Numerous media figures have repeated, or failed to question, a Republican National Committee (RNC) talking point asserting that former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV claimed that Vice President Dick Cheney "sent him" on a 2002 CIA mission to Niger, as well as White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove's reported assertion that "Wilson's wife" authorized the trip. The RNC has accused Wilson of misrepresenting the Niger trip in its effort to explain and justify Rove's alleged involvement in leaking the identity of Wilson's wife, former clandestine CIA officer Valerie Plame. Specifically, according to the RNC talking point, Rove told Time magazine writer Matthew Cooper that "Wilson's wife," who worked at the CIA, had authorized Wilson's trip because Rove was trying to prevent Cooper from writing inaccurately that Cheney had sent Wilson on the mission. As the RNC alleged: "The bottom line is Karl Rove was discouraging a reporter from writing a false story based on a false premise and the Democrats are engaging in blatant partisan political attacks."
In fact, both of the claims underpinning the RNC's defense of Rove are false: Wilson never claimed he was sent to Niger at Cheney's request, and it was the CIA's Directorate of Operations, Counterproliferation Division (CPD), that authorized the trip, not Plame.
In order to defend Rove's mention of "Wilson's wife" to Cooper, the RNC sought to demonstrate that Rove had reason to believe that Cooper would falsely report that Cheney sent Wilson on the Niger trip, and that Rove needed to set the record straight by telling Cooper that Plame had actually authorized the trip, as Rove's lawyer has claimed. In an attempt to suggest that public statements made by Wilson had led Cooper to believe that Cheney authorized the trip, the RNC misrepresented a July 6, 2003, op-ed by Wilson in The New York Times and distorted a remark from Wilson in an August 3, 2003, interview on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer -- made after Rove discussed Plame with Cooper and therefore could not have been a basis for Rove's purported concern -- to assert that "Wilson falsely claimed that it was Vice President Cheney who sent him to Niger."
The RNC cited Wilson's Times op-ed as evidence that he claimed Cheney sent him to Niger. But the op-ed actually noted that it was "agency officials" from the CIA who "asked if I would travel to Niger" to answer questions Cheney's office had about a particular intelligence report:
In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake -- a form of lightly processed ore -- by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990's. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office.
The RNC then distorted Wilson's appearance on CNN's Late Edition by excluding a crucial portion of his remarks in which he noted that "it's absolutely true" that Cheney was unaware that Wilson was traveling to Niger and reiterated that the "CIA, at the operational level, made a determination" to send Wilson to answer a "serious question" posed by Cheney's office.
Additionally, Rove's conversation with Cooper took place on July 11, 2003 -- more than three weeks before Wilson's CNN appearance -- so it is chronologically impossible for Rove to have been refuting a statement that Wilson hadn't made yet, as Salon.com has pointed out.
From the RNC talking points:
Joe Wilson: "What They Did, What The Office Of The Vice President Did, And, In Fact, I Believe Now From Mr. Libby's Statement, It Was Probably The Vice President Himself ..." (CNN's "Late Edition," 8/3/03)
From the August 3, 2003, edition of CNN's Late Edition:
WILSON: Well, look, it's absolutely true that neither the vice president nor Dr. [then-national security adviser Condoleezza] Rice nor even [then-CIA Director] George Tenet knew that I was traveling to Niger.
What they did, what the office of the vice president did, and, in fact, I believe now from Mr. Libby's statement, it was probably the vice president himself --
BLITZER: [I. Lewis] "Scooter" Libby is the chief of staff for the vice president.
WILSON: Scooter Libby. They asked essentially that we follow up on this report -- that the agency follow up on the report. So it was a question that went to the CIA briefer from the Office of the Vice President. The CIA, at the operational level, made a determination that the best way to answer this serious question was to send somebody out there who knew something about both the uranium business and those Niger officials that were in office at the time these reported documents were executed.
The Senate Intelligence Commitee's account, presented in its 2004 review of prewar weapons intelligence on Iraq, matches Wilson's. "Officials from the CIA's DO Counterproliferation Division told committee staff that in response to questions from the Vice President's Office and the Departments of State and Defense on the alleged Niger-uranium deal, CPD officials discussed ways to obtain additional information. ... CPD decided to contact a former ambassador to Gabon [Wilson] who had a posting early in his career in Niger," the report stated.
Rove's false claim to Cooper: Plame authorized Wilson's trip
An email Cooper sent to his bureau chief, which was obtained by Newsweek, indicates that Rove mentioned "Wilson's wife" to a reporter prior to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak's outing of Plame. The email states:
...it was, KR [Rove] said, wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd [weapons of mass destruction] issues who authorized the trip.
Based on the false premise that Wilson had publicly stated that Cheney authorized the Niger trip, Rove's lawyer Robert Luskin claimed that Rove merely told Cooper that "Wilson's wife ... authorized the trip" to prevent Cooper from "perpetuating some statements that had been made publicly and weren't true" -- in other words, writing a story suggesting that Cheney had authorized the trip.
