Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan�s
testimony later this week before the House Judiciary Committee promises to
reignite the debate over the �16 words� in President Bush�s 2003 State of the
Union address that claimed Iraq tried to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake
uranium from Niger and how the White House�s response to the bogus intelligence
led to the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Aides to several senior Democrats on the committee are
poring over former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan�s book, What
Happened: Inside The Bush White House and Washington�s Culture of Deception, as well as news reports and documents
released publicly by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel appointed to
investigate the leak of Plame�s identity.
Right-wing columnist Robert Novak blew Plame�s cover on July
14, 2003, in an article suggesting that Plame had helped arrange her husband�s
trip to Africa as some kind of junket.
The aides, who requested anonymity because they were not
permitted to discuss details of next week�s hearing, have been drafting
detailed questions for McClellan about the behind-the-scenes conversations that
took place between Vice President Dick Cheney, former White House political
adviser Karl Rove, Cheney�s former Chief of Staff I. Lewis �Scooter� Libby,
Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former White House Press
Secretary Ari Fleischer, and President Bush, surrounding accusations raised in
the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath
that the administration knew the Niger intelligence was false.
The committee wants McClellan, who was deputy press
secretary at the time the administration was forced in July 2003 to admit the
uranium allegations should not have been included in President Bush�s State of
the Union address, to elaborate on Bush, Cheney, Hadley and Rice�s role in the
campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson, a diplomat who had served in Iraq and
Africa, who was selected by the CIA�s non-proliferation office, where Plame
worked, to travel to Niger in early 2002 to examine the Iraq-yellowcake
allegations. Wilson returned to the United States and reported to CIA officials
that the claims appeared to have no merit, a finding that matched with
inquiries from other U.S. officials.
Two weeks ago, Congressman Henry Waxman, the chairman of the
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent to Attorney General
Michael Mukasey a letter that indicated Vice President Dick Cheney may have
authorized his former deputy to leak Plame�s identity.
"In his interview with the FBI, Mr. Libby stated that
it was �possible� that Vice President Cheney instructed him to disseminate
information about Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson's wife to the press. This is a
significant revelation and, if true, a serious matter. It cannot be responsibly
investigated without access to the Vice President's FBI interview," Waxman
Waxman's office would not release copies of the Libby-Rove
transcripts or describe the contents in any detail. Fitzgerald's investigative
interviews with Bush and Cheney -- asking how much knowledge the President and
Vice President had about the Plame leak -- have not been disclosed.
But the committee wants to know if McClellan can offer
insight into the vice president�s role as well as answers about why the
administration continued to peddle the Niger story after the documents the
intelligence was based upon were exposed as forgeries,
Democratic lawmakers have been trying to determine if Bush
administration officials knew the Niger intelligence was bogus and if they
allowed President Bush to cite it in his State of the Union address despite
warnings of its veracity.
Last year, they issued a subpoena for National Security
Adviser Condoleezza Rice demanding that she explain her role in the matter and
whether she had prior knowledge that Niger intelligence was fabricated. Rice
has said that she could not recall receiving any oral or written warnings from
the CIA about Iraq's interest in uranium from Niger as being unreliable. Rice
penned an op-ed January 23, 2003, claiming Iraq was actively trying "to
get uranium from abroad."
Rice ignored Waxman�s subpoena and the congressman had
decided not to litigate the issue.
Now, by securing McClellan�s testimony, assuming the White
House does not assert a last minute claim of executive privilege, some
Democratic lawmakers are hoping they will be able to fill in some holes in the
narrative related to the Niger story and determine what the administration knew
and when they knew it.
The �16 words,� "the British government has learned
that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from
Africa," was cited by President Bush on Jan. 28, 2003 and has widely been
viewed as convincing the public and Congress to support a preemptive strike
The White House has never provided a full accounting of how
the intelligence, despite warnings from several government agencies that it was
unreliable, made its way from Italy to Washington and into President�s Bush�s
State of the Union address.
State Department memo
Sixteen days before Bush�s State of the Union, the State
Department told the CIA that the intelligence the uranium claims were based
upon were forgeries, according to a declassified State Department memo.
The memo says: "On January 12, 2003," the State
Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) "expressed concerns
to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were
Moreover, the memo says that the State Department's doubts
about the veracity of the uranium claims may have been expressed to the
intelligence community even earlier.
Those concerns, according to the memo, are the reason that
former Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to cite the uranium claims when
he appeared before the United Nations in February 5, 2003 -- one week after
Bush's State of the Union address -- to try to win support for a possible
strike against Iraq.
