington under "nonofficial cover," meaning she posed as a nongovernment employee. A review of official documents shows that she had mentioned her husband as a possible investigator, emphasizing his familiarity with Niger and later writing a note to the chief of the CIA's counterproliferation division.

"My husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity," she wrote. Wilson says his wife wrote that note at the request of her boss after he was suggested by others. There are contradictory accounts of Plame's role, but CIA officials have said she was not responsible for sending Wilson.

Wilson was not an intelligence officer or investigator, but his resume suggested he was a logical candidate. He had served as ambassador to Gabon and in U.S. embassies in Congo and Burundi; he had experience with the trade of strategic minerals; and he was senior director for Africa on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

On his trip, he interviewed Niger officials and citizens and talked with French mine managers. He also spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, who recently had examined the Iraq uranium claim herself — as had a four-star general, Carlton W. Fulford Jr., deputy commander of the U.S. European Command.

Like Fulford and the ambassador, Wilson said, he concluded that there was little reason to believe Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake from Niger. He did learn, however, that Iraqi officials had previously met with counterparts from Niger.

Back in the U.S., Wilson presented his report orally to CIA officers. They wrote up his findings, gave him a middling "good" rating for his performance and, on March 9, routinely sent a copy to other agencies — including the White House — without marking it for the attention of senior officials.

Wilson would write later that his trip led him to believe that the administration had lied about the reasons for going to war. But in reading his report, some analysts thought that evidence of previous Iraqi visits to Niger was a sign of interest in that country's most valuable export, uranium. Others thought Wilson's report put to rest a dubious claim. The Senate Intelligence Committee and top CIA officials said his report was inconclusive.

Cheney, Libby and the CIA

Vice President Cheney's top aide was reportedly skeptical about the CIA, disagreeing over Ahmad Chalabi's credibility.
Later that year Rumsfeld — then a corporate chief executive who served on defense-related boards and commissions — wrote what Brookings Institution scholar Ivo H. Daalder called "one of the most critical reports in the history of intelligence," arguing that the ability for enemies to strike the United States with ballistic missiles had been grossly underestimated.

On the eve of the Iraq war, with Rumsfeld as Defense secretary, these men were fighting yet another battle with the CIA, this time over the credibility of Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi.
Rumsfeld, Libby and Wolfowitz were longtime supporters of Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who was a key source of the now-discredited intelligence that Hussein had hidden huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The CIA viewed Chalabi as a "fake," said Daalder, a former Security Council staffer.

Rumsfeld's Pentagon established an independent intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans, which essentially provided the Defense Department and White House with an alternative to CIA and State Department intelligence. The competing operations would create confusion in preparations for the invasion of Iraq.

When the disclosure of Wilson's CIA mission to Niger put the White House on the defensive, one administration official said it reminded a tightknit group of Bush neoconservatives of their longtime battles with the agency and underlined their determination to fight.

Many of those officials also were members of the White House Iraq Group, established to coordinate and promote administration policy. It included the most influential players who would represent two elements of the current scandal: a hardball approach to political critics and long-standing disdain for CIA views on intelligence matters.
The group consisted of Rove, Libby, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, and Mary Matalin, Cheney's media advisor. All are believed to have been questioned in the leak case; papers and e-mails about the group were subpoenaed.

Before the war, this Iraq group promoted the view that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was seeking more. In September 2002, the White House embraced a British report asserting that "Iraq has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But the CIA was skeptical. When White House speechwriters showed the CIA a draft of a presidential speech in October that made reference to Iraqi uranium acquisition, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet asked that the reference be removed. The White House pulled it.

While Tenet expressed skepticism, the national intelligence estimate he ordered up to assess Iraq's weapons programs before the war seemed to embrace a different view — perhaps because of a mistake in assembling the document.

The national intelligence estimate on "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction," released in October 2002, was meant to reflect a consensus of the nation's intelligence-gathering agencies. It included the consensus view that Iraq sought weapons of mass destruction and a description of Britain's account of the Niger deal.

The British information went unchallenged in that chapter of the intelligence estimate. But the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, disagreed with much of the nuclear section of the estimate and decided to convey its views in text boxes to highlight the dissent.

However, the text box on the African uranium claim was "inadvertently separated" and moved into another chapter of the intelligence estimate, where it could be overlooked, the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

A couple of months later, a White House speechwriter consulted the estimate while preparing the State of the Union speech, according to one source familiar with the process.
The Speech

As the Jan. 28, 2003, speech — and the invasion of Iraq — drew near, CIA officials decided the uranium allegation was "overblown" and not backed by U.S. intelligence; they notified the White House. But the decision was made to leave it in the address, attributed to the British.

Wilson was at a Canadian television network's Washington studio that night, providing commentary on the speech and preparations for war. He remembers being puzzled on hearing the now-famous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

At first, Wilson thought, "Either they are wrong, or I'm wrong and there is some additional evidence I don't know about from some other country in Africa."

