The Libby trial: contortions of power

Sidney Blumenthal
7 February 2007

Few issues more agitated and preoccupied vice-president Dick Cheney in the early months after the declaration of "mission accomplished" in Iraq than former ambassador Joseph Wilson's disclosure that the intelligence underlying the administration's central justification for the invasion was bogus.

So far as the occupation of Iraq was concerned, Cheney was in a triumphal mood. In a speech before a conservative group in Washington on 30 July 2003, he repeated his rationales for the war with a sense of finality: "In Iraq, a dictator with a deep and bitter hatred of the United States, who built, possessed and used weapons of mass destruction and cultivated ties to
terrorists, is no more."

Behind his serene public face a distressed vice-president frantically micro-managed a campaign of press leaks to discredit Wilson. Cheney even scripted talking-points to aides about what to tell reporters. And he fretted about what was said on cable TV talk shows like MSNBC's Hardball. His chief agent in this intense effort to discredit Wilson was his chief of staff, I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was finely attuned to his principal's wishes.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. He is the author of 'How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime' (Princeton University Press, 2006). He writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.

Among Sidney Blumenthal's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"The rule of law vs the war paradigm"
(12 July 2006)

"A pattern of calamity: 9/11, Katrina, Iraq"
(6 September 2006)

"The Bob Woodward version"
(18 October 2006)

"Bush's choice, Baker's move"
(1 November 2006)

"Bush's bunker of dreams"
(13 December 2006)

"Jeane Kirkpatrick, shadow of the present" (20 December 2006)

"Washington’s political cleansing"
(17 January 2007)

What Cheney knew

Cheney was distraught over Wilson's revelation that on his mission to Niger he had discovered that Saddam Hussein was not purchasing yellow uranium to develop nuclear weapons and that the documents that allegedly proved it were forgeries. He could have ignored Wilson, whose complaint might have faded into the woodwork.

But Cheney was not trying to correct the record, but to suppress it. He knew that what Wilson had written in his New York Times op-ed of 6 July 2003, and what Wilson had said earlier about it at a public forum, obliquely reported, were accurate. Wilson posed a potential menace not only to the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion but also to the re-election of Bush-Cheney.

Cheney knew that the intelligence for the war had been cooked. He was not obsessed with Wilson because he was angry that Wilson was allegedly falsifying information. Cheney was not seized with a feeling of injustice or a need to inform the public of the truth. Cheney is not a fool. "Cheney knows how to read intelligence reports. He knows how to read classified information", Richard Clarke, former director of counterterrorism on the National Security Council, told me.

Of course, Clarke said, "Cheney had read the reports" that disproved the administration's line. "Cheney knew it was false", said Clarke. What worried Cheney was that he was keenly aware that the so-called intelligence the administration propagated was phony, shabby and shaky. What also peeved him was that Wilson had said that his mission had been triggered by a request from the office of the vice-president.

Behind comedy, conspiracy

In the aftermath of the invasion, as President Bush swaggered in a fighter-pilot's flight suit on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the administration's sway in Washington was at its zenith. The president's poll ratings were sky-high, the Republican control of the Congress airtight and the press corps embedded. Wilson was targeted as an enemy of the state. The same methods that had been used to whip up support for the war were now deployed against the straggler.

Cheney's overbearing intensity was transmitted through his chief-of-staff. Once again, a compliant press would be exploited to do their bidding.

Libby's obedience produced a comedy of errors wrapped inside a conspiracy. Time and again, the efficient, experienced and loyal aide told the grand jury that it was not he who told selected journalists that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, was responsible for sending him to Niger, but the journalists who, one after another, had told him about her.

None of the favoured reporters to whom Libby retailed the story published or broadcast it, neither Judith Miller of the New York Times nor Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press. Nor did Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, propelled into action, manage to sell it to NBC's David Gregory or Time magazine's John Dickerson.

(The Fleischer incident contains several layers of sociology. Libby had never deigned before to have lunch with Fleischer. In the Bush White House pecking order, the press secretary ranked far beneath the vice-president's chief-of-staff. Libby, who had written a novel and prided himself on his cultural acumen, began his conversation by saying to Fleischer that what he was telling him was "hush-hush" and "on the QT"- a line whose provenance was apparently lost on the press secretary - quoted from the gossipmonger played by Danny DeVito in the film L.A. Confidential.)

Libby told the grand jury lies within a lie (about being the source for reporters who wrote no stories) to sustain another lie - that the office of the vice-president hadn't set in motion Wilson's report - and he was subsequently indicted on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

On 21 February 2002, Wilson left for his mission to Niger, where he found no evidence of Saddam seeking uranium. Before he returned, on 1 March, the state department's intelligence and research bureau (INR) circulated its analysis, "Niger: Sale of Uranium to Iraq Is Unlikely."

About a week later, the CIA produced its own report, based on Wilson's and other assessments, but that did not deter Cheney from declaring on three Sunday TV interviews on 24 March that Saddam was indeed trying to make nuclear weapons. Cheney was briefed on the CIA report immediately before or after his portentous remarks on television (the CIA briefer, Craig Schmall, testified in the Libby trial that Cheney "did ask" for and "received" the report in "early 2002.")

The road to sixteen words

In early September 2002, senior administration officials - Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and national-security advisor Condoleezza Rice - launched an intensive campaign to persuade public opinion of Saddam's nuclear threat. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud", said Rice. When the White House speechwriters and NSC staff sought to insert the Niger claim into a speech Bush was to deliver at the United Nations on 11 September 2001, the CIA told them it was unproved and the charge was stricken from the text.

