The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
March 11, 2007 | Raymond Whitaker
A senior White House aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, faces a jail term this weekend – at the end of a chain of events that began with a report in The Independent on Sunday nearly four years ago.
Libby, former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, was found guilty by a Washington jury last week on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, and will be sentenced in June. He was declared to have lied to a grand jury investigating the leaking to the media of the identity of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame.
The apparent motive was to punish her husband, Joe Wilson, a retired US diplomat who had been sent to Niger in Africa in 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq had sought uranium to restart its nuclear weapons programme. Mr Wilson found there was no evidence for the allegation, which was based on forged documents, and said so in a report to the Bush administration.
In his autobiography, The Politics of Truth, Mr Wilson says that when the “Niger uranium” claim surfaced in Britain’s September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, he told the CIA to alert its British counterparts to the error. But then the same allegation was made by President Bush, who said in his January 2003 State of the Union address: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The charge attracted little attention at the time, but six months later, with no WMD found, questions arose.
The IoS was told by a source that we would find someone in Washington who knew the truth about the Niger affair. That led us to Mr Wilson, who said his findings had been ignored by the US and Britain. He asked us to identify him in our report of 29 June 2003 only as a “retired ambassador to Africa who went to Niger”. But in his book he says the IoS approach convinced him he had to go public; the following week he told the story in The New York Times, under the headline: “What I didn’t find in Africa”. In the ensuing furore, the then CIA director, George Tenet, had to take responsibility for the Niger claim appearing in the State of the Union address.
The ex-ambassador’s article, however, made him a target for the White House. Within days the conservative columnist Bob Novak reported that Mr Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative called Valerie Plame, and that she had suggested sending her husband to Niger.
It is illegal to identify undercover CIA agents, and a criminal investigation began. Yet even though this revealed that Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s strategist, and Richard Armitage, then No 2 at the State Department, had given Ms Plame’s name to journalists, Libby is the only man convicted; no further prosecutions are planned. As in the Watergate scandal, it was the cover-up rather than the crime that proved more damaging.
But while the Bush administration has admitted that the Niger claim was wrong and should never have been made, to this day the British Government insists it had “other evidence”, obtained from a foreign intelligence agency, to support it. The Foreign Office hinted that this concerned the visit of an “Iraqi delegation” to Niger in 1999. But in August 2003 this newspaper interviewed Wissam al-Zahawie, the only Iraqi diplomat to have gone to the country that year. He said he had been investigated and cleared by the US and the UN.
In 2004 the Butler committee’s report on Britain’s WMD intelligence deemed the Niger claim “credible”, but its reasoning was attacked as flimsy. Later information has further eroded the allegation, but the Niger connection has never caused as much controversy here as it did in the US.