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2003-09-16

Cheney Claims Again Iraq Tried To Acquire Uranium From Niger

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We talk to Joseph Wilson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq who traveled to Niger on a CIA-sponsored trip and found no link between Iraq and Niger. Wilson also talks about who in the Bush administration illegally outted his wife to be an alleged covert CIA operative. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript

Debunking Cheney: Part I of a Four-Part Special

  • Tim Russert questioning Vice President Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press" September 14, 2003:

Tim Russert, Meet The Press: Now, Ambassador Joe Wilson, a year before that, was sent over by the CIA because you raised the question about uranium from Africa. He says he came back from Niger and said that, in fact, he could not find any documentation that, in fact, Niger had sent uranium to Iraq or engaged in that activity and reported it back to the proper channels. Were you briefed on his findings in February, March of 2002?

Vice President Dick Cheney: No. I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson. A question had arisen. I’d heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. I get a daily brief on my own each day before I meet with the president to go through the intel. And I ask lots of question. One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this, I said, "What do we know about this?" They take the question. He came back within a day or two and said, "This is all we know. There’s a lot we don’t know," end of statement. And Joe Wilson—I don’t who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.

I guess the intriguing thing, Tim, on the whole thing, this question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa. In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their British claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that, but I guess—like I say, I don’t know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him and it never came...

Russert: The CIA did.

Cheney: Who in the CIA, I don’t know.

Joseph Wilson is the retired U.S. official who raised questions about President Bush’s State of the Union claim that British intelligence officials had learned Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa.

Wilson is a former acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The CIA sent Wilson to investigate the uranium claim and found it highly unlikely. Despite this, the uranium/Niger claim became a key piece of the administration’s justification for the war.

One month after Bush declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq, Wilson wrote a stinging Op-Ed that was published in The New York Times in early July. In it he said he had told the CIA long before the president’s January speech that the British reports were suspect. This set off a firestorm around Bush’s State of the Union Address.

One week later public syndicated columnist Robert Novak quoted anonymous government sources as telling him that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative working on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

Novak

Lawmakers, including New York Senator Charles Schumer, have decried the report, saying the leak effectively "burned" the wife’s cover — if she were in fact a covert agent — and are calling for an investigation.

  • Ambassador Joseph Wilson
    Note: We contacted the FBI yesterday. A spokesperson said they are looking into the matter but would not classify it as an investigation yet.
  • White House Press Conference, July 22, 2003.
  • Ambassador Joseph Wilson, speaking in Seattle on August 22, 2003.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Here on Democracy Now!, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In his first televised interview in six months, vice president Dick Cheney went on the offensive to justify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. In a lengthy interview on NBC’s "Meet The Press", Cheney portrayed Iraq as "the geographic base for the September 11th attacks." And attempting to sell the reasons for war against Baghdad, Cheney repeated many allegations about Iraq that have been proven false over the past two years. Today we’ll spend the hour dissecting some of the vice president’s statement. His story that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Muhammad Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague. What Cheney said about the Iraqi-American who went to Iraq after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, there’s a $25 million price on his head, when Saddam Hussein offered to hand him over, the Bush administration said no. They also did not include him in the playing cards of the most wanted men in Iraq. Also we’ll look at the U.S. authorized flights of the bin Laden family and more than 100 other Saudis soon after September 11th, when all other flights had been grounded. But we’re going to begin with Cheney’s discussion and Tim Russert’s questioning on "Meet The Press" of the Vice President of Niger’s link to the alleged Iraq nuclear program. Let’s take a listen.

TIM RUSSERT: Now, Ambassador Joe Wilson, a year before that was sent over by the C.I.A. because you raised the question about uranium from Africa. He says he came back from Niger and said that, in fact he could not find any documentation that in fact Niger had sent uranium to Iraq or engaged in that activity and reported it back to the proper channels. Were you briefed on his findings in February/March of 2002?

DICK CHENEY: No. I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson. The question had arisen, I heard a report that Iraqi had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. I get a daily brief on my own each day before meeting with the President to go through the intel, and I asked a lot of questions, one of the questions I asked at that particular time about this was what do we know about this. They take the question, he came back within a day or two and said, this is all we know. There’s a lot we don’t know. And a statement. And Joe Wilson, I don’t know who sent Joe Wilson, he never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back. I guess the intriguing thing, Tim, this whole question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa in the British report, this week the committee of the British parliament spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated the British claim that Saddam was in fact trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and original British white papers. There may be a difference of opinion there, I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that. But I guess saying I don’t know Mr. Wilson, I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him.

