The Bush Administration, its Loyal Supporters and Now Even the Washington Post Help Spread the Demonstrably Misleading Canard
But Why?
By Margie Burns on 2/19/2007, 11:05am PT  

*** Special to The BRAD BLOG
*** by Libby/CIA Leak Trial Correspondent Margie Burns

One of the pettiest distortions connected with the CIA leak matter is simple: the flat-footed, bogus claim that Ambassador Joseph Wilson said he was ‘sent’ to Africa by Vice President Cheney.

Wilson did not make the assertion, but White House operatives and their media/think-tank allies continue, even today, to forward the fiction that he did.

This claim – that Wilson went around saying Cheney sent him to Niger – has been recycled by the rightwing echo chamber every time the radar screens registered some political fallout from the CIA leak case (many examples shown below). It has also arisen during testimony in the Libby trial.

However, the MSM (except Fox) have not parroted the same claim – with the interesting exception of NBC, mainly Chris Matthews.

Regrettably, this bogus claim is again given space in Sunday's Washington Post, in an article by the hard Bush partisan and former Reagan Justice Department attorney, Victoria Toensing, called “Trial in Error.”

Here is Toensing’s version of the matter [emphasis added]:

On July 6, 2003, Wilson appeared on "Meet the Press" hours after the New York Times published his op-ed "What I Didn't Find in Africa," which accused the administration of twisting intelligence to exaggerate the Iraq threat. The piece suggested that Wilson had been sent to Niger at the vice president's request to look into foreign intelligence reports of Iraqi efforts to obtain yellowcake uranium. Wilson told Andrea Mitchell, "The office of the vice president, I am absolutely convinced, received a very specific response to the question it asked and that response was based upon my trip there." But Cheney said he had no knowledge of Wilson's trip and was never briefed on his oral report to the CIA.

Now here is the relevant paragraph of Joe Wilson’s now-infamous July 6, 2003 New York Times op-ed [emphasis added]:

In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake – a form of lightly processed ore – by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990’s. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president’s office.

Far from saying, “Cheney sent me,” for the record, there is no documentation of Wilson’s ever saying that he had been sent to Niger by the Office of the Vice President.

On the day his op-ed appeared --- July 6, 2003 --- Wilson also appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he was interviewed by Andrea Mitchell [emphasis added]:

MS. MITCHELL: But first: Did the Bush administration exaggerate some of the intelligence on Saddam's weapons program in order to justify war with Iraq? This man, former U.S. ambassador to the West African country of Gabon, Joseph Wilson, says yes. He's disclosed publicly for the first time this morning in a New York Times op-ed that he was sent by the CIA to Niger in February of 2002 to investigate reports of a sale of uranium by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990s. Up until now, he's been referred to in many news reports as an unnamed former envoy and he joins us exclusively this morning.

AMB. WILSON: Andrea, when I was in the National Security Council, I was senior director for African affairs, and subsequent to that, when I wrote this article, I checked with members of the then-vice president's staff, senior members, as well as other senior members of the NSC staff, to refresh my own memory. And standard operating procedure has always been if you are senior enough to ask the question, you will get a very specific response. And if you are in the vice president's office, or you're a senior director at the National Security Council, you are senior enough to ask the question, you will get a specific response, unless the operating procedures have changed, which would be a shame.

Wilson was also interviewed by the Washington Post (Bob Woodward not present) and appeared the next day, July 7, on CNN’s American Morning [emphasis added]:

WILSON: Well, I went in actually in February of 2002 was my most recent trip there, at the request I was told of the office of the vice president, which had seen a report in intelligence channels about this purported memorandum of agreement on uranium sales from Niger to Iraq...

This, Wilson’s only statement that even comes close to the neocon canard, in no way implies that he got a directive from Cheney; quite the reverse.

