US Ambassador Joseph Wilson criticized the Bush administration for
having “twisted” intelligence to support its false pre-war claim
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa.
In a May 8, 2004,
with federal investigators, the then-Vice President said he did raise a
few internal questions about Wilson’s 2002 fact-finding mission for the
CIA, which checked out – and knocked down – Cheney’s suspicion
was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.
But Cheney denied that he unleashed a retaliatory campaign to discredit
this early Iraq War critic – nor told anyone to leak the fact that
Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, worked at the CIA and had a small
role in recruiting her husband for the Niger mission.
“The Vice President advised that there was no discussion of ‘pushing
back’ on Wilson’s credibility by raising the nepotism issue, and
was no discussion of using Valerie Wilson’s employment with the CIA in
countering Joe Wilson’s criticisms and claims about Iraqi efforts to
procure yellowcake uranium from Niger,” said the FBI summary of Cheney’s
Cheney also said he didn’t speak with CIA Director George Tenet or
Deputy Director John McLaughlin about Wilson between July 6, 2003, when
Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed describing how the Niger
intelligence was “twisted,” and July 14, eight days later when
right-wing columnist Robert Novak exposed Plame’s CIA employment in a
column that sought to discredit Wilson.
Cheney depicted one disparaging comment that he made about Wilson as
more of an inside joke.
“He [Cheney] does recall at one point ‘gigging’ Tenet and/or
about vetting a separate, unrelated intelligence matter by sarcastically
suggesting to them that perhaps they ought to send Joe Wilson to check
it out,” the FBI summary said.
“The Vice President stated that the issue of Valerie Wilson’s possible
involvement in sending her husband to Niger was just not a big deal and
did not become one until after the publication of the Novak editorial.”
Cheney also claimed that he had no recollection of an earlier meeting in
his vice presidential office during which he told his press aide Cathie
Martin and his chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby that Plame
employed by the CIA.
Libby became one of several Bush administration officials to leak news
of Plame’s CIA employment to journalists, along with the suggestion that
she had arranged her husband’s fact-finding mission to Niger as
nepotism, even though Wilson received no pay. (Plame has said her role
was limited to conveying a message to her husband that her CIA superiors
wanted to speak to him about the trip.)
Though Cheney played down his animosity toward Wilson during the
interview, some of the anger came through when Cheney was asked to read
aloud comments he scribbled in the margins of Wilson’s op-ed that Cheney
had ripped out of the Times.
Cheney acknowledged that his handwritten note included the question,
“Did his wife send him on a junket?” He also told the investigators
he “believed it possible that he and Libby discussed the Wilson trip as
some kind of a junket or boondoggle.”
Curiously, however, Cheney conceded that as a former U.S. ambassador who
served in Africa, Wilson’s “qualifications for the trip were ‘OK.'”
Cheney also was aware that Wilson wasn’t paid for the trip, which would
seem to undercut Cheney’s suspicion of nepotism.
However, Cheney turned Wilson’s willingness to undertake the mission
without pay into a negative. According to the FBI report, “he [Cheney]
thought it was strange that Joe Wilson did his investigative work pro
bono.” Because of the lack of pay, Cheney complained about the
“seriousness” of the CIA’s investigation and ridiculed it
as “amateur hour.”
Yet, what is remarkable about Cheney’s interview – beyond his inability
to recall key facts – is that all the anti-Wilson complaints that Cheney
cited, no matter how minor or contradictory, became the cornerstones of
a sustained assault on Wilson by the Bush administration, congressional
Republicans, and right-wing and neoconservative pundits.
It was as if Cheney had written the script not only for his Republican
defenders but for the Washington Post’s neocon editorial pages, which
waged its own war of words against Wilson after he blew the whistle on
President George W. Bush’s false claims about Iraq seeking uranium.
Even Cheney’s weakest points were amplified and exaggerated as they
moved through the Republican-neocon echo chamber. For instance, a small
point of misunderstanding – Wilson’s belief that Cheney had been
aware of the Niger trip since it was Cheney’s concern that prompted the
mission – was transformed into an accusation that Wilson was a liar.
Wilson was painted as a liar again after Cheney transformed Wilson’s
accurate comment – about taking on the CIA assignment with the
understanding that Cheney was interested in the Niger issue – into a
suggestion that Wilson was claiming that Cheney personally picked him
for the mission.