TIM RUSSERT: The C.I.A. did.

DICK CHENEY: Who at the C.I.A? I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Dick Cheney talking about the Iraq-Niger link on Tim Russert’s "Meet the Press" this weekend. We’re joined today by Joseph Wilson, the retired U.S. diplomat, the former acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq under President Bush senior. The C.I.A. sent Wilson to investigate the uranium claim in Niger. He found it highly unlikely. Despite this, the uranium Niger claim became a key piece of the administration’s justification for the war. One month after Bush declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq, Wilson wrote a stinging Op Ed piece that was published in the New York Times in early July, in it he said he told the C.I.A. long before the President’s January speech that the British reports were suspect. This set off a fire storm around Bush’s address. One week later, public syndicated columnist, Robert Novak quoted anonymous government sources as telling him that Wilson’s wife was a C.I.A. operative working on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers including New York Senator Charles Schumer have decried the report saying the leak effectively burned the wife’s cover if she were in fact a covert agent and are calling for an investigation. Blowing a C.I.A.'s agent's cover is a felony. Ambassador Joseph Wilson joins us on the line. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOSEPH WILSON: Good morning, how are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Let’s talk first about what Vice President Cheney said about the your Niger claim and his relationship with you and what kind of report you brought back from Niger.

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, first of all the Vice President is right, we’ve never met. He was Secretary of Defense when I was in charge of our agency in Baghdad and as one of the principals of the National Security Council, he was certainly in National Security Council meetings chaired by President Bush when discussions were being held on reports that I was submitting on a regular basis from Baghdad. While we’ve never met he certainly knows who I am and should know unless his memory is flawed and faulty. The important thing, though, is to understand that it was not just the report that I brought back that was part of the U.S. government’s information base. There was also a report from our sitting ambassador on the ground… She had gone and consulted with the current government officials. My own report dealt with previous government officials who had been in office at the time that this reported sale of uranium had been agreed to. There was also a report submitted to the U.S. government by a four star marine corps general who traveled to there… before I had traveled there. So in our government files there were at a minimum three reports that had been generated shortly after the Vice President had asked the question, what do we know about this. The interesting thing it seems to me is how is it that these bogus documents that were not credible enough to be included in an Italian tabloid publication, how did the essence of these documents end up in the State of the Union address? Now the Vice President can talk about the so-called British white paper and the British can say, well we had specific information that we could not share with the U.S. government because of rules relating to the exchange of information with third parties. But the fact is, United States spends billions of dollars on intelligence every year, and it’s not likely that we’re going to subcontract our analysis of intelligence to the British, with all due respect to their own intelligence capabilities. Moreover, the President’s State of the Union address is, of course, the most important speech that he gives at any given year, and this was a particularly important speech in a particularly important year, because it dealt with issues of war and peace. So, the question that remains in my mind is not whether or not the analysis was correct or the reports were correct, not just mine but all the others. The question is how did such a statement, which could not be substantiated, which was not based on our own intelligence, which was not based on facts as we knew them, end up in the President’s speech? The Vice President did not answer that question.

AMY GOODMAN: The Vice President said that no report was submitted, is that true? Did you submit a report?

JOSEPH WILSON: Of course not. And the Vice President knows that. There is evidence of a circular cable that was sent around as consequence of my report. In addition to which I would go back to what I said repeatedly, and that is that if you are senior enough to ask the question — and Vice President acknowledged, I think, for the first time a person that he asked the question — if you’re senior enough to ask the question you’re senior enough to get an answer. And an answer did not mean that a briefer comes back two days later and says, gee, boss, we don’t know anything more about this. The answer means that the agency to whom the question is addressed goes out and tries to determine whether or not they can dig up more and additional information to either validate or discredit the report about which the Vice President is asked.

AMY GOODMAN: So you did file a report.

JOSEPH WILSON: Of course. I did an oral report within an hour of my return. In addition to which, I briefed both the ambassador and somebody else at the embassy before I left…. And I briefed the C.I.A. within an hour of my return from eight days over in Niger.

AMY GOODMAN: So he lied when he said he didn’t file a report?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, I’m not sure he lied. It’s hard to say in what form that report would have been given to him, and certainly if it were a written report, my own particular identity would not have been revealed to him. So he may not necessarily have attached my name to a report that he received on the subject. Again his memory may be faulty on this.

AMY GOODMAN: But given the furor that has erupted over the "16-word misstatement" in Bush’s State of the Union address alleging the link between Iraq and Niger and uranium sale, this certainly would have been investigated to this point right now, by now.

