at the Libby trial showed a vice president obsessed with retaliating
against former ambassador Joseph Wilson for writing, in the New York
Times op-ed section on July 6, 2003, that intelligence had been
"twisted" to justify attacking Iraq. How to explain why the normally
stoic, phlegmatic Cheney went off the deep end?
President Dick Cheney can be forgiven for feeling provoked. The Times,
having been led by Cheney and others down a garden path littered with
weapons of mass destruction that were not really there, did some
retaliation of its own with the snide title it gave Wilson's op-ed: "What I Did Not Find in Africa." Adding insult to injury, Wilson chose
to tell Washington Post reporters, also on July 6, in language that
rarely escapes an ambassador's lips, the bogus report regarding Iraq
obtaining uranium from Niger "begs the question regarding what else
they are lying about." That threw down the gauntlet, and Cheney had to
worry that others who knew about the lies might feel it safe to go to
the press and spill the beans. Retaliation had to be swift and as
unambiguous as possible.
successfully browbeat then-CIA director George Tenet and other
malleable managers of intelligence into doing his bidding, Cheney
immediately tried to get the CIA to support the cockamamie story about
Iraq getting uranium from Niger. He was no doubt surprised to be
stiff-armed by Tenet, who had been warning senior officials about that
bogus report for almost ten months. On July 7, the administration
publicly conceded that the Iraq-Niger fable should not have been
included in the State of the Union address.
July 8, Cheney mounted his counteroffensive. Libby was sent to Bush
administration darling Judith Miller of the New York Times to prove
Wilson's charges wrong: the White House did not "twist" intelligence;
the CIA made us do it. To prove that, Libby was given permission to
release a passage buried on page 24 of the 90-page National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 1, 2002, claiming that Iraq was
"vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake.... A foreign
government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to
send several tons of 'pure uranium' (probably yellowcake) to Iraq."
intended this revelation to hoist Tenet on his own petard. Under great
pressure from Cheney, Tenet and his timorous team had acquiesced in
allowing the Iraq-Niger fable into the NIE Tenet signed on October 1.
It had already become the centerpiece of the administration's cynical
but successful effort to get Congressional approval, culminating in the
October 10/11 vote for war.
the midst of all this, Tenet was successful in getting the Iraq-Niger
story out of President George W. Bush's key speech on Iraq on October
7. Yes, you read that right. Tenet signed the NIE on October 1, and a
few days later successfully insisted that this dubious intelligence be
taken out of the president's speech on October 7.
piece of "intelligence" smelled so bad that then-Secretary of State
Colin Powell, who threw everything but the kitchen sink into his
(in)famous UN speech of February 5, 2003, deemed it below his very low
threshold. A month later, the International Atomic Energy Agency
director, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the UN Security Council that the
documents upon which the story was based were "obvious"
Roberts (R-Kan.), then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
rebuffed an urgent appeal from ranking member Jay Rockefeller (D-West
Virginia) to have the FBI investigate the forgery. Cheney told him not
to, and so Roberts said that would be "inappropriate." Which raises the
question, whom are they trying to protect? I don't think either Dick or
Lynne Cheney has a cottage industry of forgery preparation, but they
are in close touch with those who do. I continue to believe Cheney and
Libby were the intellectual authors of that incredibly clumsy
was plenty else to enrage Dick Cheney. It is a safe bet that he went
bananas when he learned that Joe Wilson's wife was a CIA officer - and
working on the issue of highest priority, how to prevent countries like
Iraq and Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
smelled a rat. It was easy to jump to the conclusion that Valerie Plame
and her knowledgeable colleagues would have seen right through the
Iraq-Niger report. The embassy in Niger had poured cold water on it,
and a very senior US Army general, who had journeyed to Niger, came to
the and four-star Marine General Carlton Fulford, who visited Niger
and spoke with Niger's president and foreign minister on Feb. 24, 2002,
the same conclusion. So here was Plame, and by extension her CIA
colleagues, preparing to administer the coup de grace. The CIA would
send a person with deep substantive expertise on the subject and also
very good contacts in Niger (from previous service in Niger and other
African countries, not to mention Baghdad).