Another point made by Cheney – and picked up as an anti-Wilson attack
line – was Wilson’s remark to CIA debriefers that Niger’s
initially suspected that an Iraqi feeler about improved commercial
relations might have related to uranium, though it turned out the Iraqis
expressed no such interest.
According to the FBI summary, Cheney said he underlined this portion of
a March 8, 2002, CIA report on Wilson’s debriefing because “he believed
it raised a ‘red flag,’ seeming to show that the former Niger Prime
Minister [Ibrahim] Mayaki had been approached about commercial relations
with Iraq which the former Prime Minister believed meant yellowcake
Even though it turned out that Mayaki’s suspicion was baseless –
thus inconsequential – Cheney’s “red flag” was raised
Republicans and neocons in their attacks on Wilson, including by the
Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee which cited this
irrelevant point to suggest that Wilson’s report had actually supported
the Bush/Cheney case for war.
Cheney also quibbled with Wilson’s comment in his New York Times op-ed
that “it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium
Iraq.” Cheney countered that “such a transfer had already happened
before. Therefore, … it did not mean that it could not occur.”
But there is no real difference between saying something is “exceedingly
difficult” and that it possibly could “occur.” Both indicate
something is feasible, even if unlikely.
Despite the pettiness and contradictions of Cheney’s anti-Wilson attack
lines, they reverberated for several years. They were given credence not
only in right-wing circles but in Establishment (pro-Iraq War) places
like the Washington Post.
More smears of Wilson and Plame were added as the ugly process moved
forward. For instance, Bush-Cheney backers began insisting that Plame
did not qualify as a covert officer deserving of special protection
because she hadn’t “resided” or been “stationed”
overseas in the five
years before her CIA identity was exposed.
But the actual language of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act
was that a covert officer must have “served” abroad in the previous
years, which Plame had in undertaking intelligence missions outside the
United States (although she was based at CIA headquarters in Langley,
Virginia). The Bush-Cheney backers, especially right-wing lawyer
Victoria Toensing, had engaged in word
Overall, the 28-page FBI report on the Cheney interview recalled the
anything-goes hostility that the Bush administration and its media
acolytes directed at anyone who dared criticize the Iraq War in its
early days. Besides Wilson, others on the White House enemies list
included former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter and even
the Dixie Chicks whose lead singer had spoken out against the war.
If Washington circa 2002-2004 had been a normal place, Wilson would have
been praised for his service to the United States. Not only did he take
on a difficult government assignment pro bono, he reached the accurate
conclusion that Iraq was not seeking uranium from Niger and so informed
Then, after Bush included that false claim in his 2003 State of the
Union Address, Wilson began briefing a few journalists on the deception.
Ultimately, he went public despite his awareness that he would anger the
White House and damage his career prospects.
But praise was not what Wilson got. Even as Wilson’s disclosure forced
the Bush administration to retract the uranium claim – a sentence in the
State of the Union that became known as “the sixteen words” –
became the target of a nasty counterattack.
Novak exposed Plame’s identity as a CIA officer, destroying her
intelligence career and putting her network of foreign operatives in
danger. The right-wing echo chamber rumbled with denunciations of Wilson
and his wife.
But the Bush administration’s leaking of Plame’s identity had a
consequence. The CIA filed a complaint about the outing of Plame,
prompting a Justice Department investigation.
Initially, the inquiry hit a stonewall as Bush and other senior
officials denied any White House role in the leak or in the efforts to
undermine Wilson. Eventually, however, special prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald determined that the leak had involved several senior
officials, including Libby, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
and White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Novak had gotten his information from Armitage and Rove. Libby had told
New York Times reporter Judy Miller about Plame and then had lied about
In 2007, Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and
was sentenced to 30 months in prison. No one else was charged in the
case, although prosecutor Fitzgerald told Libby’s jury that a “cloud”
remained over Vice President Cheney.
To spare Libby jail time, President Bush commuted Libby’s sentence.
Fitzgerald wrapped up his investigation without explaining why he took
no action against Cheney, Rove and other individuals implicated in the case.
As for Fitzgerald’s interviews with Bush and Cheney, the Justice
Department – under both Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Eric
Holder – resisted releasing the FBI’s reports. However, the Cheney
report was finally made public Friday in response to a Freedom of
Information Act suit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics
[To read more about the Plame-gate scandal, see Consortiumnews.com’s
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the
Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, “Neck Deep: The
Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush,” was written with two of his
sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two
previous books, “Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq” and “Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press &
‘Project Truth'” are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.