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Wilson claims Cheney targeted him for discounting uranium claims

WASHINGTON—A former U.S. diplomat told Knight Ridder on Thursday that Vice President Dick Cheney's office mounted a campaign to discredit him after he challenged President Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein had secretly tried to buy uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons.

The campaign, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV charged, included calls to reporters revealing that his wife was an undercover CIA officer.

Wilson spoke the day before a book he's written, "The Politics of Truth," goes on sale.

He visited the West African nation of Niger in February 2002 on a CIA-sponsored trip to examine the claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium there. Wilson found no evidence to substantiate the allegation and briefed officials in Washington.

Nevertheless, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, Bush said Iraq had secretly tried to buy uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapon.

"According to a number of sources from different walks of life, there was a meeting held in March (2003) in the offices of the vice president ... chaired by either the vice president himself or more likely Scooter Libby, in which the decision was made to do a `work-up' on me," Wilson said. "In other words, to find out everything they could about me."

Libby is Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

"They clearly came across my wife's name and they decided to put my wife's name out on the street" as part of a "campaign to drag my wife into the public square and beat her to get at me," Wilson said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan didn't respond to Wilson's allegation and questioned his motives instead, saying Wilson supports Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush's Democratic rival in the November election.

"Mr. Wilson has publicly stated that he has a political agenda aimed at defeating the president," McClellan said.

Cheney's spokesman, Kevin Kellems, answered a call for comment but had no immediate response.

Wilson said he'd endorsed Kerry, but that his book was mostly about his 23-year diplomatic career, which included running the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when he was deputy chief of the mission.

In writing about the uranium episode, Wilson said he was exercising his right to hold his government "accountable."

He said he based his allegation about Cheney's office on "what people inside Washington have told me, people who are close to it, people who for one reason or another are unwilling to speak out or be heard themselves, journalists who have told me that this White House is absolutely ruthless to them."

The publicity is almost certain to revive questions about the bogus, exaggerated or fabricated intelligence that the president used in making his case for war. American troops have suffered their highest monthly casualty toll this month since invading Iraq in March 2003.

The book also is expected to draw new attention to a U.S. grand jury probe into who in the White House leaked the identity of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. It's a federal crime to disclose the names of U.S. intelligence officers.

Wilson said he didn't know who leaked his wife's identity to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak and five other journalists in July 2003.

"It's not that I can actually point my finger and say this is the guy who did it, because I am not doing the investigation," Wilson said.

Only Novak disclosed Plame's name, in a column on July 14, 2003, in which he said his sources were two senior administration officials.

Novak's piece appeared 12 days after The New York Times published an opinion piece by Wilson in which he disclosed that he'd conducted a secret mission to Niger and said that by using the uranium allegation, the Bush administration had "twisted" intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Knight Ridder reported in June 2003 that the CIA had warned the White House some 10 months before the speech that the allegation hadn't checked out.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, the president told the country that "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The charge was intended to bolster Bush's contention that the Iraqi dictator had to be ousted because he was hiding biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs that he could use to arm terrorists.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Joseph Wilson