The most interesting bit of reporting I've seen today on the White House's concession about the fraudulence of the Niger-uranium documents comes at the tail end of a wire story from Reuters ...
A U.S. intelligence official said [Joseph] Wilson was sent to investigate the Niger reports by mid-level CIA officers, not by top-level Bush administration officials. There is no record of his report being flagged to top level officials, the intelligence official said.
"He is placing far greater significance on his visit than anyone in the U.S. government at the time it was made," the official said, referring to Wilson's New York Times article.
The message here seems pretty clear: Joseph who? Wilson, this 'intelligence official' is saying, is some small-time operator who got sent to Niger by some mid-level functionaries at the CIA. All the people who counted had no idea he'd even gone on his trip. And they certainly didn't know about his vaunted report.
Now, I wouldn't be being very straight with you if I didn't start by saying that I don't find this claim particularly credible. But could this be true?
Let's run through what we know.
Wilson has said repeatedly that he was sent to Niger because, as he wrote in the Times, "Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report."
Now, note the difference in what's being said here. No one, let alone Wilson, has claimed that any "top-level Bush administration officials" sent him on his investigatory trip. What he and others have said is that CIA officials sent him out, because they were following up on a request from the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to look into the Niger-uranium allegations.
So to start with you can say that the 'intelligence official's' statement amounts to a sort of non-denial denial. But what about the broader question? Was the whole effort triggered by an inquiry from the OVP or not?
Wilson says yes. And presumably he's basing this on some knowledge of the situation. Nick Kristof said the same thing in his June 13th column in the Times, though it's possible that Wilson was his source. But if there's a factual dispute here, let's find out. Is Wilson's description of the OVP's involvement accurate? In particular, did the OVP get Wilson's eventual report? I think this is something a good investigative reporter with juice should be able to resolve for us pretty quickly. So, again, let's find out.
And there's another problem with the 'intelligence official's' angle. Let's say this was just something Joseph Wilson and a few of his buddies at the CIA knew about. And no one at the White House found out about it. Even if that's true, he's not the only person nor is the CIA the only agency, for that matter, that came to this conclusion.
Greg Thielmann recently left the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State's intelligence bureau. He says that I&R independently came to the same conclusion as Wilson about the Niger story. And he told Kristof -- again in the June 13th column -- that he was "quite confident" that that judgment had been passed all the way up the chain of command at State.
Kristof threw in this line for good measure ...
"It was well known throughout the intelligence community that it was a forgery," said Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Center for International Policy.
What I think we can draw from this is that there were multiple agencies in the national security bureaucracy that had judged the Niger information to be bogus. Perhaps none of them were passed on to high-level administration officials. But the more and more widely the documents' bogusity, shall we say, was known throughout the government, the less credible it is that the whole top level of the executive branch was out of the loop on what everyone else seemed to know.
Then you have the biggest problem, as I see it at least, with this argument.
The White House seemed to go to great lengths to find some outside authority to base its uranium sales claims on. The State of the Union speech ended up basing the claim on what the Brits had said.
In fact, according to one report by NPR's Tom Gjelten, this is exactly what happened: they used the Brits as cover because their own intelligence people were telling them the story was bogus. You can hear Gjelten's report here. But here's my summary of it from a recent column in The Hill ...
On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”
At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”
The White House disputes Gjelten’s source’s account. But the upshot of the source’s accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.
Now, even if we discount Gjelten's report, it does seem like the White House knew it would be nice to have some other support for their claims about Iraqi uranium purchases and that there were some reasons for concern about their own 'evidence.' Their own actions seems to show they suspected something was wrong.
So I don't think dumping on Wilson, which seems to be the White House's preferred strategy now, is going to cut it. But in each of these cases, let's find out. If Wilson and Thielmann are fibbing let's expose them. And if their superiors are playing fast and loose with the truth, let's find that out too. Let the chips fall where they may.
-- Josh Marshall