DECONSTRUCTING JOE WILSON….I decided to try and spend a few minutes this weekend making sense out of the whole Joe Wilson affair, but I’m not sure I really succeeded. There’s so much frothing in the pro-war blogosphere that it’s hard to separate the genuine complaints from the merely generic loathing of the man.

However, I think I did at least manage to scrape away enough barnacles to figure out what specific lies Wilson is alleged to have told, which seems to be a useful exercise since all the other frothing flows from this source. As near as I can tell, after reading Tom Maguire and Josh Marshall and Matthew Continetti and Joe Wilson himself (here and here), there are three main charges against Wilson’s credibility. First, though, a quick timeline to refresh everyone’s memory:

February 2002: Wilson takes a trip to Niger. He reports back to the CIA that he didn’t find any evidence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from them.

January 2003: George Bush includes the infamous “16 words” in his State of the Union Address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

March 2003: A memorandum that purported to show that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Niger turns out to be a forgery.

July 2003: Wilson publishes an op-ed in the New York Times in which he recounts his trip to Niger. All hell breaks loose.

Here, then, are the three lies:

  1. Back in the days before he wrote his op-ed, Wilson was an anonymous source for a couple of Nick Kristof columns. In those columns, Wilson (via Kristof) claimed that he had seen the Niger memorandum and had reported to the CIA that it was forged. In fact, Wilson had not seen the memorandum back in February 2002 (he had only heard about it) and had no idea if it was a forgery.

    Wilson’s response: None, really. Wilson does some hemming and hawing about other press acounts, but for some reason nobody has asked him about the Kristof columns.

    Possible mitigation: In his NYT op-ed, Wilson wrote, “as for the actual memorandum, I never saw it.” So while Wilson pretty clearly misspoke to Kristof, he corrected himself on this point over a year ago.

  2. Wilson claimed he had “debunked” the uranium story and that Dick Cheney knew this. In fact, his report was only one piece of evidence, not a conclusive debunking, and it was never shown to Cheney.

    Wilson’s response: He claims that he never said he had singlehandedly debunked the story. What’s more, although he believes that the 16 words were “a deliberate attempt to deceive,” he bases this conclusion on more than just his own trip to Niger.

    Possible mitigation: The best defense of Wilson’s claims is that ten days after his op-ed was published CIA Director George Tenet publicly admitted that the evidence for the uranium claims was weak and should not have been included in the State of the Union Address. That’s pretty strong confirmation that whether or not it was Wilson who did the debunking, the intelligence community pretty much agreed with him.

    Beyond that, this is obviously a matter of opinion. There’s not much question that Wilson has been outspoken in his opposition to the Bush administration, but trying to gauge exactly how categorical his claims have been is a mug’s game. As for Cheney, Wilson says that he really did think Cheney had seen his report and is surprised to learn that he didn’t.

  3. Wilson claimed that his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, was not involved in the decision to send him to Niger. However, although the evidence is contradictory about whether Plame recommended him in the first place, she did write a memo to her superiors telling them that Wilson was well qualified for the trip they had in mind.

    Wilson’s response: He says that his wife had nothing to do with the trip and deliberately recused herself from meetings related to it. Her memo was written in response to her boss, and was limited to a recitation of his qualifications.

    Possible mitigation: None. Wilson said flatly that “Valerie had nothing to do with the matter,” and apparently that’s just not true. It’s especially unclear why he said this when the truth would have been perfectly adequate.

There’s a lot more to the story, of course, but it mostly seems to be related to Wilson’s general flamboyance and spotlight hogging. I don’t really blame his critics for jumping on this ? I’d probably do the same in their shoes ? but the evidence of outright falsehoods is fairly limited. He pretty clearly lied to Kristof, but corrected himself quite a long time ago, and he also lied about his wife’s involvement in his trip ? although it’s hard to say by how much. Overall, I’d say his credibility as a source is definitely tattered, but perhaps not quite as thoroughly demolished as his enemies are claiming. It’s hardly a Page 1 blockbuster.

And two final points:

  • As I’ve mentioned before, Wilson doesn’t really matter much anymore except as political sport. The only real issue on the table right now is whether anyone in the Bush administration outed his wife as a CIA agent, and that’s a matter under investigation by the FBI. Whether or not Wilson lied to the press about other matters doesn’t really affect the legal case.

  • Why didn’t Dick Cheney see Wilson’s report? Just because it was negative? This certainly seems to support the proposition that the administration willfully ignored any evidence that didn’t agree with their preconceived notions, doesn’t it?

I’ll have more later if anything interesting pops up. In the meantime, on the general topic of Iraq’s alleged interest in African uranium and the forged documents ? mostly unrelated to Joe Wilson ? read Josh Marshall and Laura Rozen. They’re working this issue pretty hard.