But the claim that Plame authorized -- or even suggested -- Wilson's trip is unproven, if not demonstrably false. The Senate Intelligence Committee closely examined the issue but did not reach a conclusion about how the CIA made the decision to hire Wilson, noting only some "interviews and documents" indicating that Plame "suggested his name for the trip." But even if Plame did "suggest" her husband, she could not have "authorized" it; only the heads of CPD could do that. The Senate report describes "a memorandum to the deputy chief of CPD, from the former ambassador's wife" [p. 39] touting her husband's credentials. But if Plame herself had the power to "authorize" Wilson's trip, as Rove told Cooper, such a memo would hardly have been necessary.
Further, several news reports have quoted unnamed intelligence officials who refuted the notion that Plame authorized, or even suggested, Wilson's trip. A July 22, 2003, Newsday article quoted an unidentified senior intelligence official who said: "They [the officers asking Wilson to check the uranium story] were aware of who she [Plame] was married to, which is not surprising. ... There are people elsewhere in government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason." The Los Angeles Times reported on July 15, 2004, that an unnamed CIA official confirmed that Plame was not responsible for the CIA's decision to send Wilson to Niger, saying: "Her bosses say she did not initiate the idea of her husband going. ... They asked her if he'd be willing to go, and she said yes."
Instances of media repeating RNC talking point, Rove assertion about Wilson's Niger trip
- The Wall Street Journal: For Mr. Rove is turning out to be the real "whistleblower" in this whole sorry pseudo-scandal. He's the one who warned Time's Matthew Cooper and other reporters to be wary of Mr. Wilson's credibility. He's the one who told the press the truth that Mr. Wilson had been recommended for the CIA consulting gig by his wife, not by Vice President Dick Cheney as Mr. Wilson was asserting on the airwaves. [Editorial, 7/13/05]
- CARL CAMERON [Fox News chief White House correspondent]: Plame is married to former ambassador Joe Wilson, who falsely claimed in 2003 that his investigation of Iraq's quest for nuclear weapons material from Africa was authorized by Vice President Dick Cheney. Rove's attorney and Cooper's notes indicate that Rove warned Cooper that it was not Cheney, but the CIA that authorized the investigation and that apparently Wilson's wife worked there [Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, 7/13/05].
- G. GORDON LIDDY [radio host and former Nixon administration official]: Mr. Rove was in conversation with Mr. Cooper of Time magazine. Here, no good turn goes unpunished. Mr. Cooper was about to embarrass himself in his publication by putting out a story that Vice President Cheney had sent former ambassador Wilson to Niger. That was incorrect. Mr. Rove simply told him, "Look, it wasn't Cheney. It was this fellow's wife who apparently works at the agency." [Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, 7/12/05]
- CHRIS MATTHEWS [MSNBC host]: What would be wrong if the enemy, your enemy who has been criticizing your policy, got this gig to go to Africa because his wife got it for him? He didn't get it from the vice president, he didn't get it from the head of the CIA. What's wrong with saying that?
TUCKER ESKEW [Former Bush communications deputy assistant]: I'm glad you said it. Let's repeat it. And in fact, it was Joe Wilson who speculated publicly, Chris, that the vice president sent him. So, it was important to correct that record. He said in that story that the office of the vice president was responsible for his selection. So, when, in fact, you say that Karl Rove or someone at the White House might have called a reporter to straighten it out, please note, what I understand is that Matt Cooper called Karl Rove about another topic and, at the very end, asked about this. And Karl set the record straight. [MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, 7/12/05]
- NEWT GINGRICH [Fox News analyst and former House speaker]: It is a fact that Wilson alleged that the vice president had sent him to Niger. And that's what Karl Rove was responding to. It is a fact that his response was to say to a reporter, "Don't go overboard on this story because you don't have the whole story." ... if you read the Senate intelligence committee review of this, they make it very clear that Wilson misled the country about who sent him to Africa, that in fact, his wife was the person who recommended him. [Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, 7/12/05]
- RUSH LIMBAUGH [nationally syndicated radio host]: You know, Wilson's out there lying through his teeth about so much of this and he's getting a total pass. The administration did not send Wilson over to Niger. They were not his choice. George Tenet didn't send him. It was Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, who suggested him for the mission and got it done because he was sitting around on his ass not doing anything. He was bored. He didn't have anything to do. [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 7/11/05]
Instances of news reporters failing to correct Republican talking point, Rove assertion about Wilson trip
- JOHN KING [CNN chief national correspondent]: Now, the question there is "leaked classified information." And the White House would tell you, and Karl Rove's lawyer would tell you, that if he said, you know, "Don't believe any of this stuff, don't believe that Dick Cheney sent Joe Wilson there, don't believe that George Tenet sent Joe Wilson there, because Joe Wilson was sent there by his wife, who apparently works in the WMD department of the CIA," nothing illegal about that. [CNN's Inside Politics, 7/12/05]
- The Wall Street Journal: Mr. Rove's lawyer says he was simply trying to steer the reporter away from the idea that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had encouraged Mr. Wilson's research into Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which included a trip to Africa. ... A set of talking points sent by the Republican National Committee sought to buttress Mr. Rove's claim that he was trying to quash an incorrect story that was being circulated by Mr. Wilson -- namely, that his research was sought by Mr. Cheney. [News report, 7/13/05]