Remember the cause of the CIA leak

The fascination with the subject of which official knew what about Valerie Plame and how they peddled the information should not distract us from contemplating the great con game that the administration played with the American people on the road to war in Iraq.

Clearly the principals chose to assert, whether true or not, that only an invasion would spare America from the imminent danger of Iraqi nuclear and/or biological weapons. From early on, they bought and retailed a dubious bill of goods.

Let's go back to October 2002, when Vice President Dick Cheney received an Italian intelligence report about Iraqi efforts to buy uranium in the African country of Niger. The report came to the CIA from a shady Italian businessman who produced a forged document, apparently written on stolen stationery from the Nigerian Embassy in Rome. The CIA doubted the authenticity of that document; the White House seemed more willing to credit it.

You can understand, then, how furious the White House Iraq Group must have been when Ambassador Joseph Wilson, sent to Niger to gather support for the story of Iraq's effort to buy uranium, instead returned with word that there was no evidence to support that supposition and then went public with his conclusion.

The Pentagon had one other source, equally dubious, on weapons of mass destruction. That was the smooth-talking Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, who offered a lot of inside information, including word from professed Iraqi scientists. Mr. Chalabi had not only a product, but a market, a friendly relationship with Judith Miller of The New York Times. She wrote a series of stories about Iraqi weapons that her paper ultimately had to disown and apologize for.

But the Bush administration continued to insert alleged Iraqi weapons programs into speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, culminating in a presentation to the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin Powell that Mr. Powell now bitterly regrets.

So let's not get too bogged down in details of the coverup and the leak. More important is what was being covered up - the sometimes frantic effort to justify a war that didn't seem to have much justification.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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