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Context of 'October 3, 2003: NBC Reporter Says Plame Wilson’s CIA Status ‘Widely Known’ among Reporters, Later Says She ‘Screwed Up’ Statement'

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Joseph Wilson.Joseph Wilson. [Source: public domain]The CIA sends Joseph C. Wilson, a retired US diplomat, to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from that country (see February 13, 2002). The CIA pays Wilson’s expenses for the trip, but does not pay him in any other respect. The identity of the party who requests the mission is later disputed. While Wilson will claim the trip was requested directly by Dick Cheney’s office, other sources will indicate that the CIA had decided (see February 19, 2002) that a delegation to Niger was needed in order to investigate questions raised by one of Dick Cheney’s aides (see (February 13, 2002)). [New York Times, 5/6/2003; Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Independent, 6/29/2003; New York Times, 7/6/2003; US Congress, 7/7/2004]
Reason behind Request - Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman will later note that “Wilson was asked to go to Niger for one specific purpose. It was the CIA’s idea to get Cheney off their backs. Cheney would not get off their backs about the yellowcake documents. They couldn’t get Cheney to stop pressing the issue. He insisted that was the proof of reconstitution of [Iraq’s nuclear] program.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 214]
Normal Skepticism - Wilson goes into the situation with a healthy dose of skepticism. “My skepticism was the same as it would have been with any unverified intelligence report, because there is a lot of stuff that comes over the transom every day,” he will recall in 2006. Wilson knows nothing of the influence of the Pentagon neoconservatives (see July 8, 1996, January 26, 1998, July 1998, September 2000, Late December 2000 and Early January 2001, Shortly after January 20, 2001, and Shortly After September 11, 2001) or the growing rift in the intelligence community over the reports: “I was aware that the neocons had a growing role in government and that they were interested in Iraq,” he will recall. “But the administration had not articulated a policy at this stage.” He is not given a copy of the Niger documents before leaving for Africa, nor is he told of their history. “To the best of my knowledge, the documents were not in the possession of the [CIA] at the time I was briefed,” he will recall. “The discussion was whether or not this report could be accurate. During this discussion, everyone who knew something shared stuff about how the uranium business worked, and I laid out what I knew about the government in Niger, what information they could provide.” With this rather sketchy preparation, Wilson leaves for Niger. [Unger, 2007, pp. 240; Wilson, 2007, pp. 113] Wilson’s wife, senior CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson, will later write, “He figured that if the vice president had asked a serious and legitimate question, it deserved a serious answer and he would try to help find it.” [Wilson, 2007, pp. 111]
No Trouble Finding Information - Wilson, who knows the Nigerien government and many of its officials, has little trouble finding the information he needs in the following week. In 2006, he will recall: “Niger has a simplistic government structure. Both the minister of mines and the prime minister had gone through the mines. The French were managing partners of the international consortium [which handles Niger’s uranium]. The French mining company actually had its hands on the project. Nobody else in the consortium had operators on the ground.” Wilson also personally knows Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican who supposedly negotiated the uranium deal with Niger (see February 1999). Wilson will later observe: “Wissam al-Zahawie was a world-class opera singer, and he went to the Vatican as his last post so he could be near the great European opera houses in Rome. He was not in the Ba’athist inner circle. He was not in Saddam [Hussein]‘s tribe. The idea that he would be entrusted with the super-secret mission to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger is out of the question.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 240-241] Wilson meets with, among other officials, Niger’s former minister of mines, Mai Manga. As later reported by the Senate Intelligence Committee (see July 9, 2004), Manga tells Wilson “there were no sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) channels since the mid-1980s,” and he “knew of no contracts signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of uranium.” Manga says a “French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transport overseas,” and, “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special shipment of uranium to a pariah state given these controls.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