(BTW, Toensing makes an interesting criticism of Wilson and of the CIA: “Although Wilson has repeatedly claimed that neither his trip nor his oral report was classified, the CIA sent documents about the trip marked 'classified' to the vice president's office and to date has not released the essence of the oral report.” Toensing also repeats the claim that Mrs. Wilson was not “covert.” About the latter claim, and much more from Toensing's editorial, Valerie Wilson's former CIA classmate, Larry C. Johnson, has more than a bit to say. He describes the less-than-honorable GOP operative Toensing as "delusional" and excoriates both her and WaPo's questionable decision to run her piece in what both he and one of the core writers of the CIA Identities Law, Brent Budowsky, describe as little more than an attempt at "jury tampering" in the Libby case by Toensing.)

Meanwhile, the ‘Wilson said Cheney sent him’ claim has been pushed by the rightwing echo chamber with a perseverance worthy of a better cause. Here are a few typical examples:

  • July 7, 2003 (after Wilson’s column) – Ari Fleischer in a White House press briefing “rebuts” Wilson’s purported claim about Cheney.
  • July 12-22, 2003 (after the White House backpedals on its Niger uranium claims, and after Bob Novak’s much-criticized column outing Plame) – 18 examples on Fox programs of statement that Wilson said the VP sent him;
  • July 12, 2005The O’Reilly Factor: “Visual - Joseph Wilson, who said Dick Cheney sent him to Africa.”
  • July 12, 2005Fox Report: “allies claim that he was only warning Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper that he was about to publish incorrectly that Vice President Dick Cheney sent former diplomat Joe Wilson to Africa.”
  • same date --- O’Reilly again; Hannity & Colmes with Bill Press; ditto July 14 Fox & Friends; July 14: “HANNITY: The one person who has been consistently not honest here is Joe Wilson, the publicity hound. I mean, not being honest about the vice president's office having sent him . . .”
  • July 18, 2005 – Ralph Reed “rebuts” the purported Wilson statement.
  • July 20, 2005 – the claim that Wilson said Cheney sent him is reported to be a talking point of GOP National Committee.
  • Oct 27, 2005 (after word of impending indictments) – Sen. Lindsey Graham with Bob Woodward, David Gergen, Michael Isikoff, Christopher Dodd on Larry King Live, CNN: “GRAHAM: “ . . . I really do believe people were trying to rebut the idea he was sent there by the vice president and maybe this thing got out of hand.”
  • Sunday Oct 30, 2005 (just after Oct 28 indictment of Libby) – Charles Krauthammer on ABC’s Inside Washington: “The person who lied here was Wilson. There was a response to the stories he leaked to The Post and The Times, implying, A, that the vice president had sent him . . .”
  • Same day --- on Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer the next half-hour, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) also suggested that Wilson claimed to be sent on his Niger trip by Cheney.
  • Same day – on CNN’s Market Call: “RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": “Secondly, as for the pettiness, there is some evidence to support this view. But let's think back to the context here. Mr. Wilson was encouraging the impression that Dick Cheney had sent him on this mission and then refused to listen to him afterwards.”
  • Apr 7, 2006 (just after government filing in Libby case) – flurry of “inews” reports mentioning the line.

Et cetera.

There is still something puzzling about this line. Bending over backward, let’s assume for sake of argument that Wilson was a “publicity hound” and that he wanted to go on the Africa trip. His wife’s introduction could have helped him get the assignment. But even the neocons cannot say that Wilson got paid for the trip; it is conceded that he was previously an ambassador, had contacts in Niger and was an expert in African affairs; and some checking at various levels is usual, not atypical, dealing with foreign reports.

Indeed, it would have been acceptable if Cheney had sent Wilson --- or anyone --- to check those “mushroom cloud” rumors.

The false line is clearly bogus. But the sting in this purported claim still eludes me. Perhaps it is just one more way to divert attention from the fact that the main harm done in the CIA leak was to Mrs. Wilson (not to her husband) and to genuine WMD intelligence gathering, which was destroyed once the White House, of all groups, leaked the information.