Thursday, July 15, 2004

Ur - anium? My - ranium!

From Salon:

Choreographed editorials and Op-Ed pieces on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal and National Review and by conservative columnist Robert Novak signaled the revving up of a Republican campaign to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his claims that President Bush trumpeted flimsy intelligence in the drive to invade Iraq.


The dispute over the committee report centers on its interpretation of two facts. One is that Wilson told his CIA debriefers that during his Niger trip, he spoke to the country's former prime minister, who told him that members of an Iraqi delegation in the late 1990s expressed interest in expanded commercial contacts with Niger. The former prime minister told Wilson that he interpreted the comment to mean that Iraq was interested in buying uranium, although the word "uranium" was not mentioned in the Iraqis' conversation, he said. The prime minister, fearful of United Nations sanctions that prevented trade with Iraq at the time, dropped the subject, Wilson reported.

But because the ex-minister believed the Iraqis were seeking uranium, the Senate report concluded that whether Iraq sought uranium in Africa remains an open question -- a conclusion Wilson disputes. It further reported that far from debunking the notion that Iraq was seeking uranium for weapons, Wilson's trip to Niger actually bolstered the story, at least in the view of some intelligence analysts, who found the news that the former prime minister believed the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium convincing. But no sale of uranium ever took place, Wilson reported, and that conclusion is not in dispute. Wilson did report that Iraq's neighbor, Iran, had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998.

The report also quotes an internal CIA memo written by Wilson's wife, Plame, stating: "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." Based on Plame's internal memo and other evidence, three Republicans -- Roberts and Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Kit Bond of Missouri -- wrote additional views appended to the report, concluding that "the plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested" by Plame. The three GOP senators criticized their Democratic counterparts on the panel for refusing to endorse this conclusion.

In his letter to the committee, Wilson disputed the Republican senators' characterization. "There is no suggestion or recommendation in that statement that I be sent on the trip," he wrote. A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment. In an interview, Wilson said that his wife was stating facts about his background, not pushing that he go to Niger.

The Washington Post story, meanwhile, took the disputed Senate report conclusions even further. It stated in its lead that Wilson was "specifically recommended for the mission by his wife ... contrary to what he has said publicly." In the interview, Wilson argued that the Post story failed to make clear that only the intelligence panel's Republicans, and not its Democrats, came to that conclusion. He said he has written a letter of protest to the Post.

The Post article also contained one acknowledged error: In trying to build a case that Wilson's Niger trip had actually bolstered the administration's claims, Schmidt wrote that Wilson had told the CIA that Iraq had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998. In fact, it was Iran that Wilson said had tried to make the purchase, as the Senate report states. The Post ran a correction.

In other words, the Post's Susan Schmidt printed what amounts to a very biased, partisan reading of the report, probably provided to her by a Republican staffer. Hmmm, where did we hear that, oh, five days ago when the story broke?

I'll dispense with the literary prologue and get right to the point.

Susan Schmidt is known, happily among DC Republicans and not so happily among DC Democrats, as what you might call the "Mikey" (a la Life Cereal fame) of the DC press corps, especially when the cereal is coming from Republican staffers.


Finally, down toward the end of Schmidt's article she writes that: "According to the former Niger mining minister, Wilson told his CIA contacts, Iraq tried to buy 400 tons of uranium in 1998."

I read the report's discussion of the whole Niger business. And I didn't see that reference. However, on page 44 there is a reference to Wilson reporting to the CIA that "an Iranian delegation was interested in purchasing 400 tons of yellowcake from Niger in 1998 [but that] no contract was ever signed with Iran." (emphasis added).

Perhaps I missed the reference that Schmidt is noting. But it seems awfully similar to the one the report notes about Iran -- same date, same tonnage. Presumably in this case, Schmidt innocently confused the two neighboring and similar-sounding countries, though it's a goof you'd think an editor would have caught.

Go read, or re-read, Josh's original post. As usual, it turns out he was mostly right.