The White House never tried to rebut Joe Wilson's charges. Quite the opposite.
Right after Wilson's op-ed piece appeared in the Times, Ari Fleischer said "There is zero, nada, nothing new here." The White House National Security Council then followed up, stating "Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech."
And then, George Tenet publicly disclosed those parts of the National Intelligence Estimate addressing uranium from Africa. If anything, the NIE seemed to validate Wilson's charges. So Tenet admitted that the famous 16 words, "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for Presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed."
So by July 11, 2003, Joe Wilson's allegation -- that the uranium-from-Africa intelligence was always flimsy and was sexed up in the State of the Union address -- was no longer disputed. Meaning Wilson's motivations and veracity were irrelevant.
But thee days later, Robert Novak's column outed Wilson's wife. A week after that, Andrea Mitchell told Joe Wilson, "I heard in the White House that people were touting the Novak column and that that was the real story."
The real story of what? Not the real story of Wilson's findings, which were validated by General Carlton Fulford, Ambassador Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the International Atomic Energy Commission. None of them could overlook the obvious. Niger's sale of uranium was implausible for the same reason Castro's sale of timeshares at Guantanamo was implausible. In both cases, foreign powers exerted exclusive physical control over the host country's territory. In Niger's case, the uranium mines and their output were under exclusive physical control of a joint venture among entities from France, Spain and Japan -- all US allies.
But last night on Hardball Ben Ginsberg, former counsel the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, tried to pass off a Libby's personal smear campaign as a legitimate political rebuttal:
Ginsberg: [A]s soon as the president says it's not classified anymore, it's not classified. But this needs to be put in context. Joe Wilson raised charges in his op-ed article in the New York Times that were serious policy issues about whether there was justification for the war. There was a White House need and effort to rebut those serious charges. That's what happens when charges are raised in a debate like that.
Three things happen: Number one, the president declassified the NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate.
Chris Matthews: When did he do that?
Ginsberg: At some point before --
Chris Matthews: Between July 6 and July 8.
Ginsberg: That will come out, but presumably that's the case. Scooter Libby then did some background work with Judith Miller. On Friday the 11th, CIA Director Tenet went out and talked about this issue and said that there was credible evidence that indeed Saddam Hussein was trying to get nuclear weapons of some sort. And then on the 18th, the whole NIE is declassified.
And so because that is an issue that Wilson raised that needed to be talked about substantively, it is a disservice, I think, to mix the Valerie Plame issue in with the serious policy debate.
But Joe Wilson never talked about whether "Saddam Hussein was trying to get nuclear weapons of some sort." He talked about a sale of uranium by Niger. In the National Intelligence Estimate, there were only three short paragraphs that referred to uranium. As described by George Tenet on July 11, 2003:
"The NIE states: 'A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of pure 'uranium' (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out the arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake.' The Estimate also states: 'We do not know the status of this arrangement.' With regard to reports that Iraq had sought uranium from two other countries, the Estimate says: 'We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.' Much later in the NIE text, in presenting an alternate view on another matter, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research included a sentence that states: 'Finally, the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR's assessment, highly dubious.'"
Ginsberg was absolutely right. It was a disservice to mix in Valerie Plame with a serious policy debate. Too bad he didn't tell Libby, Rove and Novak.
By the way, did anyone else notice Larisa Alexandrovna's excellent reporting in Raw Story two months ago? Her sources told her that Mrs. Wilson's job as a covert operative involved tracking the distribution and acquisition of WMD technology to and from Iran. Novak's column severely hampered the CIA's continued ability to monitor nuclear proliferation.