Filmmakers get to take dramatic license. Reporters really shouldn't. But when it comes to Joseph C. Wilson IV and Valerie Plame, the mainstream media, as much as Hollywood, insist on marketing morality plays disconnected from reality.
The cinematic version of Joe and Valerie's story is called Fair Game and at least the producers acknowledge that it's only "based on actual events." In the news pages of the Washington Post, Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby have provided an almost equally fictionalized version — with no such disclaimer.
They write that in February 2002, then–vice president Dick Cheney "questioned his CIA briefer about some intelligence claiming that Iraq sought to buy 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger to build a nuclear weapon. The agency sent Joe Wilson, a former ambassador with experience in both Baghdad and Niger, to run down the allegation, originally obtained by the Italian intelligence service from a note that turned out to be a forgery. Wilson debunked it."
As Pincus and Leiby should know — it was reported in the Washington Post by Susan Schmidt on July 10, 2004 — the Italian forgery was "not in U.S. hands until eight months after Wilson made his trip to Niger."
However, British intelligence had come to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein's agents attempted to obtain uranium in Africa. Two separate and independent inquiries — one in 2003, the other in 2004 — examined that intelligence and found it to be "well-founded" — not based on the Italian forgery which actually may have been planted in order to be discovered and thus cast doubt on the Niger-Iraq link. British intelligence continues to stand by its conclusions to this day.
What's more, a bipartisan U.S. Senate report found that the most important piece of information Wilson brought back from his mission to Africa was that a high-level Iraqi trade mission had visited Niger in 1999. Perhaps Iraq was just running low on camels, but, according to the Senate report, "the Nigerien prime minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium."
As for Wilson's attempt to "run down the allegation," by his own admission that amounted to spending eight days "drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people" at his hotel in the Nigerien capital of Niamey. Based on what they told him — maybe they told him the truth, maybe they didn't — he briefed CIA analysts upon his return. He never even filed a report. The CIA did not consider the information he gave them interesting enough to convey to Cheney or anyone else at the White House.
With this as context, the claim that Wilson "debunked" anything is, well . . . bunk. In fact, as the Post's Schmidt also reported, the Senate intelligence panel specifically concluded that Wilson, "rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case" by citing the Iraqi trade mission. Schmidt noted: "Wilson's reports to the CIA added to the evidence that Iraq may have tried to buy uranium in Niger." How could Pincus and Leiby ignore all this?
And this, too, they neglect to mention: The Senate committee found that Wilson provided misleading information when he said that he had recognized the Italian document as a forgery because he noticed that "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong."
Schmidt again: "Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the 'dates were wrong and the names were wrong' when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports." Wilson's explanation? He told the panel he might have been confused.
Pincus and Leiby continue: "Bush talked forebodingly in his 2003 State of the Union speech of a British intelligence report about Hussein seeking 'significant quantities of uranium from Africa.' On July 6, 2003, with the war underway, a furious Wilson went public, penning a New York Times op-ed, appearing on 'Meet the Press' and going on the attack in The Washington Post."
They add that Wilson's "claim was explosive: the administration had twisted intelligence as a pretext for the invasion." But the truth is that Wilson either did not know — or did not care — that the administration was relying on separate intelligence including, but not limited to, that provided by the British. Nor were intelligence reports the only factors considered before a decision was taken — with bipartisan Congressional authorization — to send troops to topple Saddam.
Pincus and Leiby go on to assert that the White House responded to Wilson "through its senior officials, disclosing the identity of his CIA operative wife to at least five journalists as a way to discredit Wilson, pushing the story to reporters that Valerie sent her husband on the trip to Niger to help his career as a business consultant."
Here's what actually happened: I believe I was the first to raise serious questions about why the CIA sent Wilson — rather than a trained, experienced CIA agent — to investigate such an important matter. (This was in NRO on July 11, 2003. In the book version of Fair Game, Plame calls me "mean-spirited." Wilson denounces me in his memoir as well.) Syndicated columnist Robert Novak was the first to come up with an answer. In a column published on July 14, Novak wrote that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA and that she was the one who "suggested sending him to Niger." As the public learned only much later, Novak's information did not come from the White House; it came from State Department official Richard Armitage.
Neither Novak nor Armitage favored using military force to overthrow Saddam. Neither had any reason to "discredit" Wilson, and if you read Novak's column you'll see he does not do so. On the contrary, he praises Wilson.
And no Washington insider — I emphatically include Pincus and Leiby in that category — can possibly believe that the White House could have persuaded Armitage or Novak to "respond" to Wilson by ratting out a secret agent. If Pincus and Leiby do believe that, I would ask them to say so.
It's also important to point out that Novak did not report that Plame had ever worked in a covert capacity. He later told me and others that he had assumed she was merely a desk-bound analyst and, had he been aware she was more than that, he would have steered clear. I believe he was telling the truth. Do Pincus and Leiby think he was lying? I'd ask them to make that clear as well.
So how did the public learn that Plame had been undercover? David Corn revealed that in a story in the leftwing magazine The Nation. I remain convinced that Corn's unnamed source was Joe Wilson, who had received an award from a group associated with The Nation for — can you guess? — "truth-telling." Wilson also had written for The Nation, accusing President Bush of having "imperial ambitions."
If you've followed me this far, you understand that the true story of Joe and Valerie is not simple. Nor is it convenient for those suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome, those who daydreamed of frog-marching Karl Rove from the White House and sending Scooter Libby to the deepest dungeon.
On the silver screen, Plame attempts to exfiltrate Iraqi scientists who know for certain that Saddam has no nuclear-weapons program only to have her CIA handlers shut down her mission. This is pure fiction, but savor the irony: Too many in the CIA worked diligently to undermine President Bush — the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate saying Iran's nuclear-weapons program had been halted is only the most infamous example — but in the movie, the CIA protects Bush and betrays Plame.
By the way: As Quin Hillyer pointed out in The American Spectator, Plame's own memoir suggests she was among the many intelligence analysts — at the CIA and other agencies — who were convinced that Saddam was still developing weapons of mass destruction.
She was in good company: The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate concluded with "high confidence" that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program. Former vice president Al Gore and then-senator Hillary Clinton believed that. Senator Ted Kennedy said: "We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction."
As for Wilson, prior to the U.S. intervention, he told Dave Marash, then a reporter for ABC News, that if American troops were sent into Iraq, Saddam might "use a biological weapon in a battle that we might have." That was his argument against the war: not that Saddam did not have WMD but that it would be dangerous for American troops to face them.
Fair Game, the film, is not fair. It slanders innocent people caught in a web spun by Joe Wilson to flatter his vanity and that of his wife. But what can you expect from Hollywood? The demands of both drama and fashionable Left Coast ideology mandate that the glamorous blonde spy who made the cover of Vanity Fair (oh, the irony) must be the hero and that all the president's men — especially Cheney, Rove, and Libby — must be villains.
I expect more truth and accuracy from the mainstream media. Silly me.