When Ambassador Joseph Wilson speaks of the White House, he tries to take the high road. "It's hard to imagine the government being irrational," he told me over the telephone on Monday afternoon, "and revenge is an irrational act." One breath later, however, Wilson showed why the Bush administration has a great deal to be worried about. "If they thought I was going to go away after they raped my wife," said Wilson, "they were dead wrong."
The publication of Wilson's editorial brought about a rare day of discomfort for a White House that is normally insulated by a friendly Congress, a subordinate Justice Department, and a tamed media. "The day after I wrote the article," said Wilson on Monday, "the White House said those 16 words shouldn't have been there. For me, that was the end of the story. Others could decide if the White House had deliberately deceived the American people. I'd gotten my answer, and afterwards refused all interviews on the subject, beyond the ones I'd already committed to."
Agents within the Bush administration, most notably Condi Rice and Don Rumsfeld, claimed they had never been informed of the corrupted nature of the Niger evidence. Some days later, CIA Director George Tenet took public responsibility for the fact that those 16 words made it into the State of the Union speech. The CIA, said Tenet, had never told the White House that the Niger evidence was phony.
Amusingly, few people believed what Tenet was trying to sell. First of all, Wilson had informed not only the CIA, but the State Department as well, that the Niger claims were empty. Many people beyond Mr. Tenet had the data, and the standard operating procedure would have such important data climbing a number of administration ladders. Second of all, it was Dick Cheney who asked for the investigation in the first place. Is it reasonable to assume that, after having demanded the investigation, Cheney refused to be briefed on the findings?
I operate from the assumption," said Wilson on Monday, "that the reason for doing this was to discourage others who were talking to press - and there were many - from coming forward more openly. The message was 'Be very careful: Do a Wilson on us, and we will do a Plame on you.' Its one thing to be political and put up with this crap. I'm used to it, after having been around for so long. But it's another thing for an analyst to deal with threats like this. Analysts aren't used to dealing with pressures like this. This act may have discouraged many of them from coming forward. I don't know to be sure, but have been far less insider stories about what we were hearing, stories of Cheney pressuring CIA analysts and the like, than there were a few months ago. There are far fewer unattributed sources talking about it. What they did to my wife was a political act to discourage others from coming forward."
For the record, the United States of America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration spent months terrifying the American people with the specter of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. The record is clear:
"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." - Dick Cheney, August 26 2002
"Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons." - George W. Bush, September 12 2002
"If he declares he has none, then we will know that Saddam Hussein is once again misleading the world." - Ari Fleischer, December 2 2002
"We know for a fact that there are weapons there." - Ari Fleischer, January 9 2003
"Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent." - George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 28 2003
"We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more." - Colin Powell, February 5 2003
"We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons." - George Bush, February 8 2003
"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." - George Bush, March 17 2003
"Well, there is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly . . . all this will be made clear in the course of the operation, for whatever duration it takes." - Ari Fleischer, March 21 2003
"There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. As this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them." - Gen. Tommy Franks, March 22 2003
"We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad." - Donald Rumsfeld, March 30 2003.
All of these claims were wrapped around the rhetoric of September 11, making a clear connection for the American people: If we do not invade Iraq and get those weapons, they will be given to terrorists for use against you. This rhetoric is further buttressed by claims on a page on the White House's own website titled 'Disarm Saddam Hussein.' That page outlines, in specifics, why Iraq was a threat. The threat: 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX gas (500 tons = 1,000,000 lbs.), nearly 30,000 munitions to deliver these poisons, and al Qaeda connections just itching to take possession of it all.
In a bit of black comedy, the Niger uranium claims - so thoroughly debunked that America stands ashamed before the world because Bush used them publicly to augment his case for war - still remain on this official White House page. The tens of thousands of liters of anthrax and botulinum toxin, the million pounds of sarin, VX and mustard gas, have thoroughly failed to turn up after nearly a year's worth of occupation and investigation, after almost 500 American soldiers have died, after thousands more have been horribly wounded, to defend America against a threat that did not exist in the first place.