When former ambassador Joseph Wilson's op-ed column appeared in the New York Times Sunday a week ago, I said to my wife, "Wilson's burned a lot of bridges." You see, I've known Joe Wilson for more than 25 years, ever since the late 1970s, when he entered the MPA program at Eastern Washington University where I taught.
Wilson didn't stay at Eastern all that long, but it was long enough to impress the faculty and his fellow students. Educated at U.C. Santa Barbara, fluent in French, much traveled, Wilson was a prime prospect for a career in the Foreign Service. He joined in 1978 and served until he retired in 2000, having completed his career as an ambassador appointed by Bill Clinton.
I mention all this to make a point: When Wilson emerged during the first Gulf War as a kind of hero, none who knew him were surprised. At the time of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Wilson orchestrated an intelligence effort that identified the whereabouts of the American hostages Saddam took shortly after his invasion. Wilson then negotiated their release, while reporting to the U.S. military about some 20 or so military targets. (Saddam, you'll recall, had kept his hostages at militarily sensitive sites; Wilson identified all of them.) Wilson, moreover, was the last American official to leave Baghdad before the bombing began.
In his op-ed column, Wilson indicted the Bush administration for having misled the American public regarding Saddam's alleged attempt to buy uranium from Niger. It seems that the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger explicitly to confirm that very report. Wilson could not find any evidence to support such a conclusion. He made his report to the CIA and assumed that the CIA briefed Dick Cheney, whose interest in Wilson's mission was direct. When Wilson found himself being cited as an American authority whose secretive work had confirmed an earlier British intelligence report, he was understandably disturbed. He said so in his column.
I assumed the Bush administration would attack Wilson's credibility. Instead, we now hear from George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, that his agency should never have left the charge of a potential uranium sale in the president's State of the Union speech. Turns out Wilson's credentials and statement were impeccable. But that didn't stop GOP attack dogs in the media from jumping into the fray, even as the White House was staying out of it.
Clifford May of the conservative National Review wrote in a recent column that Wilson's charges should not be believed because of a lack of integrity. Wilson wrote that he had spent eight days in Niger "drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people" -- which May observed makes Wilson hardly the picture of a competent spy, detective or even reporter. To this charge, it can only be said that Wilson did in Niger exactly what he did in Iraq a decade ago, and we know that his methods are proven. Indeed, Wilson's bona fides with the Bushes were well established, or they wouldn't have asked him to go to Niger in the first place.
OK, May seemed to answer, even if we grant that Wilson might be a competent investigator, he "hasn't the foggiest idea what other intelligence the president and vice president had access to." According the Tenet report, Wilson had that about right, too: The CIA accepted his report without criticism, but didn't for some reason forward it to Cheney. Or so the White House tells us.
May dismisses Wilson as "an outspoken opponent of U.S. military intervention in Iraq." As a matter of fact, Wilson urged containment and more time for inspectors because he saw, as many in the administration did not, the many problems that would fall our way if we decided to go it alone. He also believed that in the end we likely would have to go in and "dig out the weapons."
May also charges that Wilson, now an international business consultant, is a puppet of Saudi interests. This is a charge that could with equal ease be levied at stalwart Republicans such at Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and, no doubt, Dick Cheney as well.
Finally, May asserts that Wilson is "a vehement opponent of the Bush administration." Joe Wilson might be a critic of the Bush administration's actions in regard to Iraq, but it needs to be understood that Wilson earned his accolades under the first President Bush, not Clinton.
You might think all this moot, now that Tenet has come clean, so to speak. But I suggest that the CIA is merely taking the fall. What seems so obvious now is that Paul Wolfowitz, after 9/11, finally found a receptive audience for the argument he had been making even before Gulf War I -- Saddam had to go. President Bush bought the argument. That led to a bureaucratic phenomenon that I call the inertia of dogma. Once it became clear that our now-persuaded president wanted Saddam gone, the bureaucracies arranged their collective analysis to lead to that conclusion.
Wilson's report complicated the predetermined story line, so it was ignored. Thus, when Condoleeza Rice hangs George Tenet out to dry, as she has done, she dodges the important question: Why did the CIA brass, up to the agency's director, withhold this information from the president? People should be asking this question, and the fact that the president himself isn't asking it only confirms the theory that Tenet is simply taking a bullet for his boss.