When he learned later that the speech was based on the claims about Niger, his puzzlement turned to resolve to make the government correct the record. "The allegation was false but the U.S. went to war anyway after President Bush first deceived the nation and the world," he would later write in a book.

In coming months, he would talk to reporters and others to get the word out about his mission to Niger.

Powell at the U.N.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 5, Powell appeared before the U.N. and made the case for war. Although his much-anticipated speech was tough, he did not mention the British intelligence on African uranium. He did say, generally, that Iraq had sought weapons of mass destruction.

The original outline of the speech, given to Powell by Libby, had been much stronger.

The competing intelligence estimates created a nightmare for Powell's top aide, Wilkerson. His job was to make sure Powell got his facts right.

A week before the speech, Powell had walked into Wilkerson's office with the 48-page document provided by Libby that laid out the intelligence on the Iraqi weapons program.

Most of it was rejected because its facts could not be verified. Wilkerson believes that draft was based at least in part on data provided to Cheney by Rumsfeld's intelligence group.

"Where else did they get this 48-page document that came jam-packed with information that probably came first from the [Iraqi National Congress], Chalabi and other lousy sources?" Wilkerson asked.

To sort out the conflicting intelligence, Wilkerson convened a three-day meeting at CIA headquarters. Its rotating cast included the administration's major foreign policy players: Libby, Hadley, Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, Tenet, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin and Rice.

Wilkerson was told that Libby had said the 48-page document was designed to offer Powell "a Chinese menu" of intelligence highlights to draw from for his speech. Powell and his team were skeptical of most of it. Rice, Tenet and Hadley were trying to reinsert bits of intelligence they personally favored but that could not be corroborated. Hadley offered an unsubstantiated report of alleged meetings between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague shortly before the attacks.

"The whole time, people were trying to reinsert their favorite … pet rocks back into the presentation, when their pet rocks weren't backed up by anything but hearsay, or Chalabi or the INC or both," Wilkerson said.

In the end, Powell agreed with Tenet to rely mainly on the national intelligence estimate on Iraq, which had been vetted by the CIA. Wilkerson came to believe that the Pentagon officials, and their allies in the White House, doubted what the intelligence community said because "it didn't fit their script" for going to war.

The day of Powell's speech, U.S. officials provided the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, with documents supporting the assertion that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium ore from Niger. Within weeks, the agency determined the documents were clumsy fakes. The episode has never been explained.

"It was very clear from our analysis that they were forgeries," Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the atomic energy agency, said in an interview. "We found 20 to 30 anomalies within a day."

But the British have stood by their claim that Hussein sought uranium from an unnamed African country as late as 2002.

Two weeks after the atomic energy agency report, Bush issued a statement saying Iraq continued "to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

Two days after that, on March 20, he sent troops into Iraq.

Wilson Goes Public

At first, Wilson worked behind the scenes to press his case.

He says he spoke to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof on a not-for-attribution basis, telling both about his mission and questioning why the administration would continue to cite the Niger connection.

As news reports proliferated about the CIA fact-finding trip to Niger, more people in the administration became familiar with Wilson as the unnamed source for these accounts.

By summer 2003, the stories were creating a problem for a White House trying to cope with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Bush's poll ratings were beginning to take a hit. The Republican nominating convention was a year away, and the basis for the president's principal first-term act — going to war — was being undermined.

After a June 12 Washington Post story made reference to the Niger uranium inquiry, Armitage asked intelligence officers in the State Department for more information. He was forwarded a copy of a memo classified "Secret" that included a description of Wilson's trip for the CIA, his findings, a brief description of the origin of the trip and a reference to "Wilson's wife."

The memo was kept in a safe at the State Department along with notes from an analyst who attended the CIA meeting at which Wilson was suggested for the Niger assignment. Those with top security clearance at State, like their counterparts in the White House, had been trained in the rules about classified information. They could not be shared with anyone who did not have the same clearance.

Less than a month later, Wilson went public with his charges.

The next day, July 7, this memo and the notes were removed from the safe and forwarded to Powell via a secure fax line to Air Force One. Powell was on the way to Africa with the president, and his aides knew the secretary would be getting questions.

Fitzgerald has become interested in this memo, the earliest known document seen by administration officials revealing that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Powell told prosecutors that he circulated the memo among those traveling with him in the front section of Air Force One. It is believed that all officials in that part of the aircraft had high-level security clearance.

At first, White House personnel responding to Wilson's New York Times op-ed article July 6 made no reference to Wilson's wife. Then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters the next day that the former diplomat's article contained nothing new — "zero, nada, nothing" — and that the vice president knew nothing about Wilson's trip to Africa. But Fleischer acknowledged that the president's State of the Union statement on African uranium may have relied on bad information.

