July 3rd, 2022


Having Your Yellowcake and Making Bush Eat It

Mark Steyn

By Mark Steyn

Published Oct. 13, 2019

Joe Wilson had been fantasizing for over a decade and a half about the first sentence of his obituary:

Joseph C. Wilson IV, the Bush I administration political appointee who did the most damage to the Bush II administration.

By the time the Grim Reaper came calling, the Democrat-media industrial complex had moved on, to new whistleblowers, doing new damage to newer administrations. But he and his then wife, Valerie Plame, had a grand run for longer than might have been expected - and even parlayed their fifteen minutes into a movie deal: Fair Game, with Naomi Watts as Ms Plame and Sean Penn as Mr Wilson. Did you see it? Me neither.

But I did follow Joe Wilson fairly closely at the height of his celebrity. It derived from sixteen words uttered by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

What followed will ring very familiar to those who've followed the news of recent days: a whistleblower, a rogue bureaucracy, Deep State shenanigans, and a media that reflexively takes the side of unelected officials over elected ones - at least when it's GOP types who get elected. And, as the Wilson affair revealed, yet again, the world's most lavishly funded "intelligence" agencies are little more than tourists in the heart of darkness. This is what I wrote in The Spectator on October 11th 2003 - back when Democrats were salivating, as is their wont, about that season's "Watergate":

Early last year, the Bush administration dispatched a career diplomat to Niger to check out whether there was anything to the rumours that Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Africa. The former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV returned from the dark continent, reported his findings and was distressed to discover from this January's state of the Union address that the White House still inclined to the British view of the situation. So in July he wrote a column for The New York Times headlined 'What I Didn't Find In Africa'. By 'Africa', the Times meant Niger, which is the only country Ambassador Wilson visited. Shortly thereafter, two SAOs (Senior Administration Officials) leaked the name of Wilson's wife to my Chicago Sun-Times colleague Robert Novak: her name is Valerie Plame and she works for the CIA. Nobody paid any attention for two months. Then another SAO from some other faction in the administration counter-leaked details of the original leak from the original SAOs. And now it's Watergate. In theory.

And if you watch the network news that's pretty much where the facts stop. The Independent summed up the angle most of the press seems to be interested in: 'Disclosed CIA Officer Fears For Her Life' — i.e., Ms Plame's name was leaked in order to put her in danger. The implication seems to be that she's on some top-secret mission but, like 007, travelling under her own name, perhaps as an innocuous businesswoman: 'The name's Plame. Valerie Plame. Universal Exports.'

'Very interesting, Ms Plame,' replies Blofeld, stroking his cat, in whose litter tray lies the front page of that day's Washington Post. 'Any relation to the CIA agent of the same name?'

The notion that Ms Plame 'fears for her life' is somewhat undermined by the fact that her gabby hubby, currently on TV, radio and sympathetic websites 22 hours a day, is clearly having a ball, loving the attention and happy to yuk it up about how he and the missus have been 'discussing who would play her in the movie'. Quite what Ms Plame does for the CIA remains unclear. One alleged colleague says he's worked with her for thirty years, which seems unlikely, as she's only forty and if the Company was that good at spotting early talent it would be in a lot better shape. It seems that at one point she was a NOC, which means Non-Official Cover, which means if the other side gets wind of who you really are, you're on your own. But her time as a NOC looks to have ended five years ago, so that under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act leaking her name is not a criminal offence, though it may yet finish you off politically. It's certainly morally dubious, not because it exposes Ms Plame and her camera-hogger of a husband to danger but because it could place in jeopardy many of her contacts in whatever countries she's worked in over the years.