"After considerable back and forth between the CIA, the
(State) Department, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and the
British, Secretary Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council did not
mention attempted Iraqi procurement of uranium due to CIA concerns raised
during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the
alleged Iraq-Niger agreement," the memo further states.
During a closed before the Senate Select Committee on
Intelligence back in July 2003, Alan Foley, the former director of the CIA's
Nonproliferation, Intelligence and Arms Control Center, said he had spoken to
Robert Joseph, the former director of nonproliferation at the National Security
Council and former undersecretary of state for arms control, a day or two
before President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address and told Joseph that
detailed references to Iraq and Niger should be excluded from the final draft.
Foley told committee members that Joseph had agreed to water down the language
and would instead, he told Foley, attribute the intelligence to the British.
At this time, the international community, the media, and
the IAEA called into question the veracity of the Niger documents. Mohamed
ElBaradei, head of IAEA, told the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003, that
the Niger documents were forgeries and could not be used to prove Iraq was a
Wilson speaks out
Wilson began to question the Niger intelligence a day after
Bush's speech. He said he reminded a friend at the State Department that he had
traveled to Niger in February 2002 to investigate whether Iraq attempted to
acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger.
Wilson said his friend at the State Department replied that
"perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African
countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I
accepted the explanation. I didn't know that in December, a month before the
president's address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that
mentioned the Niger case."
Wilson said he had attempted to contact the White House
through various channels after the State of the Union address to get the
administration to correct the public record.
"I had direct discussions with the State Department
[and] Senate committees," Wilson told me in April 2006 following a speech
to college students and faculty at California State University Northridge.
"I had numerous conversations to change what they were saying publicly. I
had a civic duty to hold my government to account for what it had said and
Wilson said he was rebuffed at every instance and that he
received word, through then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, that he
could state his case in writing in a public forum.
In March 2003, Wilson began to publicly question the
administration's use of the Niger claims without disclosing his role in
traveling to Niger in February 2002 to investigate it. Wilson's criticism of
the administration's pre-war Iraq intelligence caught the attention of Cheney,
Libby and Hadley.
In an interview that took place two and a half weeks before
the start of the Iraq War, Wilson said the administration was more interested
in redrawing the map of the Middle East to pursue its own foreign policy objectives
than in dealing with the so-called terrorist threat.
�The underlying objective, as I see it -- the more I look at
this -- is less and less disarmament, and it really has little to do with
terrorism, because everybody knows that a war to invade and conquer and occupy
Iraq is going to spawn a new generation of terrorists," Wilson said in a
March 2, 2003, interview with CNN.
�So you look at what's underpinning this, and you go back
and you take a look at who's been influencing the process. And it's been those
who really believe that our objective must be far grander, and that is to
redraw the political map of the Middle East," Wilson added.
A week later, Wilson was interviewed on CNN again. This was
the first time Wilson ridiculed the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had
tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. "Well, this particular
case is outrageous. We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for
something like this to go unchallenged by the US -- the US government -- is just
simply stupid. It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an
embassy there since the early 1960s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted
market of buyers and sellers," Wilson said in the March 8, 2003, CNN
interview. "For this to have gotten to the IAEA is on the face of it dumb,
but more to the point, it taints the whole rest of the case that the government
is trying to build against Iraq."
Wilson's comments enraged Cheney because it was seen as a
personal attack against the vice president, who was instrumental in getting his
underlings to cite the Niger claims in government reports to build a case for
war against Iraq.
Wilson's critique during his appearances on CNN, in addition
to ElBaradei's UN report, were seen as a threat to the administration's planned
attack against Iraq, which took place 11 days later.
Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press" on March 16,
2003, to respond to ElBaradei's assertion that the Niger documents were
�I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said
during the interview. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or
missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe
they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."
The former ambassador's stinging rebuke also caught the
attention of Hadley, who had played an even bigger role in the Niger
controversy by failing to heed written warnings by the CIA to remove the
reference from President Bush�s State of the Union address.
Hadley responded to Wilson's comments by writing an
editorial about the threat Iraq posed to the U.S., in an attempt to discredit
Wilson's comments on CNN.
A column written by Hadley that was published in the Chicago
Tribune on February 16, 2003, was redistributed to newspaper editors by the
State Department on March 10, 2003, two days after Wilson was interviewed on
CNN. The column, "Two Potent Iraqi Weapons: Denial and Deception"
once again raised the issue that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger.
