The Scooter Libby case is very complicated. Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, has now offered a brief account of its origins in the New Yorker that makes it even more so.
Lemann explains that during the run-up to the second Gulf war, the White House, in the grip of an “obsession with finding hard evidence for what it already believes,” came up dry in its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and thereafter “the search had to be conducted with a little more creativity.” Toward that end, writes Lemann,
the White House dispatched former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger, in February of 2002, to find proof that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson not only came up empty-handed; he said so publicly, in a Times op-ed piece that he published five months later. The administration then went on another search for evidence—the kind that could be used to discredit Wilson—and began disseminating it, off the record, to a few trusted reporters.
The origins of Wilson’s trips to Niger were examined exhaustively in 2004 by the Senate Intelligence Committee in its report on the “U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq.” Although parts of the report remain classified, the unclassified sections are quite plain. They state that interviews and documents provided to the Committee by officials of the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division (CPD)
indicate that [Wilson’s] wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip. The CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador’s wife “offered up his name” and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002, from the former ambassador’s wife says, “my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” This was just one day before CPD sent a cable [DELETED] requesting concurrence with CPD’s idea to send the former ambassador to Niger. . .The former ambassador’s wife told Committee staff that when CPD decided it would like to send the former ambassador to Niger, she approached her husband on behalf of the CIA.”
The report goes on to make clear that the White House was completely in the dark about the CIA plan. At no point did it intervene to send Wilson anywhere or even have knowledge that a mission to Niger by the former ambassador was under way. Even Patrick Fitzgerald’s indictment of Libby confirms this, stating unequivocally that “the CIA decided on its own initiative to send Wilson to the country of Niger to investigate allegations involving Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium yellowcake.”
Lemann concludes that the “problem with the Bush administration is not that it is uninterested in hard facts” but resides rather in “the way in which the administration goes about marshalling those facts.”
But what exactly are the facts and with what kind of care, to turn things around, has Lemann himself marshaled them? It will be a most interesting twist if Lemann, or the New Yorker’s highly vaunted fact checkers, have information contradicting the Senate report and Fitzgerald’s indictment on this central point. My bet is that they do not. Rather, in striving to demonstrate that the Bush administration was in the grip of an “obsession” about weapons of mass destruction, they appear to be in the grip of an obsession of their own. Pursuing it evidently demands a bit of “creativity.”
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