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, I can’t say that. I don’t know. There would be three ways that the Vice President would receive an answer to the question he raised. One would be a telephone conversation. One would be an oral briefing which may or may not have included talking points. And third would have been a more formal memorandum, and I just simply don’t know how the agency determines the best way to brief Vice President on the contents of my report, or for that matter, how the Vice President was briefed on the other two reports, one from the ambassador and one from the four-star marine general.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ambassador Joseph Wilson. We’ll be back in a minute.

[¶MUSIC BREAK¶]

AMY GOODMAN: "Eyes Never Lie", Dwayne Wiggens, here on Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our discussion with Ambassador Joseph Wilson. He’s the U.S. retired diplomat who was sent on a C.I.A.-sponsored mission to investigate the allegation that Niger had sold uranium to Saddam Hussein. He came back saying that the documents on which this claim was based were bogus, were forged. Cheney talked about him this weekend. The Vice President talked about him on "Meet the Press" saying he didn’t know Joseph Wilson, that he had not filed a report. He also said that he didn’t know who had sent you, raising questions about the whole legitimacy of your mission to Niger.

JOSEPH WILSON: I heard that. I don’t know what the Vice President was trying to get at in that. I’m not sure that he answered that series of questions particularly well. Let me make one point, however, that the gist of my trip out to Niger was to look into whether or not such a transaction could happen. What I looked into was not forged documents, as I had not seen the documents. I had been given an oral briefing on what they contained. I looked into how the business is structured, and how the bureaucracy would cover such an agreement, which would have been a legitimate, if discrete, sale from one sovereign government to another. I looked how the bureaucracy covering that sale worked how the documents would have been prepared. When I returned, I said that both from an industry perspective, because of the nature of the business, and from a government decision-making perspective, it was highly unlikely that such a sale had taken place. If it had taken place, or if the documents that covered this sale, that these documents we presumably had, or had seen, did not contain certain signatures, then those documents could not be authentic.

AMY GOODMAN: Now to the other issue, which is Robert Novak the syndicated columnist, saying that your wife is a C.I.A. operative working on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, quoting two senior administration officials, told me his wife suggesting Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The C.I.A. says that its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. This issue of outing a C.I.A. operative. Your response.

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, clearly if my wife were as Novak asserted, it would be a violation of American law, as you correctly pointed out in your introduction, the Intelligence Agents Identification Act that dates back to 1982, and there are clear criminal charges that would have to be brought after an investigation which is conducted first by the C.I.A., then referred to the Justice Department and the F.B.I. for further investigation. That is, if she were as Novak asserted. If she isn’t, it is still something of an embarrassment to say the least, I’m not sure that our family security is necessarily threatened by this, but it is certainly an embarrassment for her, because she has to sort of talk to all her friends and people that she’s known over the past 20 years and explain to them why what Novak said is or is not true. My bottom line on this is that for an administration that came to office promising to restore honor and dignity to the White House, what they did with respect to my wife was neither honorable nor was it dignified. In fact it has really very little to do with me. It has nothing to do with her. This whole thing has nothing to do with her. The attack on her and by extension the attempts to launch attacks on me or discredit my credibility are clearly intended to intimidate others from coming forward. I’ve said that repeatedly. People who might be willing to come forward, those who have said that they have felt pressured, they had said so anonymously to the press, might have been contemplating coming forward to talk to their congressmen about this. They’ll think twice after having seen the Novak allegation about my wife.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a minute to the White House press briefing, a reporter questioning the White House press secretary, Scott McCLellan.

REPORTER: Robert Novak called last week, identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a C.I.A. operative who was working on W.M.D. issues. Novak said that identification is based on information given to him by two administration sources. That column has now given rise to accusations that the administration deliberately blew the cover of an undercover C.I.A. operative, and in so doing violated federal law that prohibits revealing the identity of undercover C.I.A. operatives. Can you respond to that?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Thank you for bringing that up. That is not the way this President or this White House operates. And there is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests there’s any truth to that suggestion. And certainly no one in this White House would have been given authority to take such a step. I’m saying that that is not the way that this President or this White House operates, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest there’s any truth to it.

REPORTER: Are you saying Novak is wrong in saying the two administration sources who were his source..?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I have no idea who Anonymous is. I often wish that that would be anonymous.

REPORTER: Well that would be senior administration

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Whether it’s anonymous senior administration officials or anonymous sources, it’s still anonymous.

REPORTER: Do think he’s making it up?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I’m telling you our position. I’ll let columnist speak for himself.