But, despite the media's efforts to oomph it up into Watergate it doesn't make any sense as a conventional political scandal. Even if you accept that it's technically possible to leak something that's widely known around town and published in the guy's Who's Who entry, if the object was to discredit Joe Wilson why leak the name of his wife? On his own, Wilson comes over like a total flake — not a sober striped-pants diplomat but a shaggy-maned ideologically driven kook whose hippie-lyric quotes make a lot more sense than his diatribes for leftie dronefests like The Nation. This is a guy who says things like, 'Neoconservatives and religious conservatives have hijacked this administration, and I consider myself on a personal mission to destroy both.' He spends his days dreaming of the first sentence of his obituary: 'Joseph C. Wilson IV, the Bush I administration political appointee who did the most damage to the Bush II administration.' Imagine Michael Moore and his ego after dropping 300lbs on the Atkins diet and you're close enough. By revealing the fact that Mrs Wilson is a cool blonde CIA agent, all you do is give her husband a credibility lacking in almost every aspect of his speech, mien and coiffure.

Even his original New York Times piece must rank as one of the paper's weakest efforts to damage Bush: in Niger, Ambassador Wilson says he spent 'eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business'. He concedes he never filed a written report and most of the rest of the column reads like a travelogue ('Through the haze, I could see camel caravans crossing the Niger river'). As a claim to expertise, it's laughable. But, after eight days sipping tea and meeting government officials in one city of one country, Ambassador Wilson gave a verbal report to the CIA and was horrified to switch on his TV and see Bush going on about what British Intelligence had learned about Saddam and Africa. As I wrote in this space last July:

The intel bureaucracy got the Sudanese aspirin factory wrong, failed to spot 9/11 coming, and insisted it was impossible for any American to penetrate bin Laden's network, only to have Johnnie bin Joss-Stick from hippie-dippy Marin County on a self-discovery jaunt round the region stroll into the cave and be sharing the executive latrine with the A-list jihadi within 20 minutes.

So, if you're the President and the same intelligence bureaucrats who got all the above wrong say the Brits are way off the mark, there's nothing going on with Saddam and Africa, what do you do? Do you say, 'Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day"? Or do you make the reasonable assumption that, given what you've learned about the state of your humint (human intelligence) in the CIA, is it likely they've got much of a clue about what's going on in French Africa? Isn't this one of those deals where the Brits and the shifty French are more plugged in?

I'll stand by that, as does Her Majesty's Government. No political leader is obliged to accept a particular intelligence finding. Invariably, you're presented with contradictory pieces of information and evidence, and you're obliged to choose. It's also a telling comment on the state of the CIA. When M sends Bond somewhere to nose around, his car usually gets run off the road as he's leaving the airport and the croupier he has sex with that evening turns out to be an enemy agent. But, unless you get that lucky, you wind up doing what Wilson did: drinking tea with the stooges the government arranges for you to meet. Everything about Mr Wilson's day trip to the heart of darkness suggests either wilful obstruction or sheer ineptness by the CIA. The latest round of counter-leaks comes either from within the agency or from the rogue State Department, which, even on the days when it's not sounding like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the House of Saud, is rarely on the same page as the White House — on Iran, Arafat and much else.

Why is this important? Because, in a nutshell, Iraq is the last war. That's to say, the last war in which the Bush Administration will spend the months beforehand amassing a quarter of a million troops on an enemy's borders. Doing it that way gives the enemy too long to enlist his own forces — the Western media, the UN and the moth-eaten French pantomime mule of Messrs Chirac and de Villepin. All these parties are dedicated to ensuring that even when the Americans win, they lose. The speed with which they've managed to taint victory in Iraq is impressive, though it bears no relation to anything so tiresome as reality. So from hereon in engagements in the war of terror will be swift, sudden and as low-key as can be managed. The US will depend not on multilateralism but bilateralism — the many agreements the Americans have signed for base rights and training missions and other below-the-radar stuff from the Middle East through old Soviet Central Asia to the Pacific. There will be, faute de mieux, a reliance on light and mobile configurations and special forces.

But all these engagements will depend on good intelligence. If the Third Infantry Division rolls across the Syrian border, it can handle anything Boy Assad can throw at it. But, if you're sending in a few Delta Force guys to take discreet care of a small problem, you need to be very well informed of the facts on the ground. Two years after 9/11, the CIA is still not up to the job of human intelligence. It has no idea of what's going on in Iran or North Korea. It relies on aerial photographs and 'chatter' — which is a fancy term for monitoring e-mail. But it has no insight whatsoever into the minds of the Politburo or the mullahs...

