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Context of 'Winter 2002: Joseph Wilson Uses Neoconservative Debate Tactics against Opponent'

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Joseph Wilson.Joseph Wilson. [Source: public domain]The CIA sends Joseph C. Wilson, a retired US diplomat, to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from that country (see February 13, 2002). The CIA pays Wilson’s expenses for the trip, but does not pay him in any other respect. The identity of the party who requests the mission is later disputed. While Wilson will claim the trip was requested directly by Dick Cheney’s office, other sources will indicate that the CIA had decided (see February 19, 2002) that a delegation to Niger was needed in order to investigate questions raised by one of Dick Cheney’s aides (see (February 13, 2002)). [New York Times, 5/6/2003; Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Independent, 6/29/2003; New York Times, 7/6/2003; US Congress, 7/7/2004]
Reason behind Request - Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman will later note that “Wilson was asked to go to Niger for one specific purpose. It was the CIA’s idea to get Cheney off their backs. Cheney would not get off their backs about the yellowcake documents. They couldn’t get Cheney to stop pressing the issue. He insisted that was the proof of reconstitution of [Iraq’s nuclear] program.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 214]
Normal Skepticism - Wilson goes into the situation with a healthy dose of skepticism. “My skepticism was the same as it would have been with any unverified intelligence report, because there is a lot of stuff that comes over the transom every day,” he will recall in 2006. Wilson knows nothing of the influence of the Pentagon neoconservatives (see July 8, 1996, January 26, 1998, July 1998, September 2000, Late December 2000 and Early January 2001, Shortly after January 20, 2001, and Shortly After September 11, 2001) or the growing rift in the intelligence community over the reports: “I was aware that the neocons had a growing role in government and that they were interested in Iraq,” he will recall. “But the administration had not articulated a policy at this stage.” He is not given a copy of the Niger documents before leaving for Africa, nor is he told of their history. “To the best of my knowledge, the documents were not in the possession of the [CIA] at the time I was briefed,” he will recall. “The discussion was whether or not this report could be accurate. During this discussion, everyone who knew something shared stuff about how the uranium business worked, and I laid out what I knew about the government in Niger, what information they could provide.” With this rather sketchy preparation, Wilson leaves for Niger. [Unger, 2007, pp. 240; Wilson, 2007, pp. 113] Wilson’s wife, senior CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson, will later write, “He figured that if the vice president had asked a serious and legitimate question, it deserved a serious answer and he would try to help find it.” [Wilson, 2007, pp. 111]
No Trouble Finding Information - Wilson, who knows the Nigerien government and many of its officials, has little trouble finding the information he needs in the following week. In 2006, he will recall: “Niger has a simplistic government structure. Both the minister of mines and the prime minister had gone through the mines. The French were managing partners of the international consortium [which handles Niger’s uranium]. The French mining company actually had its hands on the project. Nobody else in the consortium had operators on the ground.” Wilson also personally knows Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican who supposedly negotiated the uranium deal with Niger (see February 1999). Wilson will later observe: “Wissam al-Zahawie was a world-class opera singer, and he went to the Vatican as his last post so he could be near the great European opera houses in Rome. He was not in the Ba’athist inner circle. He was not in Saddam [Hussein]‘s tribe. The idea that he would be entrusted with the super-secret mission to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger is out of the question.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 240-241] Wilson meets with, among other officials, Niger’s former minister of mines, Mai Manga. As later reported by the Senate Intelligence Committee (see July 9, 2004), Manga tells Wilson “there were no sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) channels since the mid-1980s,” and he “knew of no contracts signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of uranium.” Manga says a “French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transport overseas,” and, “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special shipment of uranium to a pariah state given these controls.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
Meeting with US Ambassador - Wilson arrives in Niger on February 26, two days after Marine General Carlton W. Fulford Jr.‘s meeting (see February 24, 2002) with Nigerien officials. Wilson first meets with US Ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, a veteran Foreign Service official, whom Wilson will later describe as “crisp” and well-informed. Over tea in the US Embassy offices in Niamey, Niger’s capital, Owens-Kirkpatrick tells Wilson that she has already concluded that the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq are unfounded. “She had already debunked them in her reports to Washington,” Wilson will later recall. “She said, yeah, she knew a lot about this particular report. She thought she had debunked it—and, oh, by the way, a four-star Marine Corps general had been down there as well—Carlton Fulford. And he had left satisfied there was nothing to report.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 20-22]
Details of Alleged Uranium Production - Niger extracts uranium from two mines, both located in remote locations in the Sahara Desert. It takes well over a day to drive from the mines to Niamey. The mines are owned by a consortium of foreign companies and the Nigerien government, and managed by a French mining company, COGEMA. Because of a recent upswing in the production of Canadian uranium, Niger’s uranium is mined at a net loss, and its only customers are consortium members. Wilson will later write, “[T]he Nigerien government has sold no uranium outside the consortium for two decades.” If Iraq had bought 500 tons of uranium, as the story is told, that would have represented a 40 percent production increase. “There is no doubt,” Wilson will later write, “that such a significant shift from historic production schedules would have been absolutely impossible to hide from the other partners, and most certainly from the managing partner, COGEMA. Everyone involved would have known about it.” Any Nigerien government decision to produce such an amount of uranium would have involved numerous government officials and many well-documented meetings. Because the transaction would have been to a foreign country, Niger’s Foreign Ministry would also have been involved in the decision. To sell Iraq uranium during that time would have been a violation of international law and of UN sanctions against Iraq, a weighty decision that would have ultimately been made by the president of Niger in conjuction with the foreign minister and the minister of mines. Such a decision would have been published in the Nigerien equivalent of the Federal Register and would have dramatic tax and revenue implications. The unexpected huge infusion of cash from the sale would have had a strong impact on the Nigerien economy, and would have been much anticipated and talked about throughout the Nigerien business community. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 22-25]
Off-the-Books Production Virtually Impossible - It is conceivable that such an enormous operation could have been conducted entirely “off the books,” Wilson will write, but virtually impossible to pull off. True, a military junta was in power at the time of the alleged sale, one that felt no responsibility or accountability to the Nigerien people. But even a secret transaction would have been impossible to conceal. Such a transaction would have involved thousands of barrels of clandestinely shipped uranium, extensive and complex adjustments to shipping schedules, and other ramifications. “It simply could not have happened without a great many people knowing about it, and secrets widely known do not remain hidden for long. And again, COGEMA, as the managing partner, would have had to know and be complicit.” Add to that Niger’s dependence on US foreign economic aid and its unwillingness to threaten the loss of that aid by secretly shipping uranium to a country that the US considers a dangerous rogue nation. All told, Wilson concludes, the possibility of such a clandestine operation is remote in the extreme. [Wilson, 2004; Wilson, 2004]
1999 Meeting with Iraqi Official - While speaking with a US Embassy official, Wilson learns about a 1999 meeting between the embassy official and an Iraqi representative in Algiers, perhaps in concert with a similar meeting between Iraqi officials and Niger’s prime minister (see June 1999). [Wilson, 2004, pp. 27-28]
Confirmation that Allegations are Unrealistic - After spending several days talking with current government officials, former government officials, and people associated with the country’s uranium business, Wilson concludes the rumors are completely false. He will later call the allegations “bogus and unrealistic.” [Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Knight Ridder, 6/13/2003; Independent, 6/29/2003; New York Times, 7/6/2003; CBS News, 7/11/2003; Vanity Fair, 1/2004; Wilson, 2004, pp. 20-28, 424; Vanity Fair, 5/2004, pp. 282; Wilson, 2007, pp. 113]