REPORTER: You’re saying it did not happen.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I’m telling you flatly, that is not the way this White House operates. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that there’s any truth to that.

REPORTER: That’s different from saying it didn’t happen. Are you saying absolutely did it not happen?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I’m saying no one was certainly given any authority to do anything of that nature, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest there’s any truth to it. I want to make it very clear that is simply not the way this White House operates.

REPORTER: If it turns out that someone in your administration did do that

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I’m not even going to speculate about that. I have no knowledge of any truth to that report.

REPORTER: Don’t you want to get some more facts? How do you know that no one in the administration, Robert Novak’s been around a long time..

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: If I could find Anonymous, I would.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Wilson, this whole issue of who Anonymous is, the discussion has been going on on the Internet, you also raised the issue in the Washington Forum with Congressmember Inslee. The name Karl Rove has been thrown about quite a bit. You also raise that, just wanted to play that comment.

QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE: Mr. Wilson, assuming what Robert Novak said about your wife was true and the seriousness of that, can we expect the F.B.I. to give a complete, unhindered investigation to that, (laughter among forum members) to find out wherever it leads to?

JOSEPH WILSON: I’m not sure I know how to answer that, because we’re talking hypotheticals. The way the process works is, if this were to have been true, the C.I.A. will do internal investigation and determine whether or not, in their judgment, a law has been broken. They then refer it to the Justice Department who takes another look at it (laughter among forum members) and then it’s referred to the F.B.I. for further investigation. Now despite the fact that John Ashcroft is in charge of the justice department (laughter among forum members) this violation, if it is in fact a violation, is one that is violation of a professional, and the investigation and the look into this will be done essentially by professionals. Now there is a lot of interest in Congress, Henry Waxman has been keenly interested in this and offered all sorts of support. Chuck Schumer, Mr. Gun Control came out and made a statement to the effect that, if true, this was like putting a gun to the head of an agent. John Dean of all people just wrote the other day that the President should have extended a secret service protection to me and my family as consequence of this. He didn’t, by the way. (laughter among forum members) Although I will tell you, I think they’re scared to death that I might stub my toe. (laughter among forum members) But I have confidence that at a professional level that whatever they think is doable will be done. My own sense is that, and I told the F.B.I. this, that should they decide to undertake investigation, that I want to talk with them to see how I can best support the investigation, not to do anything to impede it. And I think I do have vote in this since Congress has basically said we’ll do anything we can to support you, and the question is whether or not having Chuck Schumer and Hillary and others go forward and talk about this openly, Dick Durbin, impedes or helps the investigation down the road. But we’ll see. I don’t think we’re going to let this drop. At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frogmarched out of White House in handcuffs. (cheers and applause) And trust me when I use that name, I measure my words.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you mean by that, when you say you measure your words. And what leads to you believe Karl Rove is the source for, well I know you can’t talk about what your wife does, but for saying that your wife is a C.I.A. operative.

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, first of all if you go back and you take a look at the Novak article, it quotes two senior administration sources. That basically is code for the White House. And these sorts of things, the press office, Scott McClellan was absolutely denying that he knew anything about it or had any knowledge of what may have happened. That doesn’t leave too many offices within the White House that would be interested in this. The political offices are obviously the next place to look. Now my own sense as I said in those comments is that I want to make sure that the appropriate investigation is done and that it leads in the direction that leads wherever it may lead to find out who was responsible for this if in fact the assertion in Novak’s article was accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: We contacted the F.B.I. yesterday and asked if they’re doing an investigation. They said they are looking into the matter but would not classify it as an investigation yet. We had called the White House first, but they said to call the F.B.I. These kinds of issues, when someone charges that a person has had their cover blown, are usually investigated right away. Do you have any sense that in fact this is seriously being investigated right now and would it take an act of Congress for that to take place in the Bush administration?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, first of all let me just make very clear that it’s not at all certain that my wife is as Novak asserted. It is not something that is in the public domain.
But if the allegation is accurate, I have every confidence that the relevant agencies that have jurisdiction over this matter looking into it. These things take some time. We’ll just see where it goes.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say very strong message is being sent to others who speak out as you have after submitting your report.

JOSEPH WILSON: I’ve said that all along. I’ve said that it was very clear to me that the intent of this attack was not to shut me up. Now there may have been some desire to somehow impugn my integrity, which is just how the game is played here in Washington. But the intent was clearly to intimidate others and keep others from stepping forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Well Ambassador Joseph Wilson, we want to thank you very much for being with us.

JOSEPH WILSON: My pleasure.


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