History, from the times of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans through subsequent centuries, is rife with kill-the-messenger tales. Bearers of bad news and purveyors of unpopular conclusions have always revealed their information at considerable risk. Such is the case with Joseph Wilson, a highly regarded retired diplomat who served in the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Wilson served in various diplomatic posts in Africa and, before his retirement in 1998, was ambassador to Gabon. He was also knowledgeable about Middle Eastern politics and served as acting ambassador to Baghdad when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in 1990. As such, he was the last U.S. ambassador in Iraq prior to the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
In good standing with the George W. Bush administration at its inception, Wilson was asked by the CIA to go in February, 2002, to Niger, a country with which he had great familiarity and in which he had many dependable, high-level contacts. He was charged with investigating allegations from an Italian source that Niger was selling Hussein uranium, an element vital in the production of nuclear weapons.
Wilson agreed to accept this mission on a pro bono basis, billing the U.S. government only for his transportation and per diem costs. He approached his assignment with an open mind and with the heartfelt conviction that the Bush administration was genuinely interested in knowing the true facts about the rumored Niger-Iraq uranium sales.
Upon his return from Niger in March, 2002, Wilson briefed the CIA and filed his report, in which he expressed strong doubts that the uranium transactions had ever taken place. After a thorough investigation, he uncovered nothing to suggest that Hussein had purchased from Niger any uranium from which the Iraqis could make weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, in September of the same year, a British white paper, later discredited, charged that there was a uranium connection between Niger and Iraq.
Little more was said about the matter until Bush's State of the Union address on January 28, 2003. In this speech, the president included sixteen crucial words that unleashed the furor about which Wilson is writing: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Some six weeks later, on March 7, 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency publicly discredited the British white paper as having been based on obvious forgeries. The following day, a spokesperson for the Department of State admitted that the Bush administration had been deceived. On the same day, Wilson revealed on the Cable News Network (CNN) that the government had considerably more information about the matter than it had admitted, citing his own report that was apparently ignored by an administration seeking any means possible to justify waging a preemptive war against Hussein.
Shortly after Wilson's CNN interview, a rattled administration met in Vice President Richard Cheney's office to discuss damage control. Those present presumably included Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Newt Gingrich, and other Republican officials. The focus of the meeting was on producing a workup on Joseph Wilson, aimed at revealing information with which to discredit him.
Three months later, on Meet the Press, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, denied that any of the senior administration knew how unreliable the claims of a Niger-Iraq uranium connection were, although she admitted that some lower-ranking members of the administration might have had such knowledge. Little more was said of the matter until July 6, 2003, when Wilson's op-ed piece “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” appeared in The New York Times. On the same day, Wilson, a guest on Meet the Press, gave detailed information about his trip to Niger and explained why he was convinced that Niger had sold no uranium to Hussein.
Two days later, a friend of Wilson, someone thought to work in the White House, encountered Robert Novak, a columnist for The Washington Post,...
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