02/06/2007 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pincus Lit the Fuse on the Plamegate Bomb

Until the start of the Libby trial, most folks and chroniclers assumed that the Nick Kristof piece in May of 2003 spurred the White House to go after Joe and Valerie Wilson.  But based on the timeline emerging from the Libby trial the real culprit is Walter Pincus, the legendary warhorse reporter at the Washington Post, whose work on an article that appeared on June 12, 2003 set in motion the events that eventually produced the "outing" of Valerie Plame, the wife of Ambassdor Joe Wilson and an undercover CIA officer. 

The Nick Kristof piece was the first major shot across the bow of the Administration on its fabricated case for going to war, but did not generate the reaction that the Pincus piece garnered.  Kristoff--whose piece only devoted two paragraphs to Joe Wilson's story--wrote:

I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.

The envoy reported, for example, that a Niger minister whose signature was on one of the documents had in fact been out of office for more than a decade. In addition, the Niger mining program was structured so that the uranium diversion had been impossible. The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted -- except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway. "It's disingenuous for the State Department people to say they were bamboozled because they knew about this for a year," one insider said.

Kristof mistakenly asserted that Joe Wilson claimed his trip proved the documents were a forgery.  Kristof subsequently sent an email to Joe Wilson saying:

i remember you saying that you had not seen the documents.  my
recollection is that at we had some information about the documents at that
time - e.g. the names of people in them - but i do clearly remember you
saying that you had not been shown them.

While the Kristof article stirred some interest at the White House, it did not start the five alarm fire.  That "honor" belongs to Walter Pincus.

Pincus started working in late May 2003 on an article about what the
CIA did (or did not) tell the White House about Iraq's efforts to get
uranium from Niger.  His inquiries in turn inspired a series of efforts
on the part of Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby that led to the unmaksing
of Valerie Plame.  Walter did not do anything wrong;  he just did his
reporter's job.  But his questioning was the proverbial stone in the
shoe for the Office of the Vice President.

The Walter Pincus piece appeared
on 12 June 2003.  But articles like this just don't materialize
overnight.  They usually start a week or two in advance.  Thanks to the
trial of Scooter Libby we can fill in the blanks on the timeline of
Pincus' work.  The first witnesses called--Marc Grossman, Robert Grenier, and  Cathie Martin--each provided critical testimony about events covering the period 29 May 2003 to 12 June 2003.  Let's look at the specifics.

29 May 2003.  Pincus apparently started working on the piece around 29 May 2003.  How do we know?  According to Marc Grossman, a senior State Department official who testified in the first week of the Libby trial, Libby pulled him aside after a meeting on that date and asked him what he knew about a Joe Wilson and his trip to Niger.

Grossman told Libby this was the first he had heard of the issue and said he would check with others at the State Department.  First he spoke with Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage, who claimed ignorance of the matter, and then he emailed the head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Carl Ford, and the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs (Kansteiner).  Ford and Kansteiner reported back, "yes we knew about it" and provided a summary of the events.  Armed with this information Grossman called Libby, summarized his findings, and promised to get him more information when he returned from an overseas trip.

9 June 2003.  The pace of events accelerated and the CIA faxed two documents to the White House:  a memo on the Niger affair (which had originally been prepared for the House Intelligence Committee on April 3, 2003) and a report on the forged documents.  Both were accompanied by a cover sheet stipulating that the attached document should be urgently passed "A.S.A.P." to Mr. Hannah and Mr. Libby in the Vice President's office.  Someone in Cheney's office had called the CIA and requested a copy of the memo.  (We do not know how they learned of this.)  The memo lays out in detail the chronology of what the intelligence community knew (and did not know) about Iraq's alleged efforts to acquire yellowcake.  The memo makes it very clear that the intelligence community doubted the claims early on in 2002 and referenced the intelligence report generated by Ambassador Wilson's trip.

11 June 2003.  The level of panic in the Vice President's Office was rising.  Around mid-day, the State Deparment's Marc Grossman gave Scooter Libby a copy of the State Department INR memo on the Joe Wilson trip, including the news about Valerie's alleged role in the mission.  According to testimony by CIA officer Robert Grenier, Scooter Libby made an unprecedented call to Grenier and asked him to verify CIA's role in sending Wilson to Niger.  Grenier contacted an official in the Counter Proliferation Division and confirmed the details, including the fact that Valerie Wilson worked in the Division.  Grenier was called out of a meeting with CIA Director Tenet late in the afternoon by another desperate Libby phone call.  Libby, clearly aware that Pincus' article would hit the streets the next day, pressed the CIA to go on the record that the CIA, not the Vice President, sent Wilson.  Grenier pulled CIA spokesman Bill Harlow from the same meeting and put him on the phone with Libby.  In the end, Harlow ended up speaking with Cathie Martin, the Vice President's person in charge of press affairs.

12 June 2003.  The Walter Pincus article hit the streets.  White House sources tried, even in June, to pin the blame on the CIA for the flap over Iraq's alleged efforts to get uranium from Niger.  Someone in the Vice President's office, masquerading as a "Senior Intelligence Official" accused the CIA of sloppiness and incompetence and insisted that: 

The CIA did not pass on the detailed results of its investigation to the White House or
other government agencies, the officials said.

The official went on to minimize the importance of Joe Wilson's trip, claiming that:

"This gent made a visit to the region and chatted up his friends," a senior intelligence official said, describing the agency's view of the mission. "He relayed back to us that they said it was not true and that he believed them."

The White House officials, however, did not tell Pincus about the memos they had received from both CIA and INR, which painted a much different picture of the events leading up to the President's January 2003 State of the Union address.

Pincus's inquiry to the CIA revealed a different picture of the events and clearly signaled that the Agency was not going to be a willing scapegoat.  Pincus reported that one senior CIA analyst accused the White House of cherry picking intelligence.  The CIA analyst said:

the case "is indicative of larger problems" involving the handling of intelligence about Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and its links to al Qaeda, which the administration cited as justification for war.  "Information not consistent with the administration agenda was discarded and information that was [consistent] was not seriously scrutinized.

If you search the web for Plamegate Timelines you will find many references to the Kristof article and few mentions of the Pincus article.  And where Pincus is mentioned it is usually as an afterthought.  Two weeks into the Libby trial it is now apparent that the Timelines should be revised and updated.  It was Walter Pincus, not Nicholas Kristof, who got under the skin of the Vice President and his staff.  And it was his questions that started Cheney's office on its mission to discredit Joe Wilson.  As Karl Rove later told Chris Matthews, Joe Wilson's wife was fair game.  June 2003 marked the start of the intense effort to out Valerie Plame, which culminated in the leaks in July 2003 to Robert Novak, Matt Cooper, and others.   

Just another reminder of the power of the press when a competent reporter tries to do his job rather than curry favor for an invitation to the White House Christmas Party.