Entity Tags: Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, Wissam al-Zahawie, Carlton W. Fulford, COGEMA, Mai Manga, Valerie Plame Wilson, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Melvin A. Goodman, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

In his 2004 book The Politics of Truth, former ambassador Joseph Wilson will reflect that by this time, it has become “clear that there were few forces willing to confront the neoconservative juggernaut” and its drive towards war with Iraq. “They had mastered the art of marketing their policy prescriptions and were aggressive and intimidating in debate. Their strategy, as I discovered, was to make an opening statement, interrupt the person making a different argument, and then filibuster to the end of a five-minute television segment. That domination of the available time, coupled with aggressively stated talking points and ad hominem attacks on the credibility and intelligence of their interlocutors, was designed to leave viewers with the impression these neocon experts were the only ones who knew what they were talking about. After a while, many of the genuine experts on the region, people who had spent their careers living and working in the Arab world, simply refused to subject themselves to such demeaning behavior and retired to the sidelines.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 292]

Entity Tags: Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Neoconservative Influence, Domestic Propaganda

Former ambassador Joseph Wilson debates former Reagan defense official and neoconservative Frank Gaffney on a cable news program over the question of the upcoming Iraq invasion. Wilson takes a certain perverse pleasure in using what he has called the typical neoconservative debate tactics (see June 2002) against Gaffney; as he later recalls: “I let Frank have the first word and listened to him carefully. The host of the show asked me what I thought of Frank had said, and I answered, ‘Hogwash,’ then started my rebuttal. Predictably, Frank interrupted, or tried to. I told him he would have his chance after I had said my piece, and kept speaking over him until he shut up. I then filibustered till the end of the segment. As we went to commercial, I looked down at the screen to see Gaffney red-faced and sputtering. I thought to myself that here was somebody who was never likely to be a friend.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 308]

