Reading last week about the deceptions perpetrated by the Iraqi defector “Curveball” – it was on his evidence that Colin Powell made the case for war at the United Nations in February 2003 – I found the devastating consequences made all the more real by watching a preview of Fair Game.
Out in the UK on 4 March, this film tells the story of Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame (pictured above), the undercover CIA operative who was outed by the White House aides Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Their action was revenge for an article written by Wilson, a former US ambassador, revealing that Bush administration claims that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger in the 1990s were “not borne out by the facts”.
“Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war,” he wrote in a New York Times article in July 2003, “I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” It was a bombshell, for President Bush had included the yellowcake claim in his State of the Union address a month before Powell addressed the UN. The CIA director George Tenet later had to admit that it should not have been in the speech.
I remembered the main facts well, as the week before Wilson’s piece appeared, my then colleagues at the Independent on Sunday Ray Whitaker and Andrew Buncombe had spoken to Wilson and broken the story, although at Wilson’s request they kept his name out of it.
What I was not aware of, then or since, is just what an effect all of this had on Wilson and Plame’s lives. The film, starring an eerily lifelike [ED: lookalike] Naomi Watts as Plame and the ever-excellent Sean Penn as Wilson, brings it home – and some. The couple received death threats. Their address and pictures of their home were posted on the internet. Wilson’s consulting work dwindled. Plame, an outstanding and brave operative, was dismissed as being a second-rater, someone the CIA was happy to have to let go. Their marriage almost collapsed under the strain. To the Bush White House, however, they were “fair game”.
Beyond Wilson and Plame’s woes, her outing also put at risk Iraqi scientists who had provided her with information about Saddam’s weapons programmes and whom she had promised to help reach safety amid the post-invasion chaos. The film suggests that some of them, and their families, may have died as a result of her exposure.
And all of it was about the US administration’s determination not to take into account any evidence which suggested that Saddam had neither WMDs nor the capacity to produce them. They didn’t want to hear that aluminium tubes purchased by Iraq were almost certainly not meant for atomic centrifuges. They didn’t want to know there was no yellowcake. They didn’t want to listen to the scientists Plame had contacted – who said not only that Saddam’s weapons programmes had been destroyed years before and were still in disarray, but were incredulous that the US could not have been aware that this was the case.
As the NYT columnist Nicholas D Kristof put it shortly before Wilson’s article appeared:
Ambiguities were lost, and doubters were discouraged from speaking up. “It was a foregone conclusion that every photo of a trailer truck would be a ‘mobile bioweapons lab’ and every tanker truck would be ‘filled with weaponised anthrax’,” a former military intelligence officer said. “None of the analysts in military uniform had the option to debate the vice-president, secretary of defence and the secretary of state.”
Kristof concluded: “I don’t believe that the president deliberately lied to the public in an attempt to scare Americans into supporting his war.” We may choose to differ with him on that. With his last sentence, however, we can certainly concur: “But it does look as if ideologues in the administration deceived themselves about Iraq’s nuclear programmes – and then deceived the American public as well.”
This may all seem like something we’ve heard before – indeed, it is precisely that – but we should certainly care to revisit and remember these incidents. The well-remunerated retirements of the two chief warmongers, Bush and Blair, demand it. We should not let the ease with which they forget the inconvenient truths of how their case for war was constructed on lies, guesswork and wishful thinking transfer to a wider public that may have grown weary of pondering their deceit – deceit on a scale and with such murderous consequences that, on some level, people may not wish to believe their elected leaders were capable of it.
But they were, and we should not forget it. The fires of outrage should be kept well tended. And that is why, quite apart from the superb performances and gripping screenplay, I heartily recommend you see Fair Game when it opens next month. At the very least, the next time you see “aw-shucks” W or oh-so-plausible, oh-so-likeable Tony on television, it may remind you that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”.