New Assault on Wilson Serves as a Distraction

With their renewed assault on Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, Republican operatives are again using the politics of personal destruction to advance a strategy of political distraction.

Last summer, anonymous White House officials ruined the career of Mr. Wilson’s wife by exposing her identity as a C.I.A. agent. Their aim was to draw attention away from the former diplomat’s revelations about false Bush administration claims trumpeting the supposed nuclear “threat” from Iraq. Perhaps they also hoped to intimidate other potential critics among the intelligence and foreign services, where many knowledgeable public servants are appalled by this President’s policies.

The point of exposing Mr. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was to suggest that she had engineered her husband’s unpaid mission to Niger, the African nation where Iraqi officials were suspected of seeking to obtain enriched uranium for Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions. Mr. Wilson denied that his wife was responsible for his return to Africa, the continent where he began his career in the State Department.

The first assault on the Wilsons accomplished little, except to embarrass the Bush administration. In the days after Mr. Wilson wrote an article for The New York Times discussing his secret trip to Niger, the White House was forced to admit that the President should not have brought up the “Niger uranium” story when he summoned the nation to war in his State of the Union address.

But in their zeal to defend the President, the White House leakers may well have violated a federal law that punishes the intentional disclosure of the names of undercover intelligence agents. Since last winter, their actions have been under investigation by a special prosecutor.

Now they have resumed the attack, with the stakes even higher. Republican Senators and spinners are seeking to discredit Mr. Wilson-so that nobody will spend too much time talking about the total implosion of the President’s rationale for going to war.

That is why Republican and conservative commentators are spewing so much chaff about Mr. Wilson’s alleged lies. From Republican National Committee chairman (and ex-Enron lobbyist) Ed Gillespie to William Safire, Rush Limbaugh and, of course, Robert Novak-the original conduit for the White House’s unveiling of Valerie Plame Wilson-their party line is identical. If doubt can be cast on Mr. Wilson’s veracity, that somehow absolves the President’s errors and misleading exaggerations.

In essence, the accusations against Mr. Wilson boil down to whether Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee believe that his wife actually did play a role in his Niger assignment, and whether he misstated his recollection about forged documents that mysteriously showed up to bolster the Niger uranium tale. Despite the partisan passion of his accusers, the evidence against Mr. Wilson remains thin. From the beginning of this controversy, the C.I.A. has stated categorically that Mrs. Wilson was not responsible for dispatching her husband to Niger, which isn’t exactly one of the planet’s garden spots. The agency has never revised that statement.

From the Republican perspective, the media’s narrow focus on Mr. Wilson does more than inflict vengeance on a political adversary, although that’s certainly desirable. It also serves to discredit the investigation of the White House leakers, who may well be responsible for this latest attack on the Wilsons. A Wall Street Journal editorial revealed the game on July 20 when it urged the special prosecutor to “fold up his tent.”

Mr. Wilson has ably defended himself and his wife in recent days, displaying the same grit that led the President’s father to praise him as a hero more than a decade ago, when he stood up to Saddam Hussein as the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Baghdad. Yet the controversy surrounding him is, in itself, a kind of victory for the White House.

Otherwise, someone might ask about more significant news. Every serious bipartisan investigation so far has found that Iraq was nowhere near possession of the nuclear arsenal that the White House used to terrify Americans. The only existing supply of enriched uranium available to Saddam was under seal at a facility sealed by U.N. inspectors-a facility that was left open to looters by the incompetent leadership at the Pentagon after Saddam’s regime fell.

As the Senate Intelligence Committee report explains, Iraq had no “stockpile” of chemical and biological weapons to turn over to terrorists. The intelligence on that question was contradictory at best. As the Senate report and the 9/11 commission have determined, Saddam Hussein’s regime had no operational relationship with Al Qaeda.

Those were the reasons that the President offered to support his claim that Iraq posed a grave threat to the United States, and a majority of Americans believed him. Had he and his cabinet honestly and carefully explained the available intelligence, they would not have been able to drive the Congress and the nation into war. Attacking Joe Wilson cannot change that dismal truth.