PLAMEGATE AND NIGER….UPI’s Martin Walker reports a strange twist in the Valerie Plame case today. He says that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has asked for, and obtained, the full version of an Italian parliamentary inquiry into the forgery of the pre-war documents that claimed Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger.

But why did he do that? Mark Kleiman argues persuasively that it’s unlikely that Fitzgerald has widened the scope of his investigation to include Uraniumgate, so what’s the point of getting his hands on the Italian report? I’m not sure myself, but here’s a bit of thinking out loud on the subject.

For starters, the White House’s motivation for smearing Joe Wilson has always been murkier than it might seem at first glance. After all, as Bob Somerby is fond of pointing out, Joe Wilson’s famous July 2003 op-ed in the New York Times didn’t actually contradict anything the White House had said. In his 2003 State of the Union address, George Bush said that Iraq had “sought…uranium from Africa,” while Wilson said only that his trip to Niger convinced him that Iraq had not in fact succeeded in buying uranium. So why the desperate smear campaign against Wilson? Even Karl Rove must have known that leaking his wife’s name was fantastically reckless and over the top. Why not just point out the lack of contradiction and leave it at that?

To figure that out, you have to go back in time to May and June of 2003. Before Wilson wrote his op-ed, he spoke anonymously about his trip to two reporters, Nick Kristof of the New York Times and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, both of whom wrote about an “envoy” (i.e., Wilson) who had gone to Niger the previous year and, when he returned, told the CIA that the Nigerien documents were phony. Since we know that the smear campaign against Wilson started in June (or earlier), it was those reports that got the White House up in arms, not the July op-ed.

Now, as it happens, Kristof and Pincus were wrong: Wilson had not actually seen the documents at the time he traveled to Niger and he hadn’t debunked them. Did he tell Kristof and Pincus that he had? In an email to me last year, he stated flatly that “I never claimed to have seen the documents or to have known anything about signatures or dates.” A couple of weeks later, he said that he had spoken to Kristof and “He confirmed that I had made clear to him that I had never seen the documents.”

But regardless of where the truth lies, the fact is that Kristof and Pincus wrote what they wrote, and obviously their stories scared the daylights out of the White House. But again, why? After all, even though Wilson hadn’t debunked the documents, in March of 2003 the IAEA did. At the time all this was happening, the entire world had known they were fake for months. So why the panic?

Well, there was something the White House knew at that point that the rest of us didn’t. They knew that not only were the Nigerien documents fake, but that they had been proven fake the previous year ? though not by Wilson or the IAEA. At that time, everybody thought the timeline went like this: (1) Bush gives SOTU address in January 2003, (2) IAEA proves Nigerien documents are phony in March. That’s bad, but not catastrophic. However, the real timeline, known to only a few, was this: (1) State Department determines Nigerien docs are phony in October 2002, (2) Bush mentions African uranium anyway in January SOTU address.

Connect the dots. Rightly or wrongly, Kristof and Pincus reported that Wilson had told the administration the Nigerien documents were fake long before Bush’s 2003 SOTU address ? contrary to the storyline accepted at the time. What’s more, Wilson was a former ambassador, which made the Kristof/Pincus reporting pretty plausible. The White House probably figured Wilson still had friends in the State Department who had told him the documents had been debunked long before the SOTU. And if Wilson knew that, maybe he knew about the source of the forged documents as well. Or was on the trail of it. Or something.

And that’s what scared them: the possibility that someone was about to expose the story behind the forged documents. That would have blown the pre-war stories about “mushroom clouds” and nuclear programs sky high, and that’s what caused them to wildly overreact to Wilson’s otherwise innocuous criticisms.

And that’s why Fitzgerald wanted to see the Italian report. He figures it might explain the original motivation for the whole affair, and knowing the motivation might help him make his case.

At least, that’s my best guess. The irony, of course, is that Wilson didn’t know the story behind the forged documents and neither did anyone else. And despite plenty of digging, to this day no one knows the story. But the aftershocks live on.

POSTSCRIPT: For easy reference, here’s the basic Uraniumgate timeline:

  • February 2002: The CIA receives “verbatim text” from Italian intelligence of some documents claiming that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger. Joe Wilson goes to Niger to investigate this claim and reports back that it seems highly unlikely.

  • October 2002: State Department intelligence agency (INR) gets an actual copy of the Niger docs and immediately concludes that they’re bogus. However, nobody outside the government knows this.

  • January 2003: George Bush gives SOTU address, claiming that Iraq has sought uranium from Africa.

  • March 2003: IAEA publicly announces the Niger docs are forgeries.

  • May/June 2003: Based on anonymous sourcing from Wilson, Kristof and Pincus report on the Niger story, mistakenly saying that “the envoy” had debunked the docs back in February 2002.

  • July 6, 2003: Wilson publishes his op-ed.

  • July 11, 2003: CIA director George Tenet admits that Bush shouldn’t have included the uranium claim in the SOTU.