17 October 2003

The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2003

Memo May Aid Leak Probe

Document Details Intelligence Meeting On Iraq-Niger Reports


WASHINGTON -- An internal government memo addresses some of the mysteries at the center of the White House leak investigation and could help investigators in the search for who disclosed the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative, according to two people familiar with the memo.

The memo, prepared by U.S. intelligence personnel, details a meeting in early 2002 where CIA officer Valerie Plame and other intelligence officials gathered to brainstorm about how to verify reports that Iraq had sought uranium yellowcake from Niger.

Ms. Plame, a member of the agency's clandestine service working on Iraqi weapons issues, suggested at the meeting that her husband, Africa expert and former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, could be sent to Niger to investigate the reports, according to current and former government officials familiar with the meeting at the CIA's Virginia headquarters. Soon after, midlevel CIA officials decided to send him, say intelligence officials.

Classified memos, like the one describing Ms. Plame's role, have limited circulation and investigators are likely to question all those known to have received it. Intelligence officials haven't denied Ms. Plame was involved in the decision to send Mr. Wilson, but they have said she was not "responsible" for the decision.

How Ms. Plame got involved in the decision to send Mr. Wilson to Niger has been a mystery since July, when columnist Robert Novak first publicly identified her as a CIA officer and said she was responsible for her husband being chosen for the job, citing two sources. Mr. Novak's column was written after Mr. Wilson publicly accused the administration of twisting intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." It didn't explain how she got into the discussion and, by implication, suggested Mr. Wilson hadn't gotten the job on merit.

It is illegal for anyone to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert intelligence officer with the intention of damaging national security. Even without such an intent, it is a felony for any U.S. official with a security clearance to disclose an officer's identity to anyone not also authorized to receive such information.

Mr. Wilson has told reporters repeatedly that his wife wasn't involved in his selection, and accused the White House of leaking his wife's name to punish him by ending her career as a clandestine operative. He said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Thursday that he is unaware of any role played by his wife. "My wife knows of my particular experience with Niger. If there was such a meeting, I have no knowledge of it. It would be perfectly appropriate, though." He said that he hasn't asked his wife if she did suggest him for the mission because of the restrictions imposed by her job at the CIA.

According to current and former officials familiar with the memo, it describes interagency discussions of the yellowcake mystery: whether the reports of Iraq's uranium purchases were credible; which agency should pay for any further investigation; and the suggestion that Mr. Wilson could be sent to check out the allegations. Other officials with knowledge of the memo wouldn't say if it mentions Ms. Plame by name as the one who suggested Mr. Wilson, or if her identity is shielded but obvious because of what is known now about the mission. Operations officers like Ms. Plame are sometimes identified only by their first names even in interagency meetings.


Events leading up to the criminal investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity:

Early 2002: Spurred by Vice President Cheney's office, intelligence officials gather to discuss reports that Iraq is trying to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger. CIA officer Valerie Plame recommends her husband, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, for a mission to investigate the claim.

March: Upon his return from Africa, Wilson tells CIA the reports are "highly doubtful," echoing the sentiments of two U.S. officials who made similar inquiries.

September: CIA expresses "reservations" about a British report that says Iraq is seeking uranium in Africa.

January 2003: White House officials tout the British report in speeches, Bush cites it in his State of the Union address.

July 6: Wilson writes an op-ed piece criticizing Bush's use of intelligence.

July 14: Columnist Robert Novak reveals that Wilson's wife works for CIA.

Sept. 26: Justice Department opens investigation into who leaked information about Plame's status as a CIA officer to Novak.

Source: Intelligence officials, Arms Control Association

Officials said the memo is among thousands of pages of documents likely to be turned over to the Justice Department, which has advised the White House, CIA, Defense Department and State Department not to destroy records that might be connected to the leak investigation.

Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said his department is making headway in the probe of who exposed Ms. Plame's identity. "I believe that we have been making progress that's valuable in this matter," he said, without providing specifics about advancements in the case. "And we will devote every energy that's available, and every resource that's available at the highest level of intensity ... to reach the bottom of this."

That Ms. Plame recommended her husband doesn't undercut Mr. Wilson's credentials for the job of trying to figure out whether Saddam Hussein was seeking the raw material for a nuclear weapon in Africa. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Gabon and National Security Council expert on Africa in the Clinton administration.