Entity Tags: Joseph C. Wilson, Frank Gaffney

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Conservative pundits and columnists launch a new barrage of attacks and accusations against former ambassador Joseph Wilson (see July 6, 2003) and his wife, outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson (see July 14, 2003). The pundits use the recent revelation that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was apparently the first administration official to leak Plame Wilson’s name to the press (see August 22, 2006 and September 7, 2006). They claim that the new information proves that there was never a conspiracy to “out” Plame Wilson (see June 23, 2003, July 7, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, July 8, 2003, 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003, Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003, and Before July 14, 2003), but that her status as a covert CIA agent was revealed merely as a result of harmless gossip from Armitage, who is not considered a major part of the neoconservative axis of power within the White House. [Washington Post, 9/1/2006]
Blaming Armitage and the State Department - The Wall Street Journal blames Armitage for allowing the Plame Wilson identity leak investigation to go on while he remained mute, allowing “political opportunism and internal score-settling” to drive the investigation when it never should have taken off. “The White House, in short, was not engaged in any campaign to ‘out’ Ms. Plame [Wilson],” the editorial states. Since the prosecution of Lewis Libby for perjury and obstruction during the investigation is not likely to be dropped, the editorial concludes, President Bush should end it by pardoning Libby. [Wall Street Journal, 8/30/2006] The New York Sun also chastizes Armitage for standing silent “while the president’s critics sullied the good names of Messrs. Cheney, Libby, and Rove.” [National Review, 7/19/2004; New York Sun, 8/30/2006] A similar position is advocated by neoconservative John Podhoretz, writing for the New York Post, who also says that the Armitage revelation should result in special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald dropping all charges against Libby. [New York Post, 8/29/2006] Neoconservative Frank Gaffney, writing for the online political publication TownHall, accuses both Armitage and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as other senior State Department officials, of being “disloyalists” who “wage[d] war” against the Bush administration “from behind enemy lines”—from his position in the State Department, essentially functioning as a saboteur for unnamed liberal interests, and to win ground the State Department lost in conflicts with the White House. Gaffney goes further, accusing other State Department officials of intentionally sabotaging US nuclear negotiation efforts with North Korea (see September 19-20, 2005 and July 15, 2006). He accuses Armitage of “destructive and disloyal behavior” and “appeasement” towards North Korea and other US opponents. [Town Hall (.com), 9/5/2006] San Francisco Chronicle writer Debra Saunders calls the entire affair nothing more than “gossip,” and notes that an admission by White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove that he confirmed Plame Wilson’s identity (see July 10, 2005 and October 14, 2005) is virtually meaningless. The only “abuse of power” that has come to light during the investigation, Saunders opines, is the investigation itself. [Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 9/6/2006]
Libby 'Exonerated' by Armitage Admission - The New Hampshire Union Leader calls the investigation a “non-issue” promulgated by “conspiracy nuts” now proven wrong by the Armitage admission. [New Hampshire Union Leader, 8/30/2006] Syndicated columnist Linda Chavez says the “exculpatory” Armitage revelation exonerates Libby, and calls his prosecution “malicious” and unwarranted. [Creators Syndicate, 8/30/2006]
Wilson, 'Leftists' to Blame - Slate’s Christopher Hitchens goes further, attacking the “Joseph Wilson fantasy” that Iraq had not attempted to buy uranium from Niger (see March 4-5, 2002, (March 6, 2002) and March 8, 2002), calling the idea that the White House deliberately attempted to smear Wilson’s character a “paranoid fantasy” (see June 2003, June 3, 2003, June 11, 2003, June 12, 2003, June 19 or 20, 2003, July 6, 2003, July 6-10, 2003, July 7, 2003 or Shortly After, 8:45 a.m. July 7, 2003, 9:22 a.m. July 7, 2003, July 7-8, 2003, July 11, 2003, (July 11, 2003), July 12, 2003, July 12, 2003, July 18, 2003, October 1, 2003, April 5, 2006, and April 9, 2006), and concluding that the entire Plame Wilson imbroglio was the result of a “venom[ous] interdepartmental rivalry” between Armitage’s State Department and the White House, blown entirely out of proportion by liberal critics of the Bush administration. [Slate, 8/29/2006] A National Review editorial blames the New York Times editorial board and “shrieking” “leftist adversaries” of the Bush administration for the investigation, and, like Chavez and others, calls for the immediate end of the Libby prosecution. [National Review, 