Meeting with US Ambassador - Wilson arrives in Niger on February 26, two days after Marine General Carlton W. Fulford Jr.‘s meeting (see February 24, 2002) with Nigerien officials. Wilson first meets with US Ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, a veteran Foreign Service official, whom Wilson will later describe as “crisp” and well-informed. Over tea in the US Embassy offices in Niamey, Niger’s capital, Owens-Kirkpatrick tells Wilson that she has already concluded that the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq are unfounded. “She had already debunked them in her reports to Washington,” Wilson will later recall. “She said, yeah, she knew a lot about this particular report. She thought she had debunked it—and, oh, by the way, a four-star Marine Corps general had been down there as well—Carlton Fulford. And he had left satisfied there was nothing to report.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 20-22]
Details of Alleged Uranium Production - Niger extracts uranium from two mines, both located in remote locations in the Sahara Desert. It takes well over a day to drive from the mines to Niamey. The mines are owned by a consortium of foreign companies and the Nigerien government, and managed by a French mining company, COGEMA. Because of a recent upswing in the production of Canadian uranium, Niger’s uranium is mined at a net loss, and its only customers are consortium members. Wilson will later write, “[T]he Nigerien government has sold no uranium outside the consortium for two decades.” If Iraq had bought 500 tons of uranium, as the story is told, that would have represented a 40 percent production increase. “There is no doubt,” Wilson will later write, “that such a significant shift from historic production schedules would have been absolutely impossible to hide from the other partners, and most certainly from the managing partner, COGEMA. Everyone involved would have known about it.” Any Nigerien government decision to produce such an amount of uranium would have involved numerous government officials and many well-documented meetings. Because the transaction would have been to a foreign country, Niger’s Foreign Ministry would also have been involved in the decision. To sell Iraq uranium during that time would have been a violation of international law and of UN sanctions against Iraq, a weighty decision that would have ultimately been made by the president of Niger in conjuction with the foreign minister and the minister of mines. Such a decision would have been published in the Nigerien equivalent of the Federal Register and would have dramatic tax and revenue implications. The unexpected huge infusion of cash from the sale would have had a strong impact on the Nigerien economy, and would have been much anticipated and talked about throughout the Nigerien business community. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 22-25]
Off-the-Books Production Virtually Impossible - It is conceivable that such an enormous operation could have been conducted entirely “off the books,” Wilson will write, but virtually impossible to pull off. True, a military junta was in power at the time of the alleged sale, one that felt no responsibility or accountability to the Nigerien people. But even a secret transaction would have been impossible to conceal. Such a transaction would have involved thousands of barrels of clandestinely shipped uranium, extensive and complex adjustments to shipping schedules, and other ramifications. “It simply could not have happened without a great many people knowing about it, and secrets widely known do not remain hidden for long. And again, COGEMA, as the managing partner, would have had to know and be complicit.” Add to that Niger’s dependence on US foreign economic aid and its unwillingness to threaten the loss of that aid by secretly shipping uranium to a country that the US considers a dangerous rogue nation. All told, Wilson concludes, the possibility of such a clandestine operation is remote in the extreme. [Wilson, 2004; Wilson, 2004]
1999 Meeting with Iraqi Official - While speaking with a US Embassy official, Wilson learns about a 1999 meeting between the embassy official and an Iraqi representative in Algiers, perhaps in concert with a similar meeting between Iraqi officials and Niger’s prime minister (see June 1999). [Wilson, 2004, pp. 27-28]
Confirmation that Allegations are Unrealistic - After spending several days talking with current government officials, former government officials, and people associated with the country’s uranium business, Wilson concludes the rumors are completely false. He will later call the allegations “bogus and unrealistic.” [Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Knight Ridder, 6/13/2003; Independent, 6/29/2003; New York Times, 7/6/2003; CBS News, 7/11/2003; Vanity Fair, 1/2004; Wilson, 2004, pp. 20-28, 424; Vanity Fair, 5/2004, pp. 282; Wilson, 2007, pp. 113]

