The media have obsessed over the so-called Joe Wilson affair, which reportedly involved White House efforts to discredit the former ambassador for his public criticisms of the war on Iraq. Supposedly, this involved leaking the name of Wilson’s wife, a CIA clandestine officer, to columnist Robert Novak. Novak then published her name in his weekly column and that touched off a firestorm over whether laws prohibiting the publication of covert U.S. intelligence officers were broken.
The Wilson affair revolved around administration allegations that Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear program. This was partly based on reports from European intelligence services that as recently as 1999, Iraq had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6, acquired these reports and passed them along to the CIA. The President’s State of the Union speech included a reference to Iraqi procurement activities in Africa, but curiously, it was sourced to the British.
Some time after these reports first appeared, documents emerged that seemed to confirm the allegations. These are said to have detailed Iraqi purchases of uranium ore from Niger, which had supplied ore to the Iraqi nuclear program in the 1980s. They first surfaced in Italy, but eventually made their way to the CIA and the Pentagon. Although CIA is said to have been “ambivalent” about their authenticity, it has been reported that within the Pentagon they were accepted as proof of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.
But then the documents were found to be forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iraq’s nuclear program. The agency announced its findings on March 7, 2003, shortly after the President’s State of the Union address. But the story faded away after the invasion of Iraq.
But the question has remained?who forged the documents? Some believe the forgeries were produced by one of the European intelligence services, possibly the Italians. Herbert Romerstein, in a Washington Times op-ed, thinks the Iraqis may have forged the documents themselves as part of a disinformation campaign. He thinks the forgeries were so transparent that the Iraqis thought that anyone relying on them would be immediately discredited. But veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh says that retired CIA clandestine officers may have forged the documents as part of a “sting operation” against the Bush administration.
Writing in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, Hersh reports the intent may have been to embarrass “Iraqi hawks at the top of the Bush administration.” These officers calculated that the “hawks” couldn’t resist using the forgeries to make their case and would then look foolish when the hoax was revealed. But, Hersh writes, the tactic backfired and the forgeries gained “widespread acceptance within the administration.” If true, Hersh has uncovered a scandal that could easily eclipse the Wilson affair. But so far, the media have ignored Hersh’s allegations. Is that because the White House was the intended victim of the hoax?