8/30/2006] The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes compiles a “rogues list” of “the Plamegate Hall of Shame,” including Armitage, his former boss Colin Powell, Patrick Fitzgerald, the Justice Department, Joseph Wilson, and the media. “So instead of Cheney or Rove or Libby,” Barnes writes, “the perennial targets of media wrath, the Plamegate Hall of Shame consists of favorites of the Washington elite and the mainstream press.” And like the others, Barnes calls on Fitzgerald to immediately terminate his investigation as well as his prosecution of Libby. [Weekly Standard, 9/2/2006] And the Washington Times’s editor in chief Wesley Pruden rounds off the attacks, rather ghoulishly predicting that the next time Plame Wilson will be mentioned in the press is when “a nice obituary in the Washington and New York newspapers and a few lines of a telegraph dispatch on a page with the truss ads in Topeka” is printed. He calls Plame Wilson, who headed the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq (see April 2001 and After), “the queen of the clipping scissors and pastepots at the CIA” (see September 29, 2003), and calls the leak investigation a “fraud.” [Washington Times, 9/5/2006]
Picked Up by Mainstream Media - Many in the mainstream media echo the new line of attack, with the Washington Post’s editorial board joining the other editorials and columnists in demanding that the Libby prosecution be immediately terminated. Echoing a Wall Street Journal guest editorial from almost a year before (see November 3, 2005), the Post editorial claims that because Plame Wilson’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, went public with his knowledge of the Bush administration’s false claims that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger (see July 6, 2003), he is ultimately responsible for outing his wife. The Post writes: “Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming—falsely, as it turned out—that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.” The allegation that Wilson had “falsely… debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger” is itself false, as Wilson’s report further proved that no such deals ever took place (see March 4-5, 2002, (March 6, 2002) and March 8, 2002). [Washington Post, 9/1/2006] The New York Times’s conservative columnist, David Brooks, joins in the attacks, calling the exposure of Plame Wilson a “piffle” (see Before September 16, 2003, October 3, 2003, October 11, 2003, October 22-24, 2003, October 23-24, 2003, October 29, 2005, and February 13, 2006) blown out of proportion by a group of Congressional Democrats and the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry. Like the others, he blames Armitage for “keep[ing] quiet while your comrades are being put through the ringer [sic].” [New York Times, 8/31/2006] Days later, the Post’s David Broder writes that Karl Rove, one of the White House officials who outed Plame (see July 8, 2003 and 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003), had been treated badly by reporters and pundits, and deserved a round of apologies. [Washington Post, 9/7/2006]
'Marvel of Wingnut Logic' - Author Jane Hamsher, writing for the progressive blog FireDogLake, hammers the Post editorial and its presumed author, op-ed editor Fred Hiatt, writing with some apparent outrage: “[T]o argue that somehow this [Armitage] leak—which played no part in the concerted administration effort to bully, intimidate, and punish Joe Wilson—should somehow excuse Scooter Libby and Karl Rove’s subsequent actions is a true marvel of wingnut logic. Incredibly it is somehow okay to rob the liquor store, shoot the owner, rape the cashier, and spatter the walls with blood because someone else was caught shoplifting there the week before. It is the Sistine Chapel of bad faith editorials.” [Jane Hamsher, 9/1/2006]
Comparisons to Soviet Propaganda - Plame Wilson herself is “furious” at reading the Post editorial and other, similar writings. In her 2007 book Fair Game, she will write, “I suddenly understood what it must have felt like to live in the Soviet Union and have only the state propaganda entity, Pravda, as the source of news about the world.” Plame Wilson calls the allegations that her husband is responsible for outing her “flatly untrue,” and shows the writers’ “ignorance about how our clandestine service functions.” She notes that the FBI had known of the Armitage leak since October 2003, and that since “the FBI didn’t shut down the investigation” this indicated “they had good reason to believe that Libby and Rove were lying to them.” [Wilson, 2007, pp. 257-260]

Entity Tags: Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christopher Hitchens, Valerie Plame Wilson, Colin Powell, Frank Gaffney, Fred Barnes, Debra Saunders, David Brooks, David Broder, US Department of State, Wesley Pruden, New York Times, John Podhoretz, Richard Armitage, George W. Bush, Joseph C. Wilson, Karl C. Rove, Jane Hamsher, Linda Chavez, New York Sun, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, New Hampshire Union Leader, National Review

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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