there was no love lost between Cheney and the CIA. And vice versa,
Cheney having destroyed the agency's reputation for objective analysis
by insisting on the creation of a fraudulent NIE to get Congress to
approve an unnecessary war. The CIA could not very well say, well,
Cheney made us do it. Cheney, on the other hand, was free to say, well,
the CIA misled us badly - and did say that.
would have seen the daggers out for him, with the Plame/Wilson team
commissioned to administer the coup de grace. For who was in better
position to know how spurious the Iraq-Niger report was than the woman
professional leading the clandestine effort to collect intelligence on
precisely that subject? The agency, Cheney must have thought, was out
to knock down his favorite report, the premium "evidence" that Iraq was
"reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, for what it was - a
The Worst of Times
op-ed of July 6 could not have come at a worse time for the White
House. Barely four months into invasion of Iraq, the "justifications"
had already evaporated.
CIA analysts were still insisting, correctly, that there were no meaningful ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq,
despite Tenet's acquiescence to Powell's request that Tenet sit behind
him on camera as Powell wove his web of half- and un-truths at the UN.
(Watching Tenet sit impassively as Powell spoke of a "sinister nexus"
between al-Qaeda and Iraq was a tremendous blow to the morale of the
courageous analysts who had resisted that particular recipe for cooking
intelligence. As for their colleagues working on WMD, most of them had
long since been pressured to cave in to Cheney's pressure during the
dozen visits he made to CIA headquarters and were not as incensed.)
No trace had been found of weapons of mass destruction.
In some quarters (even in the corporate press) the casus belli had
morphed into a casus bellylaughi. Reports in Fox News that Saddam had
somehow transported his WMD to Syria undetected (or maybe buried them
in the desert) elicited widespread ridicule. Constant reminders of how
difficult it is to find something in such a large country as Iraq -
"the size of California" - were wearing thin. The attempt to associate
uranium enrichment with the (in)famous aluminum tubes had, well, gone
down the tubes. And the "mobile biological weapons laboratories,"
initially applauded by the president himself as proof the
administration had found the WMD, turned out to be balloon-making
machines for artillery practice, as the Iraqis had said. It was getting
this new challenge from Joe Wilson and his obnoxiously expert wife made
for a very bad hair day. Cheney readily saw it as payback by honest CIA
professionals for all the crass arm-twisting they had experienced at
the hands of Cheney and kemosabe Libby. It is not hard to put oneself
in Cheney's frame of mind as he witnessed the gathering storm.
of all, the Iraq-Niger caper was particularly damaging, since it was
tied directly to the office of the vice president. There was that
unanswered question regarding who commissioned the forgery in the first
place. And not even Judy Miller could help this time, since most
thinking folks knew her to be a shill for the Bush administration.
yet this insubordination, this deliberate sabotage, had to be answered.
Something had to be done, and quickly, so that others privy to
sensitive information about the litany of lies leading up to the war
would not think they could follow Wilson's example and go to the press.
is hard to believe that the best thing Cheney could come up with was to
out Wilson's wife. It is not even clear that this is what he had in
mind. It may have been no more than a decision to name her,
irrespective of her cover status, in order to suggest that she had been
responsible for sending her husband to Niger on an all expenses-paid
"boondoggle!" - that somehow nepotism was involved - as if that would
somehow impeach Wilson's negative findings regarding the Iraq-Niger
fable. Cheney clearly felt that something had to be done - anything. It
seems a mark of desperation that this is the best they could come up
with. They may have concluded that launching a hardknuckle campaign
against Wilson might at least deter others from becoming patriotic
truth tellers of the kind Joseph Wilson has modeled so well. Initially,
this tactic succeeded. More recently a cottage industry of patriotic
truth tellers has taken shape, and (surprise, surprise!) even some
among the mainstream media have given them ink and air time.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical
Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was a CIA analyst for 27
years and is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence
Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)