Novak contradicted himself on Senate committee's Niger conclusions

Syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Robert D. Novak falsely stated in his August 1 column that the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously contradicted former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's denial that his wife, former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, suggested him for a 2002 mission to Niger. In fact, the bipartisan committee did not reach an official conclusion about how the CIA made the decision to hire Wilson. Moreover, the only contradiction appears to be with Novak himself; in a July 2004 column, he reported that the Democratic committee members had rejected an official conclusion that Plame had suggested Wilson for the fact-finding mission.

In the August 1 column, Novak stated that the “unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee report ... said that Wilson's wife 'suggested him for the trip.'” But in a July 15, 2004, column, Novak clearly recognized that the committee did not reach an official conclusion about how the CIA made the decision to hire Wilson:

Like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark, the most remarkable aspect of last week's Senate Intelligence Committee report is what its Democratic members did not say. They did not dissent from the committee's findings that Iraq apparently asked about buying yellowcake uranium from Niger. They neither agreed to a conclusion that former diplomat Joseph Wilson was suggested for a mission to Niger by his CIA employee wife nor defended his statements to the contrary.

While the committee report stated that “interviews and documents provided to the Committee indicated that his [Wilson's] wife, a CPD [Counterproliferation Divison] employee, suggested his name for the trip,” the full committee refrained from approving an official conclusion that she had suggested the mission. In a partisan addendum to the report, committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that Democrats had specifically opposed including the statement, “The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador's wife, a CIA employee,” in the full committee's report. News reports that appeared both before and after the intelligence committee's 2004 investigation undermined this claim.

In addition, Novak further distorted the contents of the committee report in his August 1 column. He wrote that the “Senate committee reported that much of what he [Wilson] said 'had no basis in fact,'” apparently referring to Wilson's July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed, as well as his public statements following its publication. In the article, Wilson stated that the facts as he “understood them” did not support President Bush's claim in his 2003 State of the Union address that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

But the assertion that Wilson's claims “had no basis in fact” appears only in Roberts's addendum and not in the report ratified by the committee as a whole. Rather than proving that Wilson was incorrect, the committee's report suggested the opposite: that by the time the president delivered his State of the Union address in January 2003, the Niger claim was no longer supportable. The committee wrote: “Until October 2002 when the Intelligence Community obtained the forged foreign language documents on the Iraq-Niger uranium deal, it was reasonable for analysts to assess that Iraq may have been seeking uranium from Africa based on Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reporting and other available intelligence.”

The committee report also found that while the CIA indeed interpreted Wilson's Niger findings as confirmation of its assessment at that time that Saddam had sought uranium in Africa, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) interpreted it as confirmation of its competing assessment that Iraq had not sought uranium from Niger. The committee concluded that INR's assessment of Iraq's nuclear program as a whole, which Wilson's 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.”

Moreover, the CIA later repudiated its assessment of the Niger allegation; then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet publicly stated in July 2003 that "[t]hese 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President."

From Novak's August 1 column:

There never was any question of me talking about Mrs. Wilson “authorizing.” I was told she “suggested” the mission, and that is what I asked Harlow. His denial was contradicted in July 2004 by a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee report. The report said Wilson's wife “suggested his name for the trip.” It cited an internal CIA memo from her saying “my husband has good relations” with officials in Niger and “lots of French contacts,” adding they “could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” A State Department analyst told the committee that Mrs. Wilson “had the idea” of sending Wilson to Africa.


The recent first disclosure of secret grand jury testimony set off a news media feeding frenzy centered on this obscure case. Joseph Wilson was discarded a year ago by the Kerry presidential campaign after the Senate committee reported much of what he said “had no basis in fact.”