• U.S.

Pinning the Line on the Man

3 minute read
Matthew Cooper with Elaine Shannon, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

Robert Joseph is not a household name, but it is just possible that he will become one. Joseph, a senior staffer at the National Security Council (NSC), is the current answer to the question “Who put those 16 words in the President’s speech?” In January Joseph faxed a paragraph to CIA official Alan Foley and then hammered out by telephone the now infamous line in the State of the Union address about Iraq trying to acquire uranium from Africa. After that the accounts differ. According to a source close to the Senate Intelligence Committee–before which Foley, along with CIA Director George Tenet, appeared last week–Foley insisted that a reference to Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Niger be removed. According to the source, Foley claimed that Joseph was “zealous” about keeping it in and “really didn’t want to take no for an answer.” Other officials familiar with the hearing thought Foley’s account did not portray Joseph as adamant. Indeed, Bush Administration sources describe the telephone call as agreeable, saying Joseph proposed changing Niger to Africa, deleting the quantity and attributing it to the British. After which, according to the senior official, Foley “signed off.”

That conversation is likely to remain under scrutiny, and so may Joseph, a member of that little-seen Washington breed, the defense intellectual. As an academic at the National Defense University, the Pentagon’s own think tank, Joseph penned hawkish monographs in obscure journals about national missile defense, one of his great passions. He served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations and under Reagan had the tongue-twisting title of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy as a colleague of Richard Perle, a well-known hawk. Joseph’s current post makes him the White House point man on countering nuclear proliferation. He was deeply involved in making sure the current Administration withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 with Russia–a move that defense hawks believe was a necessary prelude to building a national missile defense. Joseph is also a firm believer in the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. At a Washington conference last October, he made the case that traditional deterrence does not work with rogue states such as Iraq. “There are no mutual understandings with these states,” he said. “We must, if necessary, act pre-emptively.”

Frank Gaffney, a conservative foreign-policy commentator, calls Joseph “one of the unsung heroes of the cold war.” A former Administration official who worked with Joseph at the NSC describes him less charitably as “an ideologue.” But it is his version of how those 16 words made it into the State of the Union that some Republican members of the House and Senate intelligence committees are eager to obtain under oath. That has become especially interesting now that Tenet reportedly acknowledged when he testified last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the questionable line in the text had not been brought to his attention. The White House, however, doesn’t like the idea of Joseph’s heading to the Hill. A senior Administration official tells TIME that “we’re going to continue to work with [Congress], but nobody’s testifying. We’re ruling out testifying.” Robert Joseph’s war may be just beginning. –By Matthew Cooper. With Elaine Shannon, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

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