The decision to send Mr. Wilson to Niger came after months of efforts by the CIA, urged on by the Bush White House, to try to discover whether the Iraqi dictator was back in the business of pursuing nuclear weapons. Indeed, two other U.S. officials -- the U.S. ambassador to Niger and a top Marine general -- were asked to make inquiries, and came back similarly dubious.

The claim nevertheless would become part of President Bush's argument for going to war, even after CIA officials warned the White House against citing the charge. The White House in July acknowledged that the information about the attempted uranium purchases was "not detailed or specific enough to be certain that attempts were in fact made."

The trail of intelligence is a murky one, but one that clearly whetted the appetite of the White House and others in the administration. U.S. officials say they received initial, sketchy intelligence reports about alleged Iraqi attempts to procure uranium in several African countries in late 2001. The information began to be viewed more seriously by the CIA in early 2002 after the governments of Britain and Italy told the U.S. they had received similar reports about Iraq searching for uranium in Africa.

U.S. officials say the more specific information came from Italy's intelligence service, which said it had been told by an African diplomat that Iraq had sought two 500-ton shipments of yellowcake from Niger, according to investigators.

The investigation was given a big push in early 2002 after Vice President Dick Cheney asked his CIA briefer for an assessment of the reports. According to Mr. Cheney's spokeswoman, Cathie Martin, the CIA reported back quickly that it was possible Iraq had made attempts to purchase yellowcake, but the agency couldn't be sure because it said the information "was fragmentary and lacked detail."

How Mr. Cheney first learned about the yellowcake reports isn't clear. Ms. Martin said he had heard of them independently of his regular CIA briefing. Once he received the agency's response, she says, he made no further inquiries about the information.

Mr. Wilson said he believes the CIA decision to send him to Niger was prompted by Mr. Cheney's inquiries. CIA Director George Tenet said last summer that decision was taken at the agency's own initiative.

Officials familiar with the early 2002 meeting at CIA headquarters said intelligence experts were uncertain about what further steps they could take to try to track down the yellowcake allegations. The CIA has no station chief in Niger, but the U.S. ambassador there already had made her own inquiry. These officials also say some participants at the meeting were skeptical of the Italian report. State Department officials, in particular, felt that 500 tons of uranium was such a large amount that there was no way it could secretly be transferred to Iraq.

Mr. Wilson says the first time he heard about a possible trip to Niger was when he was called to a meeting at CIA headquarters in February. About a dozen representatives of government intelligence agencies were present -- but not his wife, he said. He said he was asked to attend because of his expertise on Africa and his knowledge of the African uranium trade, gained during his years at the Clinton White House.

He said the meeting in a windowless conference room opened with a mention of Mr. Cheney's inquiry about the African connection to Iraq. He said that in the course of that meeting, officials raised the possibility of his traveling to Niger and told him they would contact him with a decision. A few days later, he said, they told him to go.

When Mr. Wilson returned from Niger's capital Niamey in early March, he said he told CIA officials it was "highly doubtful" any transfer of uranium took place. Current and former Niger officials he talked to said they were unaware of any contract being signed with Iraq. According to an official CIA summary of Mr. Wilson's report, released last summer, Mr. Wilson did report that one former Niger official told him he had been urged by an unidentified businessman to meet with an Iraqi trade delegation in June 1999. The former official interpreted that overture as an invitation to discuss uranium sales.

In September 2002 -- seven months after Mr. Wilson's trip -- the Niger puzzle got even more intriguing. An Italian journalist walked into the U.S. Embassy in Rome and presented documents purporting to describe a contract signed by Iraq to purchase uranium from Niger. The documents were transmitted back to State Department headquarters in Washington. It took until March of this year for the CIA to analyze the documents and conclude that they were a hoax. By then Mr. Bush had already given his January State of the Union speech describing reports that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa.

On July 6, Mr. Wilson wrote an opinion piece asserting that the intelligence on Iraq and yellowcake had been "twisted" to exaggerate the Iraq threat. Eight days, later Mr. Novak revealed Mr. Wilson's wife's name in print and that she was the one who "suggested sending [Mr. Wilson] to Niger."

Write to David S. Cloud at david.cloud@wsj.com

Updated October 17, 2003 12:19 a.m.