Entity Tags: Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, Wissam al-Zahawie, Carlton W. Fulford, COGEMA, Mai Manga, Valerie Plame Wilson, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Melvin A. Goodman, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

On CNBC’s Capital Report, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell says it should be “easily ascertained” who the sources were for the Plame Wilson identity leak. Asked, “Do we have any idea how widely known it was in Washington that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA?” Mitchell responds, “It was widely known among those of us who cover the intelligence community and who were actively engaged in trying to track down who among the foreign service community was the envoy to Niger” (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002). Many interpret Mitchell’s comment to mean that she and many other reporters knew about Plame Wilson’s CIA status. Mitchell will later recant her statement, saying she misunderstood the question and “screwed it up.” [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 1/26/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the District of Columbia, 5/26/2006 pdf file] Mitchell will later explain her misstatement on a broadcast of the Don Imus radio and television show, saying: “This is one of those things. We’ve got a whole new world of journalism out there where there are people writing blogs who are going to grab this one thing and not everything else I have written and said about this and go to town with it. It supports their political point of view, and… bingo.” [Jane Hamsher, 3/13/2007]

Entity Tags: Andrea Mitchell, Joseph C. Wilson, CNBC

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The federal grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert CIA identity subpoenas a large amount of White House records, including Air Force One telephone logs from the week before Plame Wilson’s public outing (see July 14, 2003); records created in July 2003 by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG—see August 2002), a White House public relations group tasked with crafting a public relations strategy to market the Iraq war to the public; a transcript of press secretary Ari Fleischer’s press briefing in Nigeria currently missing from the White House’s Web site (see 3:20 a.m. July 12, 2003); a list of guests at former President Gerald Ford’s July 16, 2003 birthday reception; and records of Bush administration officials’ contacts with approximately 25 journalists and news media outlets. The journalists include Robert Novak, the columnist who outed Plame Wilson, Newsday reporters Knut Royce and Timothy Phelps (see July 21, 2003), five Washington Post reporters including Mike Allen and Dana Priest (see September 28, 2003 and October 12, 2003), Time magazine’s Michael Duffy (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003), NBC’s Andrea Mitchell (see July 8, 2003 and October 3, 2003), MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (see July 21, 2003), and reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press. The subpoenas will be accompanied by a January 26 memo from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales that will set a January 29 deadline for production of the subpoenaed documents and records. Gonzales will write that White House staffers will turn over records of any “contacts, attempted contacts, or discussion of contacts, with any members of the media concerning [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson, his trip, or his wife, including but not limited to the following media and media personnel.” White House spokeswoman Erin Healy later says, “The president has always said we would fully comply with the investigation, and the White House counsel’s office has directed the staff to fully comply.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan will say: “It’s just a matter of getting it all together.… At this point, we’re still in the process of complying fully with those requests. We have provided the Department of Justice investigators with much of the information and we’re continuing to provide them with additional information and comply fully with the request for information.” [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 1/22/2004; US District Court for the District of Columbia, 1/22/2004; Newsday, 3/5/2004; Washington Post, 3/6/2004]

Entity Tags: Chris Matthews, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), Valerie Plame Wilson, Wall Street Journal, White House Iraq Group, Ari Fleischer, Time magazine, Alberto R. Gonzales, Andrea Mitchell, Scott McClellan, Timothy Phelps, Newsday, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Erin Healy, Dana Priest, Knut Royce, Robert Novak, NBC News, Michael Duffy, Associated Press, New York Times, MSNBC, Mike Allen

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Hours after the Patrick Fitzgerald press conference announcing the indictment of Lewis Libby (see October 28, 2005), NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell tells a viewing audience on MSNBC’s Hardball that the exposure of Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA official whose exposure as a covert agent triggered the investigation that led to Libby’s indictment, did no real damage to US intelligence interests. Mitchell does not cite any sources in her claim. She says: “I think the prosecutor [Fitzgerald] made a very broad claim, whether you buy it or not, that the disclosure of any CIA officer’s identity is a threat to our national security, that we are at a stage in our country where we need to recruit people, we need to guarantee that they will have anonymity, and that you cannot recruit people to work in these difficult jobs, nor can you be sure that by disclosing their identity that you are not putting them in jeopardy. I happen to have been told that the actual damage assessment as to whether people were put in jeopardy on this case did not indicate that there was real damage in this specific instance.” It is possible that Mitchell sources her claim from a very similar claim made the night before by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (see October 27, 2005). [Jane Hamsher, 11/29/2005] Two years before, Mitchell told a CNBC audience that “everybody knew” Plame Wilson was a covert official, a claim she was later forced to retract (see October 3, 2003). Shortly after Mitchell’s Hardball claim, MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson writes, “In fact, as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell has reported, an internal CIA investigation found that Plame’s outing caused no discernable damage to anyone.” [MSNBC, 11/18/2005] A 2003 CIA assessment (see Before September 16, 2003) and an October 2005 analysis by the Washington Post (see October 29, 2005) both determined that Plame Wilson’s exposure caused “severe damage” to the US intelligence community, particularly in the Middle East.