The White House tried again, this time to get the accusation included in a Bush speech on 7 October delivered in Cincinnati on the eve of the congressional vote on the "authorisation for the use of military force against Iraq" (AUMF). Before the speech, on 5 October and 6 October the CIA sent two memos warning the White House to delete the reference, and it was removed from the speech.

On 11 October, the AUMF passed overwhelmingly on the administration's assurances that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and was pursuing nuclear weapons. The casus belli for pre-emptive war was at the heart of the resolution.

It read: "Iraq had an advanced nuclear weapons development program that was much closer to producing a nuclear weapon than intelligence reporting had previously indicated." More than any other, this incendiary line had galvanised the public in support of an invasion, had prompted Congress to pass the resolution, and was based on sheer disinformation the White House had repeatedly been warned against using - and had dropped twice. Yet it was advanced as the central premise of congressional approval, though the White House, perhaps Cheney above all, knew that it was false.

In December, Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the United Nations's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), sent the White House and the NSC a letter informing them that the Niger documents were forgeries and should not be used as evidence. Feeling a sense of urgency, he made a series of calls to the White House but received no reply of any kind.

On 12 January 2003, the state department's INR sent a memo to the CIA explaining "that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries." The next day, the chief INR Iraq nuclear analyst circulated a memo warning that "the uranium purchase agreement probably is a hoax."

That month, the senior African analyst for the National Intelligence Council wrote an authoritative memo that the Washington Post reported "was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq."

Despite these numerous red flags, President Bush uttered his infamous sixteen words in his State of the Union address on 28 January 2003: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

A neo-conservative member of the NSC, Robert Joseph, had contrived to sneak the falsehood into the speech by attributing it to British intelligence.

On 5 February, secretary of state Colin Powell made the case for war before the United Nations. In preparing for his speech he discarded a lengthy memo from Libby because Powell and his people believed it was filled with unproven charges. Ultimately, however, Powell's speech still contained more than two dozen falsehoods and was exposed as based on disinformation.

In fact, CIA officers believed they had cautioned Powell against using material they had already disproved. Tyler Drumheller, CIA station chief in Europe, in an interview published this week in Der Spiegel, said: "So the first thing I thought, having worked in the government all my life, was that we probably gave Powell the wrong speech. We checked our files and found out that they had just ignored it. The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy."

On 16 March, Cheney appeared on Meet the Press, where he attacked ElBaradei's credibility and insisted that Saddam had nuclear weapons. "And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong." Three days later, the invasion of Iraq was launched.

A mindset revealed

Upon the publication of Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times on 6 May that described the Wilson mission but did not identify him, Cheney went into a fury. Libby was dispatched to unearth material about Wilson. He called Robert Grenier, chief of the CIA's counterterrorism unit, on 11 June and learned from him the identity of Valerie Plame, according to Grenier's testimony on 24 January in the Libby trial.

From that moment, Libby began his disinformation campaign that she was responsible for sending her husband on the mission, which was authorised by higher CIA officials. Under oath to Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury, Libby claimed that he first learned about her identity from Tim Russert on 10 July. (Grenier, for his part, was forced out of the CIA in early 2006 for opposing the administration's torture policy.)

The INR memo on Wilson, released as a trial exhibit, disproved the additional falsehood peddled by the Republican report of the senate intelligence committee of 2004, which claimed Wilson had in fact bolstered the case that Saddam was seeking uranium in Niger - a report cited by the Washington Post editorial page to label Wilson as untruthful, a crucial element in the smear campaign.

In his meeting with Judith Miller, according to her testimony on the witness stand, Libby confided that the CIA "was beginning to back-pedal from the unequivocal intelligence" it had provided pre-war about Saddam's nuclear programme.

Of course, that was a complete lie. Libby was deliberately misleading the reporter, and covering up the CIA's many warnings and reports to the contrary as he tried to get her to publish falsehoods about Wilson and reveal Plame's identity. Libby appealed to Miller's sense of justice. The CIA, he told her, was engaged in "a perverted war of leaks" against the wholly innocent administration.

In October 2003, neo-conservative under-secretary of defence Douglas Feith sent the senate intelligence committee a classified report, "Summary of Body of Intelligence on Iraq-al Qaeda Contacts", a farrago of disinformation that had been the basis of the Libby memo given to Powell.

Feith had been in charge of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, a parallel intelligence unit that stovepiped disinformation from Iraqi exiles to the office of the vice-president and the NSC with a stamp of approval that evaded the normal channels of verifying intelligence. Within weeks, Feith's report was leaked to the neo-conservative Weekly Standard and published under the headline: "Case Closed: The U.S. Government's Secret Memo Detailing Cooperation Between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden."

On 9 January 2004, Cheney took it upon himself, in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, to promote the Weekly Standard story as "the best source of information." Cheney's support for the disinformation continued through the 2004 campaign and beyond.

Cheney is scheduled to testify soon at the federal courthouse as a defence witness, where he will be questioned about his direction of the operation in which Libby acted as his pawn. Meanwhile, a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress debates resolutions against Bush's escalation of the war, haunted by the original authorisation for the use of military force, which was approved with a naive trust that on a matter of war, the president and the vice-president would tell the truth.

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