October 20, 2003

NOT WHETHER IT'S TRUE, BUT WHETHER IT'S PLAUSIBLE:

THE STOVEPIPE: How conflicts between the Bush Administration and the intelligence community marred the reporting on Iraq’s weapons. (SEYMOUR M. HERSH, 2003-10-27, The New Yorker)

Who produced the fake Niger papers? There is nothing approaching a consensus on this question within the intelligence community. There has been published speculation about the intelligence services of several different countries. One theory, favored by some journalists in Rome, is that sismi produced the false documents and passed them to Panorama for publication.

Another explanation was provided by a former senior C.I.A. officer. He had begun talking to me about the Niger papers in March, when I first wrote about the forgery, and said, “Somebody deliberately let something false get in there.” He became more forthcoming in subsequent months, eventually saying that a small group of disgruntled retired C.I.A. clandestine operators had banded together in the late summer of last year and drafted the fraudulent documents themselves.

“The agency guys were so pissed at Cheney,” the former officer said. “They said, ‘O.K, we’re going to put the bite on these guys.’” My source said that he was first told of the fabrication late last year, at one of the many holiday gatherings in the Washington area of past and present C.I.A. officials. “Everyone was bragging about it—‘Here’s what we did. It was cool, cool, cool.’” These retirees, he said, had superb contacts among current officers in the agency and were informed in detail of the sismi intelligence.

“They thought that, with this crowd, it was the only way to go—to nail these guys who were not practicing good tradecraft and vetting intelligence,” my source said. “They thought it’d be bought at lower levels—a big bluff.” The thinking, he said, was that the documents would be endorsed by Iraq hawks at the top of the Bush Administration, who would be unable to resist flaunting them at a press conference or an interagency government meeting. They would then look foolish when intelligence officials pointed out that they were obvious fakes. But the tactic backfired, he said, when the papers won widespread acceptance within the Administration. “It got out of control.”

Like all large institutions, C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, is full of water-cooler gossip, and a retired clandestine officer told me this summer that the story about a former operations officer faking the documents is making the rounds. “What’s telling,” he added, “is that the story, whether it’s true or not, is believed”—an extraordinary commentary on the level of mistrust, bitterness, and demoralization within the C.I.A. under the Bush Administration. (William Harlow, the C.I.A. spokesman, said that the agency had no more evidence that former members of the C.I.A. had forged the documents “than we have that they were forged by Mr. Hersh.”)

The F.B.I. has been investigating the forgery at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee. A senior F.B.I. official told me that the possibility that the documents were falsified by someone inside the American intelligence community had not been ruled out. “This story could go several directions,” he said. “We haven’t gotten anything solid, and we’ve looked.” He said that the F.B.I. agents assigned to the case are putting a great deal of effort into the investigation. But “somebody’s hiding something, and they’re hiding it pretty well.”


The CIA forging them seems unlikely, but the fact its interests are considered opposed to the Administration's seems undeniable and suggests there's ample reason to believe that the manner in which Joe Wilson was chosen for the Niger mission matters very much.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2003 2:34 PM
Comments

The lack of any shakeup at CIA following 9/11 and the fact that George Tenet is still in charge there is a major failure on the part of the Bush Administration.

Posted by: jd watson at October 20, 2003 3:26 PM

And how reliable is Sy Hersh? Or his sources?....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 20, 2003 5:13 PM

And here I thought it was Phrawnce.

Posted by: Sandy P. at October 20, 2003 8:34 PM

If this is true, it's one of the funniest Frankenstein's monster stories I've heard in a while.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 21, 2003 12:16 AM

Maybe Wilson was selected because the CIA hoped he would do a hatchet job on the Bush administration. I rather doubt it, but who knows? It hardly matters much, when the White House has already conceded that Wilson's report was basically accurate: Saddam would not be able to acquire uranium from Niger.

Posted by: Peter Caress at October 21, 2003 1:05 PM

The Brits stand by their report.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2003 2:33 PM

Yes, but I think the report mentioned two other countries besides Niger, the only country Wilson investigated. It's hard to understand why the White House leakers were so driven to discredit Wilson, when they could have made a legitimate counterargument:

(1) The Brits stand by their report.
(2) Saddam was clearly hoping to open the Niger door a crack towards acquiring uranium, which was worrisome enough even if no-one thought he could open the door all the way.

Or better yet, they could have stayed silent and let the whole thing drop.

Posted by: Peter Caress at October 21, 2003 5:13 PM

Peter:

You can't have it both ways--the report can't be discredited and Saddam have tried.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2003 5:16 PM
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