Second State Department memo
Wilson spoke to at least two journalists in May 2003 about
the bogus Niger intelligence. A phone call to the White House by one of the
reporters, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, seeking comment about Wilson�s
accusations prompted I. Lewis �Scooter� Libby, Cheney�s former chief of staff
to inquire about Wilson�s trip to Niger. Libby contacted the State Department.
A memo, dated June 10, 2003, drafted by Carl Ford Jr., the former head of the
State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was issued and sent to
Libby. It said Wilson undertook the mission to Niger to investigate the Niger
The White House has long maintained that they were never
briefed about the State Department's or the CIA's concerns related to the Niger
But in a previous interview with me, the memo's author, Carl
Ford, said he has no doubt the State Department's reservations about the Niger
intelligence made their way to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and
former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
�This was the very first time there was written evidence --
not notes, but a request for a report -- from the State Department that
documented why the Niger intel was bullshit," Ford told me. "It was
the only thing in writing, and it had a certain value because it didn't come
from the IAEA. It came from State. It scared the heck out of a lot of people
because it proved that this guy Wilson's story was credible. I don't think
anybody wanted the media to know that the State Department disagreed with the
intelligence used by the White House."
Ford added that when the request came from Cheney's office
for a report on Wilson's Niger trip it was an opportunity to put in writing a
document that would remind the White House that it had been warned about the
Niger claims early on.
Tenet warned Hadley
In his book, At the Center of the Storm, former CIA Director George Tenet wrote
that he personally asked Hadley to remove the 16 words from President Bush�s
speech just three months earlier.
�Steve, take it out," Tenet wrote about a conversation
he had with Hadley on October 5, 2002. As deputy national security adviser,
Hadley was also in charge of the clearance process for speeches given by White
House officials. "The facts, I told him, were too much in doubt."
Following his conversation with Hadley, one of Tenet's aides
sent a follow-up letter to then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice,
Hadley, and Bush's speechwriter Mike Gerson highlighting additional reasons the
language about Iraq's purported attempts to obtain uranium from the African
country of Niger should not be used to try to convince Congress and the public
that Iraq was an imminent threat, Tenet wrote in the book.
"More on why we recommend removing the sentence about
[Saddam's] procuring uranium oxide from Africa," Tenet wrote in the book,
apparently quoting from a memo sent to the White House. "Three points: (1)
The evidence is weak. One of the two mines cited by the source as the location
of the uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine cited by the source is under
the control of French authorities; (2) the procurement is not particularly
significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions; and (3) we have shared points one and
two with Congress, telling them the Africa story is overblown and telling them
this was one of two issues where we differed with the British."
Tenet, however, says he was "in bed, asleep" when
Bush delivered the State of the Union.
"You won't find many Washington officials who will
admit to not watching the most important political speech of the year, but I
was exhausted from fifteen months of nonstop work and worry since the tragedy
of 9/11," Tenet writes in the chapter "16 words." "We had
warned the White House against using the Niger uranium reports previously but
had not done so with the State of the Union," Tenet wrote.
Tenet wrote that he believes the administration was excited
about the prospect of removing Saddam Hussein from power and ignored his
previous warnings about the bogus intelligence in order to win support for the
"The vision of a despot like Saddam getting his hands
on nuclear weapons was galvanizing" and "provided an irresistible
image for speechwriters, spokesmen, and politicians to seize on," Tenet
Still, Tenet says when the furor surrounding the 16 words
reached a boiling point in July 2003, he "decided to stand up and take the
"Obviously, the process for vetting the speech at the
Agency had broken down," Tenet wrote. "We had warned the White House
about the lack of reliability of the assertion when we had gotten them to
remove similar language from the president's October  Cincinnati speech
and we should have gotten that language out of the [State of the Union address]
Tenet added that the White House officials had told the
media that the language pertaining to Niger omitted from the Cincinnati speech
was dramatically different from the Niger claims that ended up in the State of
the Union address.
"That simply wasn't so," Tenet wrote. "It was
clear that the entire briefing was intended to convince the press corps that
the White House staff was an innocent victim of bad work by the intelligence
�On July 18, Condi Rice requested formal declassification of
part of the October NIE, including the "key judgments" section and
the paragraphs relating to Iraqi attempts to secure uranium in Africa. This was
done through the normal CIA channels the same day, and Tenet personally spoke
with Cheney and Rumsfeld that day to let them know it had happened,� McClellan
wrote in his book.
