WASHINGTON - While to people living outside the Washington ”Beltway,” the current affair over the disclosure by top White House officials of the identity of a covert intelligence officer may seem somewhat esoteric, the stakes could not be higher.
It is not just that Karl Rove, Pres. George W. Bush's top political adviser, and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis ”Scooter” Libby, may have violated a 1982 law to protect U.S. spies and could face criminal indictments, at least for perjury or obstruction of justice.
The case may also prove to be one more string -- albeit a very central one -- that, if pulled with sufficient determination, could well unravel a very tangled ball of yarn, and one that would confirm recent revelations in the British press -- the so-called Downing Street memo -- that the Bush administration was ”fixing the facts” about the alleged threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in order to grease the rails to war.
It may also expose how a close-knit group of neo-conservatives and Republican activists both inside and outside the administration also waged war against professionals in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the State Department in the run-up to war precisely because, as experts, they repeatedly came up with new ”facts” that contradicted the propaganda of both the White House and its backers. Facts that somehow either had to be ”fixed” or discredited.
If special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and his grand jury find that the White House and its ”non-governmental” supporters conducted a deliberate campaign to discredit Amb. Joseph Wilson, in part by revealing the identity of his CIA spouse, Valerie Plame, many Republican lawmakers, who are increasingly nervous and tight-lipped about the case, will be forced to distance themselves from Bush and the Iraq war, making it far more difficult for him to rally support for new adventures, such as air strikes of covert actions against Iran.
”This case is about Iraq, not Niger,” wrote the New York Times' Frank Rich in a widely noted column Sunday entitled ”Follow the Uranium,” a reference to Wilson's trip in February 2002 to Niger to follow up on an intelligence document -- since found to have been forged -- that appeared to show that Hussein had bought a large quantity of yellowcake uranium from that African nation, presumably for his alleged nuclear weapons program.
”The real victims are the American people, not the Wilsons,” Rich went on. ”The real culprit ...is not Mr. Rove but the gang that sent American sons and daughters to war on trumped-up grounds and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from fighting the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. That's why the stakes are so high...”
Wilson, of course, first suggested that that ”fixing facts” was precisely what the administration was doing when he wrote his Jul. 6, 2003 Times op-ed. The article recounted how he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the yellowcake report, found that such a transfer was ”highly unlikely,” and reported his conclusions orally to CIA debriefers after his return.
He also wrote that he originally understood that Cheney had asked the CIA that such a mission be carried out and thus assumed it had been reported back up to the vice president's office.
The fact that references to Hussein's alleged acquisition of yellowcake kept popping up in Bush's and Cheney's speeches over the following months, however, prompted him to pose the key question in his article: ”Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?”
Eight days later, Washington Post columnist Robert Novak, citing ”two senior administration officials” as sources, not only publicly identified Plame as Wilson's wife, but also stressed that Plame, whose expertise in the agency was weapons of mass destruction (WMD), had proposed her husband for the mission in part because he had served in Niger.
In fact, as a result of new information that has come to light over the past week, it is now known that both Rove and Libby told or confirmed to at least two other reporters before Novak's article appeared that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and that she had played a role in his selection.
That the aim of these contacts was to discredit Wilson also now appears beyond question. Indeed, citing sources close to the grand jury investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday that Rove and Libby were ”especially intent on undercutting Wilson's credibility,” to the point where it caused some consternation in the White House.
The White House ”off-the-record” campaign against Wilson was supplemented by a very loud ”on-the-record” effort by prominent neo-conservatives and their news media, including the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, The Weekly Standard, and The National Review Online.
The last kicked it off Jul. 11 with an article by Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the only person who was neither a journalist nor an administration official who claims to have known about Plame's relationship to Wilson before Novak reported about it.
While May, a former communications director for the National Republican Committee, did not identify Wilson's relationship with Plame, he included a litany of ”talking points” about Wilson's objectivity. ”(H)e's a pro-Saudi, leftist partisan with an ax to grind,” May declared.
A week later, May published a second article in which he broadened his attack to the CIA in general, calling the selection of ”a retired, Bush-bashing diplomat” for such a sensitive mission a ”dereliction of duty,” suggesting the choice showed either incompetence or a deliberate effort to derail the administration's march to war.
It was a familiar theme that he and other neo-conservative critics of the agency, such as Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Frank Gaffney, Newt Gingrich, and the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol -- all of whom serve on FDD's board of directors and were outspoken supporters of the war -- have voiced frequently over the past several years, and particularly in the run-up to the war itself.
Indeed, just as lower level CIA officials were discussing sending Wilson to Niger, top agency officials several stories higher were already discussing how to implement a new Top Secret intelligence order from Bush ordering the CIA to support the U.S. military in achieving regime change in Iraq, according to the Bob Woodward's 'Plan of Attack.'
And just as the CIA debriefers were presumably compiling their assessment of the yellowcake report based in part on Wilson's mission after his return in March 2002, Cheney was declaring publicly for the first time that Hussein was ”actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time.”
With the CIA having been given its marching orders and Cheney squarely on the record, top agency officials saw that Wilson's ”facts” would be unwelcome. Three months before the Downing Street memo, the ”fix” was in, and it now appears that Wilson's conclusions were never passed along to the vice president's office.
© 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service