In his July 18 syndicated column, U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone made a series of false statements, claiming that former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV "lied" in a July 2003 op-ed he wrote for The New York Times. In his op-ed, Wilson contradicted the infamous "16-word" assertion from President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Falsehood #1: Wilson claimed Cheney sent him to Niger
Barone repeated the frequently asserted falsehood that Wilson claimed in his Times op-ed that he was "sent by the CIA at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney" to investigate whether Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. In fact, Wilson never claimed that Cheney or his office requested the CIA send him to Niger. Rather, he claimed that the CIA sent him to Niger in an effort to satisfy requests from the Office of the Vice President for more information on the Niger-uranium allegation. The Senate Intelligence Committee's findings match Wilson's assertion:
Officials from the CIA's DO [Directorate of Operations] Counterproliferation Division [CPD] told committee staff that in response to questions from the Vice President's Office and the Departments of State and Defense on the alleged Niger-uranium deal, CPD officials discussed ways to obtain additional information. ... CPD decided to contact a former ambassador to Gabon [Wilson] who had a posting early in his career in Niger. [PDF p. 49]
Falsehood #2: Bush's "16 words" were well-founded
Barone defended President Bush's "16 words," noting that "the British government has stood by its report," but Barone failed to acknowledge that both the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee have repudiated Bush's claim, with the CIA explicitly dissenting from the British view.
Wilson's article said George W. Bush lied in his 2003 State of the Union Address when he said that British intelligence reported that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Africa. But Wilson's mission covered only one country, and the British government has stood by its report.
In fact, a July 2003 statement by then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explained that the CIA disagreed with the British on the uranium issue and that the "sixteen words should never have been included in the text written for the President." The Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war assessments of Iraq's weapons capabilities similarly concluded that after October 2002, when documents purporting to document the sale of Niger uranium to Iraq were exposed as forgeries, it was no longer "reasonable for analysts to assess that Iraq may have been seeking uranium from Africa". [PDF p. 82]
Falsehood #3: Wilson's report strengthened "the case against Saddam"
Barone also falsely claimed that following Wilson's trip, "the report that Wilson sent the CIA said that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger in 1998, unsuccessfully." In fact, following his trip, Wilson reported that Iran, not Iraq, had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger in 1998, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report [PDF p. 54]. Barone was apparently echoing a July 2003 Washington Post article that erroneously reported that Iraq had attempted to purchase 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998. The Post has since added a correction to its article.
Moreover, the report that Wilson sent the CIA said that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger in 1998, unsuccessfully; agency analysts concluded, not unreasonably, that this strengthened rather than weakened the case against Saddam.
Because the statement about Iraq in 1998 is false, Barone's assertion that the CIA concluded from this that their case against Saddam was strengthened is, of course, also false.
While the Senate Intelligence Committee report did state that "most analysts" thought Wilson's report as a whole supported the theory that Saddam sought uranium from Niger, analysts at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research interpreted the report as support for their competing assessment that "Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq":
The report on the former ambassador's trip to Niger, disseminated in March 2002, did not change any analysts' assessments of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal. For most analysts, the information in the report lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal, but State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq. [PDF p. 83]
The Senate Intelligence Committee also concluded that INR's overall assessment of Iraq's nuclear program, which Wilson's Times op-ed supported, was the correct assessment based on the intelligence available at the time:
After reviewing all the intelligence provided by the Intelligence Community and additional information requested by the Committee, the Committee believes that the judgment in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, was not supported by the intelligence. The Committee agrees with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) alternative view that the available intelligence "does not add up to a compelling case for reconstitution."