NEW YORK -- The indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald provides the most cogent and visible evidence to date of the criminal mindset that exists inside the Bush administration regarding the decision to invade Iraq.
The indictment is linked to Libby's involvement in illegally revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame, in violation of U.S. law, and the resultant conspiracy to deny and cover up the fact that this crime had in fact taken place. But the real crime committed here is the deception leading to war carried out by the Bush administration, in particular the activities of the vice president, Dick Cheney, and his chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby, which is why they felt they needed to go after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Plame.
The outing of Plame was just the tip of this criminal enterprise. The specific charge - making false statements to a grand jury - is in fact the best indicator of the true nature of the crimes committed by Libby and, by extension, the Bush administration.
Acting at the behest of the vice president, Libby was a key figure behind inserting dubious and unverified intelligence data alleging the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction into the public arena, either by leaking this information to reporters such as The New York Times' Judith Miller, or by having it referenced in high-profile speeches such as the president's 2003 State of the Union Address or Colin Powell's now-infamous presentation to the Security Council in February 2003.
Cheney and Libby were behind the decision to mislead Congress, in particular the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's investigation into the reasons why the U.S. intelligence community had gotten it so wrong about Iraqi WMD capabilities. (Contrary to the much-hyped case made by the Bush administration in justifying the decision to invade Iraq, no WMD were found in Iraq, and the CIA subsequently acknowledged that all Iraqi WMD had been destroyed by the summer of 1991).
To Cheney and Libby, Joseph Wilson had committed the ultimate sin when he publicly challenged President Bush's case for war with Iraq by exposing the fraudulent nature of the administration's very public claims that Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium "yellowcake" from Niger.
If true, the "yellowcake" story would have bolstered the president and vice president's assertions that Iraq had resurrected its nuclear weapons program, thus legitimizing the case for war. But the reality is that the "yellowcake" claim, like all of the Cheney- and Libby-peddled intelligence, was specious, in this case derived from forged documents.
Wilson's exposure of this fraud was seen not only as an act of betrayal, but also rightly recognized as a threat to the entire charade that was the Bush administration's fabricated case for war. If left unchallenged, Wilson's claims could have initiated a process that would have unraveled the entire fabric of deception and lies woven by Cheney, Libby and the Bush administration about the non-existent Iraqi WMD threat. As far as Cheney and Libby were concerned, truth was the enemy, and truth-tellers were to be attacked and destroyed.
And now the lies have come home to roost. But the indictment of Libby must not be the final punctuation in this tragic tale of lies and deception. Instead, it should serve as a much-needed boost for Congress, the media and ultimately the American people to carry out a massive re-examination of the totality of the processes that took place in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
The lies of Cheney, Libby and the Bush administration regarding Iraqi WMD did not take place in a vacuum. Congressional checks and balances, especially in the form of relevant oversight committees, were non-existent; the few hearings held served as little more than sham hearings designed to amplify a case for war that was accepted at face value, without question, despite the fact that all involved knew the supporting evidence was either non-existent or paper-thin.
The fourth estate was likewise reduced to little more than a propagandistic extension of the White House and Pentagon, losing any claim to journalistic integrity through its slavish parroting, without question, of anything that painted Saddam Hussein's regime in a negative light, especially when it came to the issue of retained WMD.
At the receiving end of this tangled web of lies and incompetence are the American people. Having been duped into a war that has to date cost the lives of over 2,000 members of the armed forces (not to mention hundreds of our coalition partners and tens of thousands of Iraqis), the question now is how the citizenry of the world's most powerful representative democracy will respond.
Void of a major backlash on the part of the American people in response to the deliberate falsification and deceit that has transpired regarding Iraq and the now-debunked case for war, the Libby indictment may prove to be little more than an exercise in damage control.
Already senior Republican officials, such as Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, are calling the Libby indictment a mere "technicality." Right-wing pundits refer to the indictment as the "criminalization of politics," as if lying one's way into an illegal war of aggression is somehow akin to politics as usual.
If the American people go along with such blatant attempts at obscuring the reality of the criminal conspiracy that has been committed, then it is perhaps time we finally lay to rest this experiment we call American democracy. At the very minimum, Congress should be compelled into action. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and in particular its two senior senators, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, should not only complete their investigation into how the Bush administration used (or misused) intelligence to formulate Iraq policy, but also re-open its initial report into the so-called "intelligence failure" regarding the flawed WMD assessments, with the intent to indict any and all who conspired to keep relevant information from, or made false statements to, that committee during the conduct of its original investigation.
There must be a wider investigation into the totality of the criminal conspiracy undertaken by the Bush administration to defraud
Congress and the American people about the issue of war with Iraq, and in particular the case used to justify the invasion of that country. The crime that was committed goes far beyond the outing of a rogue diplomat's CIA-affiliated spouse, as serious as that charge may be. The deliberate and systematic manner in which the Bush administration, from the president on down, peddled misleading, distorted and fabricated information to Congress and the American people represents a frontal assault on the very system of government the United States of America proclaims to champion.
Scott Ritter is a former chief U.N. weapons inspector who participated in 52 missions in Iraq, 14 of which he led. He is the author of the newly released "Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the U.N. and Overthrow Saddam Hussein" (Nation Books).
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