From Niger to Grand Jury: A Plame Case Timeline
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The case that Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating and that all Washington is following avidly and speculating about is rooted in a claim that was made about Iraq's nuclear ambitions and activities. It was expressed most publicly by President Bush in his State of the Union address on January 28th, 2003.
(Soundbite of State of the Union address, January 28, 2003)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.
SIEGEL: The name of Valerie Plame Wilson became public thanks to a chain of events related to that first claim, the claim of Iraqi uranium shopping in West Africa. Joining us to retrace this story is Michael Isikoff, who's covered it. He is investigative correspondent for Newsweek magazine.
Mr. MICHAEL ISIKOFF (Newsweek): Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: The president, in his State of the Union address in 2003, spoke of what the British government had found out. And there was, in September 2002, a British government white paper that said the Iraqis had been shopping for uranium in West Africa.
Mr. ISIKOFF: Correct. And that was the basis for the president's statement in the State of the Union. We now know that the British got the report from the Italian military intelligence agency, SISMI, which based it on what we now know to be fraudulent documents, forged documents, that had been obtained from the Niger Embassy in Rome. But what's amazing is that the documents that the Italian report were based on had not been examined by the CIA and are only proven to be forgeries two months after by the International Atomic Energy Agency based on a simple Google search. They got the documents from the CIA, Googled the ministers named in the documents and established pretty conclusively that the people who sign the documents weren't in office at the time that the documents were signed.
SIEGEL: And the director of the IAEA, the Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, since the Nobel Peace laureate, made this pronouncement on March 7th, 2003.
(Soundbite of March 7, 2003, speech)
Mr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (Director, International Atomic Energy Agency): These documents, which formed the basis for the report of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger, are, in fact, not authentic. We have, therefore, concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded.
SIEGEL: Now it wasn't until July of 2003 that Joseph Wilson IV, formerly a diplomat in Baghdad during the first Gulf War, bursts on the public scene with an account of his trip to West Africa. We, in the vast public at large, learned of what he had to say on July 6th, 2003, in an Op-Ed page article in The New York Times and also in this appearance on "Meet the Press."
(Soundbite of "Meet the Press")
Mr. JOSEPH WILSON: My judgment on this is that if they were referring to Niger when they were referring to uranium sales from Africa to Iraq, that information was erroneous and that they knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British white paper and the president's State of the Union address.
SIEGEL: What's the reaction inside the White House and inside the office of Vice President Cheney to Joseph Wilson's going public in The New York Times, in a story in The Washington Post and on "Meet the Press," as we just heard?
Mr. ISIKOFF: They were quite furious. I mean, Vice President Cheney, after all, had been the principal proponent of the Iraqi nuclear claim. And in many ways, Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff, I. "Scooter" Libby, took Wilson's attacks personally, and they felt the need to push back.
SIEGEL: So right after July 6th, when Joseph Wilson makes his claims, according to records that have now been pieced together since the Fitzgerald investigation began, there's an outreach to reporters from that particular office at the White House.
Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, that is certainly the allegation that set off the Fitzgerald investigation. We've learned some about contacts that Scooter Libby had with Judy Miller of The New York Times and Karl Rove had with Matt Cooper of Time magazine. It's still not clear that administration officials were reaching out to them or they were reaching out to administration officials and asking questions about Wilson's claim. But what we do know now is that information about Joe Wilson's wife was passed to those two reporters by Libby and Rove.
SIEGEL: By the time that Valerie Plame Wilson's work at the CIA was leaked to reporters, the administration was on the verge of backing off the whole uranium claim, wasn't it? Because on July 11th, a few days after Wilson's article, George Tenet, the CIA director, says that claim should never have been in the State of the Union. And Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser at the time, says, `If he'd said that then, we would have taken it out of the speech.' Now--so what was the White House defending at that point if they were, on the one hand, on the verge of withdrawing this claim and, on the other hand, seemingly defending it against the criticism of Joseph Wilson?
Mr. ISIKOFF: I think that the administration--this was such a big story at the time because it was, really, the first public backpedal by the White House on claims--prewar claims it had made about Iraq. It was pretty significant that the Bush White House, known for its bravura and self-confidence, would back off of anything, and in a way, it was the first chip in the armor.
SIEGEL: And after there was that, as you would say, very measured backing away from the uranium claim, there appears, on July 14th, 2003, three days after George Tenet's statement, a column by Robert Novak, in which he writes publicly now that Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA, a column which, later in 2003 when he appeared on "Meet the Press," Mr. Novak explained this way.
(Soundbite of "Meet the Press")
Mr. ROBERT NOVAK (Columnist): I thought it was very strange that the mission to Niger should be done by a diplomat with no experience in counterproliferation, who was regarded as a critic of the war. And I wanted--and really had no experience at the agency. So in interviewing a senior administration official on a number of other subjects, I asked him if he could explain why. And he said, `Well, his wife works in the counterproliferation section at the CIA,' and that she suggested it--his mission.
SIEGEL: The event that brings about the entire investigation is, in fact, the Novak column. Everything flows from the Novak column.
Mr. ISIKOFF: Correct.
SIEGEL: But all this goes back to the threat Iraq posed prewar.
Mr. ISIKOFF: That is the backdrop for this entire investigation, and that's why its consequences are so large, separate and apart for the fate of the individuals who may or may not be charged by Fitzgerald. It chips away in a big way at the original administration case for war.
SIEGEL: That's Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, walking us through a time line of the Valerie Plame affair.
You can find another time line and explore the inner workings of grand juries at npr.org.
MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.