The NIE was formally declassified on July 18, 2003, and a
background briefing with a "senior administration official" was
arranged for reporters to respond to questions about Wilson and how White House
officials failed to vet the State of the Union.
Tenet wrote that the intent of the White House's background
briefing on July 18 "was obvious.�
�They wanted to demonstrate that the intelligence community
had given the administration and Congress every reason to believe that Saddam had
a robust WMD program that was growing in seriousness every day. The briefers
were questioned about press accounts saying that the White House had taken
references to Niger out of the Cincinnati speech at the CIA's request. Why then
did they insert them again in the State of the Union address?" Tenet wrote
in his book.
The NIE leak and the attack on Wilson
McClellan wrote in his book that the campaign to discredit
Wilson heated up at the White House in June 2003 when Washington Post reporter
Walter Pincus contacted the Office of the Vice President.
�In early June, while making inquiries about what [New York
Times columnist Nicholas] Kristof wrote, Pincus had contacted Cathie Martin,
who oversaw the vice president's communications office. Martin went to Scooter
Libby to discuss what Pincus was sniffing around about,� McClellan wrote. �The
vice president and Libby were quietly stepping up their efforts to counter the
allegations of the anonymous envoy to Niger, and Pincus's story was one
opportunity for them to do just that.�
Kristof accused Cheney of allowing the truth about the Niger
documents the administration used to build a case for war to go "missing
in action." The columnist obtained his information from Wilson in May 2003
at a political conference in Washington sponsored by the Senate Democratic
In mid-June 2003, Libby chose New York Times reporter Judith
Miller and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as recipients of the still
classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. The Pulitzer Prize winning
journalists were urged by Libby to report that that Iraq had in fact attempted
to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger, directly contradicting Wilson's
A week before he met with Libby, around June 16, 2003,
Woodward met with two other government officials, one of whom was later
revealed to be Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Woodward says
Armitage, referring to him as an unnamed official, told him in a
"casual" and off-handed manner that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.
Woodward said the meeting with Libby and the other
government officials had been set up simply as "confidential background
interviews for my 2004 book, 'Plan of Attack,' about the lead-up to the Iraq
war, ongoing reporting for the Washington Post and research for a book on
Bush's second term to be published in 2006."
Woodward wrote a first person account in the Washington Post
about his involvement in the Plame leak a couple of weeks after Libby was
indicted. The Watergate-era journalist wrote that when he met with Libby on
June 27, 2003, "Libby discussed the October 2002 National Intelligence
Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned 'yellowcake'
and said there was an effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa. It goes back
to February '02. This was the time of Wilson's trip to Niger."
Neither Miller nor Woodward wrote stories for their
newspapers about the intelligence report Libby leaked to them.
Libby also met with former New York Times reporter Judith
Miller, another Pulitzer Prize winner, and leaked the same portions of the NIE
when Miller raised questions about Wilson's claims about the administration's
use of pre-war Iraq intelligence.
Miller spent 85 days in jail for in 2006 for refusing to
reveal Libby as her source who disclosed Plame�s identity to her.
Libby and Cheney continued to peddle the Niger intelligence
as solid even though there was agreement among Bush�s senior officials that the
White House would issue a mea culpa. Indeed, on July 14, 2003, just three days
after senior officials met to discuss the White House response, Libby contacted
then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and asked him to contact the
editorial department at the Wall Street Journal and leaked the NIE to the paper
as a way of undermining Wilson. Cheney approved leaking the NIE to the Journal.
"After July 14, in that week, the Vice President
thought we should still try and get the [NIE] out. And so he asked me to talk
to the Wall Street Journal. I don't have as good a relationship with the Wall
Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did, and so we talked to Secretary
Wolfowitz about trying to get that point across [to the Journal], and he
undertook to do so," Libby testified.
Wolfowitz faxed the Wall Street Journal a set of "talking
points" about the former ambassador that the paper's editors could use to
discredit him in print, according to Libby's grand jury testimony, and then
leaked to the paper a portion of the then-still-classified NIE that claimed
Iraq did in fact attempt to acquire uranium from Niger. The Journal printed,
verbatim, Wolfowitz's talking points in an editorial in its July 17, 2003,
edition and then misled its readers about the source of the information.
According to the editorial, "Yellowcake Remix,"
the Journal said the data the newspaper received about Iraq's interest in
uranium "does not come from the White House," despite the fact that
Libby testified that he personally lobbied Wolfowitz to leak the NIE to the
Journal, and that arguably Wolfowitz's position as undersecretary of defense
made him a senior member of the Bush administration.
