The Plame Case: Back to the Beginning
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Later this week, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is due to announce the conclusions of his grand jury investigation into who revealed the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald's investigation began as an inquiry into whether any federal laws were broken in the leak of Plame's name, but it has evolved into a political spectacle including a reporter going to jail and questions as to the role of presidential strategist Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus has covered the drama from its beginning. We spoke with him late this past week and asked him to recount how it all began. He explained that as the Bush administration was building a case for invading Iraq, in February 2002, Vice President Cheney asked the CIA for more information about reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger to build nuclear weapons. The CIA responded by sending former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame's husband, to that West African nation. Pincus says that despite later claims that Wilson's trip was arranged by his wife, in Pincus' earliest interviews with officials in the vice president's office and at the CIA in the State Department, Valerie Plame's involvement never came up.
Mr. WALTER PINCUS (Washington Post): Nobody ever mentioned Wilson's wife playing any role at all. And one of the people I talked to--then on the background and I've since been released to say his name--was Scooter Libby who described how the thing came about to the vice president's office but never once mentioned Wilson's wife as being a participant.
YDSTIE: And then Wilson goes to Niger and what did he find?
Mr. PINCUS: He talked to the people who he knew who had previously run the uranium operation for the government. They universally said, one, they didn't know anything about it, and, two, the way the structure was worked and the French controlled it, they couldn't possibly divert uranium from their mines. They had sold uranium to Iraq in the 1980s, but they hadn't done any since. And they were--he was assured Niger wouldn't do it because they knew it would cause harm with the United States.
YDSTIE: And Wilson comes back to Washington and reports. And subsequently the president mentions that the British have learned that Saddam Hussein has attempted to get uranium from Niger in his State of the Union speech in January of 2003. Now did he know about Wilson's report at the time?
Mr. PINCUS: The short answer is probably no, but, in fact, there was an interim step. The meeting took place with Wilson in early 2002. He reports back to the CIA orally. A report is written. His name is never mentioned--he's referred to as a source--and it doesn't get wide distribution because, in fact, his report just reinforces two other reports that the CIA already had. So no big deal is made over it, but it comes up in October of 2002 because the president made a major speech in Cincinnati about the threat from Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. And in the draft, it included a line that in effect said Saddam Hussein had been caught trying to buy uranium from Africa. It's unclear how it got into the speech. But the CIA objected to it. The White House tried to keep it in. And it finally took a phone call from then the CIA Director Tenet to get it removed from the October speech. So the history was that the CIA didn't believe it, had it removed from one speech, and then it suddenly re-emerges in the drafts for the State of the Union. And they used the information but attributed it to British because the CIA said you couldn't attribute it to the American intelligence because they didn't believe it and they had previously testified to Congress to that effect.
YDSTIE: And subsequent to that, the former Ambassador Wilson goes public saying that the White House is distorting the intelligence behind weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Mr. PINCUS: The ambassador was frustrated and finally went public with an op-ed piece in The New York Times and interview in our paper, but the one that really set it off was he appeared on "Meet the Press."
YDSTIE: And then there are charges that the White House is mounting a campaign to discredit Wilson. What's the evidence, if any, that there was an organized campaign?
Mr. PINCUS: Well, I think it--in this case, what you have is little pieces that have been picked up. And the material that's been released so far, it appears that the ambassador goes on "Meet the Press" July the 6th. On July 8th, somebody talks to Robert Novak and mentions Wilson's wife's alleged role in setting up the trip. By then that same day there is a conversation between New York Times correspondent Judy Miller and Scooter Libby. And the two of them had already talked about this and he had mentioned Wilson's wife. You then had other reporters being contacted. Matt Cooper was contacted by Karl Rove and given the same story. And then I was called on July 12th, and a White House source in effect asked why I was still writing about Joe Wilson's trip, didn't I know that his wife had arranged it, and since at least two people are involved in talking about it, those things in this White House, it's assumed don't happen independently.
YDSTIE: Then Robert Novak actually writes a column identifying Valerie Plame as Wilson's wife.
Mr. PINCUS: Robert Novak wrote a column on July 14th identifying Valerie Plame as a CIA operative and someone who had been involved in arranging for his trip to Niger.
YDSTIE: Fast forwarding now, we have two White House officials under the spotlight, Karl Rove and Lewis Libby, apparent targets of the investigation at this point.
Mr. PINCUS: Certainly, they're central to what Patrick Fitzgerald has been investigating and the material that's come out has placed them right in the middle.
YDSTIE: Walter Pincus, of The Washington Post, thank you very much.
Mr. PINCUS: You're welcome.
YDSTIE: For more on the twists and turns of the Plame case, please go to our Web site, npr.org.
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