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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Josh Marshall Is A Dupe

Or, he stands on the brink of a Pulitzer Prize. But there is a glaring inconsistency in his reporting surrounding Joseph Wilson's investigatory visit to Niger.

What caught my eye was Mr. Marshall's denunciation of Condoleeza Rice's performance in her July 13 appearance with Wolf Blitzer. From Mr. Marshall:

...Here [sic] presentation was incoherent, contradictory and filled with several more extremely misleading statements.

One in particular jumped out at me. I don't have the transcript of her remarks yet. But she said, essentially, that Joseph Wilson's report was comprised of official denials from Nigerien government officials and the suggestion that a private businessman acting as an intermediary for the Iraqis had made an overture to one of those officials about possible uranium sales.

I know on what I can only call extremely good authority that that is a woeful and wilful misrepresentation of what Wilson reported back to the CIA. That's just not what he told them. (See this earlier post for more details.) Has Rice still not tried to get a hold of Wilson's CIA debriefing?

Excerpting his earlier post, Mr. Marshall describes the Wilson report as follows:

...A number of administration officials have stated that Joseph Wilson's report from Niger was largely made up of Nigerien officials denying that their country had sold uranium to Iraq. My reporting tells me something different. Wilson's report went into great detail about how the uranium ore was processed, how the processing was regulated, and most particularly who had physical custody of the product from the time it was in the ground to the time it was delivered to the customer. Wilson adduced various findings relating to the custody, oversight and regulation of the state uranium mining industry which, in his view, made the alleged sale highly unlikely.

Mr. Marshall then suggests the possibility that officials are confusing the Wilson report with an earlier report prepared by a US military official.

Well, as the transcript makes clear, Ms. Rice was referring to the statement released on July 11 by DCI George Tenet describing the Wilson report. And what did Mr. Tenet say?

...In an effort to inquire about certain reports involving Niger, CIA's counter-proliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region to make a visit to see what he could learn. He reported back to us that one of the former Nigerien officials he met stated that he was unaware of any contract being signed between Niger and rogue states for the sale of uranium during his tenure in office. The same former official also said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales. The former officials also offered details regarding Niger's processes for monitoring and transporting uranium that suggested it would be very unlikely that material could be illicitly diverted. There was no mention in the report of forged documents -- or any suggestion of the existence of documents at all.

This agrees quite closely with Ms. Rice's account, which at a minimum suggests that the cover story is being well-coordinated. It also overlaps with the Marshall Plan, as to there being lots of detail about the controls over Niger uranium. However, the Tenet account does differ from Mr. Marshall's reporting, and from the account provided by Mr. Wilson, who made no mention of Iraqi inquiries into uranium sales in his NY Times piece.

Another straw in the wind is provided by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who described the Wilson report as follows:

We have now seen a detailed account of Ambassador Wilson's report. It does indeed describe the denials of Niger government officials in early 2002 that a contract had been concluded for the sale of yellowcake (uranium oxide) to Iraq.

"But, as CNN have reported, Ambassador Wilson's report also noted that in 1999 an Iraqi delegation sought the expansion of trade links with Niger -- and that former Niger government officials believed that this was in connection with the procurement of yellowcake.

"Uranium is Niger's main export. In other words, this element of Ambassador Wilson's report supports the statement in the government's dossier.

Mr. Straw is not referring here to the Tenet statement, but rather to the underlying report.

Finally, Ari Fleischer was asked about this in his last press briefing. Here we go:

MR. FLEISCHER: ...you know, if you take a look at Director Tenet's statement about Niger, there's some interesting information in there. Director Tenet, when he talks about the former ambassador's mission to Niger, and then he reported back to the CIA on what he found when he went there --

Q When was his mission?

MR. FLEISCHER: He reported -- when was his mission to Niger? I don't have the date when he went. But when the former ambassador went to Niger, he reported back that officials in Niger denied that they had any contracts with Iraq. They said they did not sign any contracts with Iraq. But in Director Tenet's statement, it also reads that the former official who the ambassador met with, the former Prime Minister of Niger, interpreted an Iraqi overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales. So there still is reporting that they attempted to discuss -- that Iraqis attempted to discuss uranium sales in Niger.