That evening, as Air Force One streaked toward Africa, officials decided that to defuse the pressure, they would issue a formal acknowledgment to selected journalists that, as the New York Times reported the next morning, the White House "no longer stood behind Mr. Bush's statement about the uranium — the first such official concession on the sensitive issue of the intelligence that led to the war."

But that only fueled interest in Wilson's charges and the broader concern about the reliability of pre-war intelligence. Soon, however, the public's attention would turn away from Wilson's charges and toward him and his wife.

Enter Bob Novak

The columnist's disclosure about Plame raised questions about the White House that went far beyond a possibly illegal leak.
The special prosecutor, known as tough, has surprised the White House with the broad sweep of his investigation.
Those who knew Fitzgerald predicted he would charge hard and range far. Nonetheless, his investigative sweep startled the White House. He asked immediately for White House telephone logs, call sheets, attendance lists for meetings of the Iraq group, party invitation lists and even phone logs from Air Force One.

Fitzgerald also asked for something unusual: a generic waiver of confidentiality agreements from all White House employees for the journalists with whom they spoke during the period in dispute.

When most reporters made it clear that the generic waiver was unacceptable because it was viewed as coercive, the prosecutor worked with individual sources, reporters and their lawyers to get their testimony.

Pincus testified after being assured that he would not have to name his source, even though Fitzgerald knew who it was. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler and NBC's Tim Russert also testified after getting assurances from Libby.

After reading about their testimony, Cooper approached Libby about a waiver for himself.

Matthew Cooper Matthew Cooper
The Time reporter got a waiver from Karl Rove hours before Cooper was to be sent to jail for not revealing his source.

Without a personal waiver, Cooper and his editors believed they could not reveal the source — which meant that the news organization would join the New York Times in a losing court battle.

Cooper did not ask Rove for a waiver, in part because his lawyer advised against it. In addition, Time editors were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year.

Rove's attorney, meantime, took the view that contacting Cooper would have amounted to interfering with the ongoing court battle between reporter and prosecutor.

Although Fitzgerald said Cooper's testimony was necessary to conclude his investigation, he did not ask Rove to give the reporter a waiver, according to Rove's attorney, Luskin.

The result was that Cooper's testimony was delayed nearly a year, well after Bush's reelection. "The reason this resolution was delayed had nothing to do with anything Karl [Rove] did or failed to do," he said.

Rove granted the waiver this summer after Cooper's attorney called Luskin hours before Cooper was to be sent to jail; the reporter testified on July 13. Reporter Judith Miller of the New York Times, meanwhile, was jailed for refusing to testify.

Cooper wrote afterward that he told the jury he had called Rove in July 2003 and that, in response to his query about Wilson and his claims, Rove informed him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and "she was responsible for sending Wilson."

Individuals close to the case say that Fitzgerald is likely to wrap up his inquiry this fall.

Times staff writers Douglas Frantz and Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.


Events surrounding the White House's role in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent:


February: Vice President Dick Cheney asks whether Iraq sought uranium from Niger.

Feb. 12: The CIA sends Joseph Wilson to Niger.

March 9: Wilson says he finds little evidence for such claims, but notes a prior visit to Niger by Iraqi officials.

Aug. 26: Cheney says: "We now know that Saddam [Hussein] has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons."

Oct. 5-6: CIA Director George Tenet persuades the White House to remove the uranium claim from a Bush speech.

Jan. 28:
President Bush's State of the Union cites a British report that Iraq sought uranium.

March 7: A U.N. nuclear agency finds uranium documents are "not authentic."

March 20: The U.S. invades Iraq.

July 6: Wilson goes public on his Niger trip and findings.

July 7-8: Administration sources tell columnist Robert Novak about Wilson's CIA wife.

July 7: The White House admits to a mistake in citing the uranium claim.

July 11: Karl Rove tells Time's Matthew Cooper that Wilson's wife arranged the Niger trip.

July 14: A Novak column unmasks Valerie Plame.

July 30: The CIA asks the Justice Department to investigate the leak of the agent's identity.

Sept. 16: The White House says suggesting Rove leaked her identity is "ridiculous."

Sept. 29: A White House spokesman says the leaker will be fired.

Sept. 30: Wilson endorses John Kerry for president.

Dec. 30: Patrick Fitzgerald is named special prosecutor.


Jan. 23: Weapons inspector David Kay says there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

July 10: A Senate panel faults prewar intelligence and calls Wilson's report inconclusive.

Nov. 2: Bush is reelected.


Feb. 15: A court orders journalists Judith Miller and Cooper to cooperate with a grand jury.

July 6: Miller refuses to testify and is jailed; Cooper agrees to testify after getting express permission from his source, Rove.

July 18: Bush says the leaker will be fired if a crime was committed.

Sources: Times reporting, media reports, White House and Senate documents

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

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