For an administration that despises leaks, the decision by
Cheney to declassify highly sensitive portions of the NIE and have his most
trusted aide leak it to reporters in order to attack Wilson�s credibility
showed that Bush and Cheney and other senior administration officials took the
ambassador�s criticism personally.
In his book, McClellan said in early 2006 a reporter
questioned him aboard Air Force One about rumors that Bush authorized Libby to
leak the NIE to the media. McClellan wrote that he asked the president the
question directly and was stunned by his response.
A reporter �asserted you authorized the leak of part of the
NIE,� McClellan wrote about a conversation he had with Bush.
�Yeah, I did,� is what Bush�s response was, McClellan wrote.
�The look on his face said he didn�t want to discuss the matter any further.
Nor did I expect him to, since he had already been advised by his personal
attorney Jim Sharp not to discuss any details related to the Libby trial. I was
shocked to hear the President casually acknowledging its accuracy, as if
discussing something no more important than a baseball score or the latest
tidbit of inside-the-Beltway gossip.�
�No one else was told about the secret declassification --
not Chief of Staff Andy Card, not National Security Advisor Condi Rice. When
Rice was publicly rejecting the notion of selective declassification on July
11, 2003, Scooter Libby had already leaked it to Judith Miller on July 8 -- at
the vice president�s direction with authority from the president.�
In early fall 2003, President Bush then announced that he
was determined to get to the bottom of the Plame leak.
�If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know
who it is,� Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. �I want to know the truth. If anybody
has got any information inside our administration or outside our
administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information
so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.�
Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling
for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that
he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium
issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to
In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the
scheme to discredit Wilson got started -- since he was involved in starting it
-- the president uttered misleading public statements that obscured the White
Also, since the leakers knew that Bush already was in the
know, they might well have read his comments as a signal to lie, which is what
they did. In early October, McClellan said he could report that political
adviser Rove and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams were not
involved in the Plame leak.
That comment riled Libby, who feared that he was being hung
out to dry. Libby went to his boss, Vice President Cheney, complaining that
�they want me to be the sacrificial lamb,� Libby�s lawyer Theodore Wells said
Cheney scribbled down his feelings in a note to Press
Secretary McClellan: �Not going to
protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy [that Pres -- struck out by
Cheney] that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of
incompetence of others."
In the note, Cheney initially ascribed Libby�s role in going
after Joe Wilson to Bush�s orders, but the vice president apparently thought
better of it, crossing out �the Pres� and putting the clause in a passive
Cheney has never explained the meaning of his note, but it
suggests that it was Bush who sent Libby out on the get-Wilson mission to limit
damage from Wilson�s criticism of Bush�s false Niger yellowcake claim.
Did Bush authorize Plame leak?
During Libby�s criminal trial last year, David Addington,
Cheney�s attorney in the Office of the Vice President, had testified that
during a conversation with Libby about the president's authority to declassify
documents, Libby also questioned him specifically about whether "if
somebody worked out at the CIA and the CIA sent the person's spouse on a trip
to do something for the CIA, would there be a record out at the CIA of
that," states a copy of the trial transccript.
Addington said he told Libby "it depended . . . the
kind of paperwork would depend on whether you were on the operational side of
the CIA, the folks who run spies overseas, if you will, or on the analytical
side, the folks at CIA who write reports for policymakers and so forth about
what is going on in the world."
In late June or early July 2003, "a question was asked
of me . . . by Scooter Libby: Does the president have authority to declassify
information?" Addington testified. "And the answer I gave was, 'Of
course, yes. It's clear the president has the authority to determine what
constitutes a national security secret and who can have access to it.'"
In an interview with Fox News in 2006, Cheney said he had
the legal authority to declassify intelligence as he saw fit. There is still
strong debate about the interpretation of the executive order Cheney referred
to that provided him with such power. Cheney's comments came on the heels of a
disclosure Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made in a letter to defense
attorneys representing Libby in the leak case.
President Bush signed an executive order in 2003 authorizing
Cheney to declassify certain intelligence documents. The order was signed on
March 23, four days after the start of the Iraq War and two weeks after Wilson
first appeared on the administration's radar.
McClellan wrote that he wondered whether allowing the NIE to
be leaked to the media had somehow caused the same officials to disseminate
Plame�s CIA status.
�Questions were also raised about whether the president's
action had set in motion the unauthorized disclosure of Valerie Plame's
identity,� McClellan wrote in his book.
Leopold is the author of "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit
www.newsjunkiebook.com for a
new website is The Public Record.