Libby: One More Twist in the Yellowcake Road

So much for, "No man is above the law."

The chief prosecutor, jury, trial judge -- a Republican he himself appointed to the bench. The federal appeals panel. The majority of public opinion. All ignored.

I know, I know. The president was within his constitutional rights commuting Scooter Libby's sentence for perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice. Article Two, Section 2 and all that. He claimed Libby's two-and-a-half-year prison sentence was "excessive."

But Bush's action does violate the official Department of Justice's Standards for Considering Commutation Petitions ("Requests for commutation generally are not accepted unless and until a person has begun serving that sentence. Nor are commutation requests generally accepted from persons who are presently challenging their convictions or sentences through appeal or other court proceeding.")

And keep in mind, this is a man who famously pledged during the 2000 campaign, "In my administration, we will ask not only what is legal, but what is right; not what the lawyers allow, but what the public deserves."

Nor was the announcement of Libby's commutation exactly what you'd call a Profile in Courage. President Bush didn't come out and make a public statement to the media and the country he's supposed to lead. Instead, a brief press release slithered out as he returned to Washington after his Kennebunk meet with Vladimir Putin.

That's the kind of guy this president is. You just know that if the Internet had been around when Dubya was in school he would have broken up with a girl via e-mail rather than tell her face-to-face.

Yes, it's a sop to George Bush's conservative base at a time when part of the reason for his basement-level approval ratings is vast right-wing dissatisfaction (Even the coquettish Ann Coulter called President Bush a "nincompoop" last week. Monday's Washington Post described him as "a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation... No modern president has experienced such a sustained rejection by the American public.").

But that's not the real story. Nor is the story the crimes for which Libby was going to prison. It's not even the original outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent by Libby, Karl Rove and others.

It's the continuing effort to hide the truth behind the Iraq war; that we had no overwhelmingly compelling reason to invade that country, especially when so much remained -- and remains -- to be done against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The accusations that Saddam was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden were false. And long before war began, the reported existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was known to be a sham.

The visit of Valerie Plame's husband Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate allegations that the African country was selling yellowcake uranium to Iraq was just part of the unraveling of the WMD hoax. That's why the administration sought to hide his findings and discredit him, leading Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, to leak Plame's name and then lie about it.

In the current New York Review of Books, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and espionage expert Thomas Powers uses a spate of recent memoirs to dismantle the notion that the belief in the existence of Iraqi WMD's was just an honest intelligence mistake. He writes that according to Tyler Drumheller, former chief of the CIA's European division, as early as the evening after 9/11, David Manning, foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair, said to CIA director George Tenet, "I hope we all can agree that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and not be tempted to launch any attacks on Iraq."

Tenet replied, "Absolutely. We all agree on that. Some might want to link the issues but none of us wants to go that route."

But Cheney did and so did Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Libby and the other members of the neocon gang. George Bush quickly was on board, too.

When the vice president's attempts to prove a link between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence proved unsuccessful, they ramped up the WMD wardrums with stories of aluminum tubes for centrifuges, mobile weapons labs and yellowcake. Powers writes, "The claim that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger was not only weak but was based, if that is the word, on evidence, if that is the word, that was fabricated in so obvious a manner that the CIA claims not to have seen the documents till very late in the day."

In fact, the yellowcake story had been dismissed as bogus by European intelligence agencies even before 9/11, and when shown some documents in the spring of 2002, the French spy in charge of WMD investigations said, "All it took was a glance. They were junk. Crude fakes." Joe Wilson's fact-finding trip to Niger provided further evidence of the scam.

Powers reports, "The yellowcake story didn't stand up for long, but it didn't need to stand up for long. An echo effect put it into play after Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, included it in the list of scary signs that Saddam was preparing trouble for the world: 'The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.'"

By the time Secretary of State Colin Powell eliminated the yellowcake story from his February 2003 speech before the UN, the damage was done. And it was better if Joe Wilson and his wife's reputations were besmirched than to have the true story believed.

In his official statement, President Bush says believes it's Libby's reputation that has been "forever damaged," adding, "his wife and young children have also suffered immensely."

Nearly 3600 American men and women and an estimated more than 70,000 Iraqi civilians are dead in Iraq. Their families suffer immensely. Scooter Libby, aka Federal Inmate No. 28301-016, walks free.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

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