Democrats are trying to stir up a scandal because in his State of the Union address President Bush cited a British intelligence report that a man named Joseph C. Wilson does not agree with. The real scandal, however, is how Wilson's opinion on this matter came to be of such consequence.
That is not a Bush administration scandal. It is a scandal for which the Clinton administration and the Republican Congresses of the 1990s share blame.
They decimated U.S. intelligence capabilities in Africa. Now we are paying for it. Joe Wilson's experience merely dramatizes it.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in the State of the Union.
Because this statement ended up in Bush's speech, wrote Joe Wilson last week in The New York Times, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
So, who is this Wilson? He's our man in Niger.
Well, almost. Wilson is a retired State Department official. As charge d'affaires in Iraq in 1990, he was the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam. Later, he served as ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe. His most important credential for this controversy dates to the mid-1970s, when he served as a diplomat in Niger. In the late 1990s, as an official with President Clinton's National Security Council, he made a return visit to Niger.
These experiences apparently made Wilson America's greatest expert on Nigerien uranium exports.
As Wilson told it in the Times, the Central Intelligence Agency asked him last year to visit Niger to check out a report that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium there.
To put Wilson's mission in context it is important to know a bit about Niger.
It is, according to the CIA, a landlocked, mostly desert nation roughly twice the size of Texas. It borders Libya and Algeria. Of 10 million Nigeriens, 80 percent are Muslim. Only 70,000 hold wage-paying jobs. In 2002, the government budget was $320 million; $134 million came from foreign sources. In 2001, it exported a paltry $246 million in goods; in 1998, uranium accounted for 65 percent of exports. The rest was concentrated in cowpeas, onions and livestock products.
A man with pockets as deep as Saddam's could buy many friends in Niger.
And, yes, a French company heads the consortium that runs Niger's uranium mines.