Well, in his statement Mr. Tenet did not explicitly identify Wilson by name, or as a "former ambassador", so perhaps Mr. Fleischer is confirming the obvious here. Mr. Tenet also did not mention a former Prime Minister of Niger - did Mr. Fleischer break news with this?

The point is, the Administration has a unified description of the Wilson report based on the Tenet statement. Mr. Straw of Britain supports it, making reference no to the Tenet statement but to the underlying report.

It is worth remembering that Mr. Wilson did not file a written report - he underwent an oral de-briefing, and the CIA prepared a report of some sort. TIME is on my side here:

Wilson spent eight days sleuthing in Niger, meeting with current and former government officials and businessmen; he came away convinced that the allegations were untrue. Wilson never had access to the Italian documents and never filed a written report, he told TIME. When he returned to Washington in early March, Wilson gave an oral report about his trip to both CIA and State Department officials. On March 9 of last year, the CIA circulated a memo on the yellowcake story that was sent to the White House, summarizing Wilson's assessment.

OK, I would love to see that March 9 memo. Has Mr. Wilson seen it? Has Mr. Marshall's source actually seen the Wilson report? Mr. Marshall characterized Ms. Rice's statement as "a woeful and wilful misrepresentation of what Wilson reported back to the CIA." Does he still stand by that characterization?

I am open to suggestions here. Maybe the Wilson report, as originally circulated, is as Mr. Marshall's source described it, and Mr. Tenet is participating in a cover up, along with Ms. Rice and Mr. Fleischer. This should be a huge story, since we seem to have sent a doctored report on to the British as part of our pattern of deceit. A Pulitzer Prize awaits Mr. Marshall if he can document this.

Or, since Wilson never filed a written report, maybe there is a gap between what he remembers as important, and what the CIA de-briefers chose to emphasize. Might Mr. Wilson have dropped in a throw-away line about the former Prime Minister and the Iraqi trade mission, which the CIA seized on? In his NY Times account and his comments to TIME, Mr. Wilson does not mention Iraqi inquiries about uranium. Is he certain that he did not touch upon that subject with the CIA back in the spring of 2002?

Now, Mr. Marshall mentions the possibilty that several reports have been conflated into "The Wilson Report". If that is the case, then, unless Mr. Marshall's source has seen the memo, he doesn't have much. Mr. Wilson may think he remembers what he said, but he doesn't know what the CIA wrote.

Is the nation being manipulated and deceived? Is Mr. Marshall?

UPDATE: YES, this looks a lot like a re-cycling of an earlier post. I'm obsessing.

MORE: Background, and bio, on Joseph Wilson. This deserves lots of notice:

That's where Joe Wilson came in. His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein's wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed "the stuff of heroism."

BIG UPDATE: TIME has a follow-up chat with Mr. Wilson which reviews this extensively.

Government officials are not only disputing the genesis of Wilson's trip, but also what he found. Last week Bush Administration officials said that Wilson's report, far from undermining the President's claim in this year's State of the Union address that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa, had in fact reinforced it. They say that when Wilson returned from Africa in Feb. 2002, he included in his report an encounter with a former Nigerien government official who told him that Iraq had approached him in June 1999, expressing interest in expanding commercial relations between Iraq and Niger. The Administration claims that Wilson reported that the former Nigerien official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales. "This is in Wilson's report back to the CIA," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters last week, a few days before he left his post to join the private sector. "Wilson's own report, the very man who was on television saying Niger denies it...reports himself that officials in Niger said that Iraq was seeking to contact officials in Niger about sales."

Wilson's version of the story has a crucial difference. He says the official in question was contacted by an Algerian-Nigerien intermediary who inquired if the official would meet with an Iraqi about "commercial" sales — an offer he declined. Wilson dismissed the suggestion, included in CIA Director George Tenet's own mea culpa last week, that this validates what the President claimed in this State of the Union address: "That then translates into an Iraqi effort to import a significant quantity of uranium as the President alleged? These guys really need to get serious."

So now Mr. Wilson is pooh-poohing something that he didn't mention at all last week? I eagerly await next week's revelations.

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