Errant former ambassador

Robert Novak
Posted: Jul 15, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark, the most remarkable aspect of last week's Senate Intelligence Committee report is what its Democratic members did not say. They did not dissent from the committee's findings that Iraq apparently asked about buying yellowcake uranium from Niger. They neither agreed to a conclusion that former diplomat Joseph Wilson was suggested for a mission to Niger by his CIA employee wife nor defended his statements to the contrary.

 Wilson's activities constituted the only aspects of the yearlong investigation for which the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, was unable to win unanimous agreement. Peculiarly, the Democrats accepted the evidence building up to the Wilson conclusions but not the conclusions themselves. According to committee sources, Roberts felt Wilson had been such a "cause celebre" for Democrats that they could not face the facts about him.

 For a year, Democrats have been belaboring President Bush about 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address in which he reported Saddam Hussein's attempt to buy uranium from Africa, based on official British information. Wilson has been lionized in liberal circles for allegedly contradicting this information on a CIA mission and then being punished as a truth-teller. Now, for Intelligence Committee Democrats, it is as though the Niger question and Joe Wilson have vanished from the earth.

 Because a U.S. Justice Department special prosecutor is investigating whether any crime was committed when my column first identified Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA employee, on advice of counsel I have not written on the subject since last October. However, I feel constrained to describe how the Intelligence Committee report treats the Niger-Wilson affair because it has received scant coverage except in The Washington Post, Knight-Ridder newspapers, briefly and belatedly in The New York Times and few other media outlets.

 The unanimously approved report said, "interviews and documents provided to the Committee indicate that his wife, a CPD (CIA counterproliferation division) employee, suggested his name for the trip." That's what I reported, and what Wilson flatly denied and still does.

 Plame sent out an internal CIA memo saying that "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." A State Department analyst told the committee about an inter-agency meeting in 2002 that was "apparently convened by [Wilson's] wife who had the idea to dispatch [him] to use his contacts to sort out the Iraq-Niger uranium issue."

 The unanimous Intelligence Committee found that the CIA report, based on Wilson's mission, differed considerably from the former ambassador's description to the committee of his findings. That report "did not refute the possibility that Iraq had approached Niger to purchase uranium." As far as his statement to The Washington Post about "forged documents" involved in the alleged Iraqi attempt to buy uranium, Wilson told the committee he may have "misspoken." In fact, the intelligence community agreed that "Iraq was attempting to procure uranium from Africa."

 "While there was no dispute with the underlying facts," Chairman Roberts wrote separately, "my Democrat colleagues refused to allow" two conclusions in the report. The first conclusion merely said that Wilson was sent to Niger at his wife's suggestion. The second conclusion is devastating:

 "Rather than speaking publicly about his actual experiences during his inquiry of the Niger issue, the former ambassador seems to have included information he learned from press accounts and from his beliefs about how the Intelligence Community would have or should have handled the information he provided."

 The normally mild Pat Roberts is harsh in his condemnation: "Time and again, Joe Wilson told anyone who would listen that the President had lied to the American people, that the Vice President had lied, and that he had 'debunked' the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa . . . [N]ot only did he NOT 'debunk' the claim, he actually gave some intelligence analysts even more reason to believe that it may be true." Roberts called it "important" for the Intelligence Committee to declare much of what Wilson said "had no basis in fact." In response, Democrats were silent.