Testimony 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?
Vice 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.
Having 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.
On 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 (NIR) 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
Cheney 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.
In 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.
This 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
Pat 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 operation.
There 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.
Cheney 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 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).
Already, 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
Cheney 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 fraud.
Wilson's 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 very embarrassing.
So 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.
Worst 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.
And 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.
It 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
Originally run on TruthOut.org