If sending Joseph C. Wilson IV to Niger for a week is the best the world's only hyperpower can do, that's a serious problem. If the Company knew it was a joke all along, that's a worse problem. It means Mr Bush is in the same position with the CIA as General Musharraf is with Pakistan's ISI: when he makes a routine request, he has to figure out whether they're going to use it to try and set him up. This is no way to win a terror war.

Whether or not Mr Bush was playing General Musharraf to the CIA's ISI, the current president certainly is, unable to rely on anything from his "intelligence community" except the certainty that they're working 24/7 to screw him over. As it turned out, London and Paris stood by what their intelligence services had found. As it further turned out, in between the sweet tea and the camel caravans, Wilson had also found confirmation (at least by inference) of the Anglo-French intelligence. From my Chicago Sun-Times column from July 18th 2004:

Well, the week went pretty much as I predicted:


But it turns out JOE WILSON LIED! PEOPLE DIED. Of embarrassment mostly. At least I'm assuming that's why The New York Times, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, PBS drone Bill Moyers and all the other media bigwigs Joseph C. Wilson IV suckered have fallen silent on the subject of the white knight of integrity they've previously given the hold-the-front-page treatment, too...

But before he gets lowered in his yellowcake overcoat into the Niger River, let's pause to consider: What do Joe Wilson's lies mean? And what does it say about the Democrats and the media that so many high-ranking figures took him at his word?

First, contrary to what Wilson wrote in The New York Times, Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire uranium from Niger. In support of that proposition are a Senate report in Washington, Lord Butler's report in London, MI6, French intelligence, other European agencies — and, as we now know, the CIA report, based on Joe Wilson's original briefing to them. Against that proposition is Joe Wilson's revised version of events for the Times.

This isn't difficult. In 1999, a senior Iraqi "trade" delegation went to Niger. Uranium accounts for 75 percent of Niger's exports. The rest is goats, cowpeas and onions. So who sends senior trade missions to Niger? Maybe Saddam dispatched his Baathist big shots all the way to the dusty capital of Niamy because he had a sudden yen for goat and onion stew with a side order of black-eyed peas, and Major Wanke, the then-president, had offered him a great three-for-one deal.

But that's not what Joe Wilson found. Major Wanke's prime minister, among others, told Ambassador Wilson that he believed Iraq wanted yellowcake. And Ambassador Wilson told the CIA. And the CIA's report agreed with the British and the Europeans that "Iraq was attempting to procure uranium from Africa..."

An ambassador, in Sir Henry Wootton's famous dictum, is a good man sent abroad to lie for his country. This ambassador came home to lie to his. And the Dems and the media helped him do it.

And a final word from my Happy Warrior column another year on, August 2005:

Nary a day goes by without a dozen e-mails from aggrieved lefties claiming that I've "lied" about what Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV found on his famous mission when he flew into Niamey and spent a couple of days sipping mint tea with former big shots from the regime of retired strongman Major Wanke. (I've suggested "Wankegate" as a name for the "scandal" to The New York Times, but they're oddly unenthusiastic.)

I take great umbrage at the lie that I've lied about Joe Wilson's lies about what he found in Niger when he lied about the administration's lying about what he found before he started lying about it — or I would take great umbrage, if I could keep a straight face. Unfortunately, every time I do I think of the touching dedication of Ambassador Wilson's hilariously titled memoir The Politics of Truth:

To my wife Valerie . . . If I could give you back your anonymity I would do so in a minute.

I think we can all agree on that. If I could give Joe and Val back their anonymity I would do so in a New York nanosecond.

Far from the klieg lights of his brief celebrity, Mr Wilson and Ms Plame divorced, and Democrats moved on to shinier novelties. He died short of his three-score-and-ten, and with his fifteen minutes long exhausted. It took more than a nanosecond, but anonymity returns, even to a truly major wanker.

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Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human rights activist. His latest book is "The Undocumented Mark Steyn: Don't Say You Weren't Warned". (Buy it at a 43% discount by clicking here or order in KINDLE edition at a 50% discount by clicking here. Sales help fund JWR)