Entity Tags: Valerie Plame Wilson, Andrea Mitchell, Bob Woodward, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Tucker Carlson

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Judge Reggie Walton refuses to allow Lewis Libby’s lawyers to play clips from an MSNBC broadcast in an attempt to rebut testimony by NBC bureau chief Tim Russert (see February 7-8, 2007). Libby’s lawyers assert that Russert learned about covert CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson from NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell, an assertion Russert denies. Mitchell, appearing on the Don Imus radio and television show, said that she and other reporters knew Plame Wilson worked for the CIA, but later recanted that statement (see October 3, 2003). Libby’s defense team had asked to play the clip from the Imus show. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald opposes the request, calling it hearsay evidence and saying: “We might as well take ‘Wigmore on Evidence’ and replace it with ‘Imus on Evidence,’” referring to a classic treatise on evidentiary law. “There’s no Imus exception to the hearsay rule. This has no business in a federal court.” [FireDogLake, 2/7/2007; FireDogLake, 2/7/2007; Associated Press, 2/9/2007] The Libby team intends to put Mitchell on the stand; criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt, writing for the progressive blog TalkLeft, does not believe Walton will allow Mitchell to testify, writing that her testimony amounts to nothing more than one speculation piled atop another. “Juries aren’t supposed to pile inference upon inference in arriving at a conclusion,” she writes. [Jeralyn Merritt, 2/11/2007] Mitchell will not testify (see February 12, 2007).

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Valerie Plame Wilson, Jeralyn Merritt, Reggie B. Walton, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Tim Russert

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Judge Reggie Walton refuses to allow the defense in the Lewis Libby trial to have NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell testify. In October 2003, Mitchell told MSNBC talk show host Don Imus that she and other reporters knew Valerie Plame Wilson was a CIA official, but she later retracted the statement (see October 3, 2003). Walton does not agree with defense lawyer Theodore Wells’s contention that Mitchell’s statement, even though later retracted, somehow impeaches the credibility of her NBC colleague Tim Russert, who testified last week that he did not tell Libby of Plame Wilson’s CIA status (see February 7-8, 2007). Debra Bonamici, a lawyer for the prosecution, tells the court: “The question to be asked is what purpose would be served by impeaching their witness? Defense intends to ask about an unrelated subject—what Libby said to Mitchell, we presume that defense would want her to be credible. This is a ruse to present the non-admissible testimony [referring to the defense’s previous attempts to play the videotape of Mitchell’s conversation with Imus—see February 8, 2007]. They’ve got no reason to impeach, they’re setting up a straw man so they can impeach.” Walton rules that the defense is asking the jury to speculate that reporters such as Mitchell and Russert knew Plame Wilson’s identity, then speculate that Libby learned about Plame Wilson from Russert, and thusly infer that Libby was telling the truth to investigators. “I think there’s a lot of mischief that comes with that,” Walton says. [Marcy Wheeler, 2/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, Debra Bonamici, Reggie B. Walton, Don Imus, Valerie Plame Wilson, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Theodore Wells

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

A CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that almost 70 percent of Americans believe the president should not pardon convicted felon Lewis Libby (see March 6, 2007). The results show that 69 percent oppose a pardon and 18 percent favor a pardon. Also, 52 percent believe that Libby’s former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, was involved in covering up the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak. Twenty-nine percent disagree. [CNN, 3/12/2007] A poll published four days later by Gallup shows that 67 percent of those polled believe President Bush should not pardon Libby, and 21 percent believe that he should. The Gallup poll shows that 34 percent of Republicans support a pardon, along with 21 percent of independents and 11 percent of Democrats. [Gallup Poll News Service, 3/16/2007] Hours after the CNN poll comes out, NBC reporter and MSNBC commentator Andrea Mitchell, who was tangentially involved in the Libby case (see October 3, 2003 and February 12, 2007), tells a viewing audience: “[P]olling… indicates that most people think, in fact, that he should be pardoned. Scooter Libby should be pardoned.” [Eschaton, 3/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Andrea Mitchell, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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