Making Sense of the Plame Affair

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The Media’s Roving Eye

By Tom Engelhardt

Oh what a tangled web we weave
When we first practice to deceive…

I’ve written regularly about the media’s inability to connect the dots. The other day a reporter out in the far-flung reaches of our imperium wrote in to Tomdispatch pointing to a front-paged dot that no one — myself included — had bothered to pay much attention to or connect to anything at all. In the July 21st Washington Post, Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei wrote a piece, Plame’s Identity Marked as Secret, describing a memo from the State Department’s intelligence experts that Secretary of State Colin Powell had with him on a 5-day trip to Africa he took with the President and his aides that began on July 7, 2003. This was only a day after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson published What I Didn’t Find in Africa on the op-ed page of the New York Times, exposing the Bush administration’s Niger uranium lie. (“Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”); only four days before Time magazine’s Matt Cooper had that conversation “on double super secret background” with Karl Rove and was told that “wilson’s wife… apparently works at the agency on wmd”; only five days before CIA Director George Tenet took a provisional fall for the administration for letting those “16 words” that started the whole thing on Saddam’s supposed search for African uranium for his supposed atomic program into the 2003 State of the Union Address the previous January; only seven days before Robert Novak wrote his now infamous Mission to Niger column outing Joe Wilson’s wife as a CIA agent. (“Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.”)

What an action-packed week for the White House and its operatives. The Pincus/VandeHei piece in the Post focused on the fact that Plame was identified by name in the secret State Department memo Powell had with him on Air Force One. They wrote that the memo “contained information about CIA officer Valerie Plame in a paragraph marked u2018(S)’ for secret, a clear indication that any Bush administration official who read it should have been aware the information was classified, according to current and former government officials.” The rest of the piece went on to discuss who knew what about Plame — with the exception of a single paragraph which indicated that Plame was the least of what the memo was about:

“Almost all of the memo is devoted to describing why State Department intelligence experts did not believe claims that Saddam Hussein had in the recent past sought to purchase uranium from Niger. Only two sentences in the seven-sentence paragraph mention Wilson’s wife.”

“… why State Department intelligence experts did not believe the claims…” So on Air Force One that July 7 was clear and present evidence not just about Valerie Plame’s identity, but that one set of government intelligence experts was ready and willing to debunk the President’s sixteen-word claim of the previous January (and so implicitly undermine the administration’s whole case for a Saddamist nuclear arsenal in the making). It’s worth reminding ourselves that they were hardly the first experts to do so. In the pre-war months, when the documents which supposedly supported the Niger uranium claim first surfaced, they proved so crudely and poorly forged that it took experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency only an afternoon, and nothing more complicated than Google.com, to utterly discredit them. The Director-General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, would inform the UN on March 7, 2003 that they were frauds (though being a foreigner, representing an international agency that seemed to stand in the administration’s path to a much-wanted war, he was thoroughly disparaged and ignored).

Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, the ranking minority member of the Committee on Government Reform, denounced the crude forgeries in an open letter to the President on that March 17, just days before the invasion of Iraq was launched, though his letter was totally ignored by the administration and the media. (“In the last ten days, however, it has become incontrovertibly clear,” he wrote, “that a key piece of evidence you and other Administration officials have cited regarding Iraq’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons is a hoax. What’s more, the Central Intelligence Agency questioned the veracity of the evidence at the same time you and other Administration officials were citing it in public statements. This is a breach of the highest order, and the American people are entitled to know how it happened.”)

To back up even further, Vice President Cheney started the administration’s atomic drumbeat to war in Iraq with a series of speeches on Saddam’s supposed nuclear capabilities and desires beginning in August of 2002. (The crucial role of Cheney, whose eye was first caught by a Defense Intelligence Agency report on the Niger uranium documents back in February 2002, in the events that would become the Plame case, has been poorly covered. The exception to this being the work of former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who returned to the subject in a piece, Iraq-Niger: Cheney and the Forgery, just this week.) In October, the men and woman around the President tried to slip Saddam’s supposed search for uranium in Niger into a speech George was planning to give in Cincinnati and CIA Director Tenet — as reported at the time by Walter Pincus of the Washington Post (who did fine pre-war work on the subject) — went to the mat with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s deputy Stephen Hadley (a hardliner, known to be close to the Vice President, and now National Security Adviser himself) and managed to have the passage cut out of the speech.

In January, Rice, who like the Vice President had been carefully placing Iraqi mushroom clouds over American cities in her speeches, evidently ushered the fraudulent Niger information into the State of the Union speech. Here are the 16 words that could someday (farfetched as it may seem now) bring down an administration: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” It’s a remarkably innocuous sentence nestled, as it was, amid so many hair-raising (and false) claims about Saddam’s Iraq at that moment. (“Before September the 11th,” the President declared, “many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”) And yet those sixteen words, already known inside the administration not to be true, were there because the Bush administration was desperate for some shred of evidence that an Iraqi nuclear program remained in existence, something that could back up those mushroom clouds Cheney and Rice were relocating over the U.S.; they were there because, as Jonathan Schell indicates, connecting the ultimate dots below, nuclear weapons, nuclear dreams, and nuclear fears lay at the heart of the Bush push for war, just as they have lain at the heart of our consciousness since August 6, 1945.

Wilson’s New York Times op-ed on his visit to Niger appeared on the President’s birthday, July 6, 2003 and it was then that the you-know-what hit the fan. Now, let’s add another recently reported dot to our picture. The White House instantly revved up a “damage control” operation — “damage control,” by the way, is a lovely old Watergate term — about which New York Times reporter David Johnson wrote on July 22 (Bush aides worked on damage control at time of CIA leak). That operation was an “effort by the White House that included challenging Wilson’s standing and his credentials,” and at its heart were two officials — the President’s right-hand man Karl Rove and the Vice President’s Chief of Staff I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby (evidently with Hadley pitching in). Not only were they hard at work on the Wilson/Plame front, but, as Johnson revealed last week, they were toiling no less earnestly trying to find a fall-guy for the Niger uranium misinformation in the President’s January speech.

That fall-guy was to be George Tenet on the theory, so essential to the Bush administration’s workings, that you first cherry-pick and manipulate your intelligence information to get the results you want and then, if something goes wrong, you blame the intelligence people. On July 12, 2003, just as the President was returning from Africa, Tenet would issue a statement in which he managed to fall on a sword “which he had first carefully tried to blunt,” as I wrote then, adding:

“In a surprisingly long mea culpa… Tenet managed both to take official responsibility for and acquit the CIA of responsibility for the claim that Saddam Hussein sought Niger u2018yellowcake.’ He managed to produce something like a defense of the CIA in the process, raising far more questions than he could answer even if he wanted to.”

At the time, Tenet’s strange “confession” seemed to me to radiate an undertone of threat — to the administration. Part I-done-it, part we-were-right, it remains a no-less-odd document on rereading two years later. What reporter Johnson reveals is that the oddness of the document may have resulted from its mix of Tenet’s words and, it seems, those of… yes, you guessed it, Rove, Libby, and possibly Hadley. In the period just before July 12th, Johnson informs us, Rove and Libby

“had exchanged e-mails and drafts of a proposed statement by George Tenet… to explain how the disputed wording had gotten into the address. Rove, the president’s political strategist, and Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, coordinated their efforts with Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, who was in turn consulting with Tenet.”

So, to sum up, at just one-remove, from the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser, you have top officials all intent on pinning the tail painfully on the CIA donkey for the President’s “fixed” intelligence (to use the apt word at the heart of the original Downing Street Memo).

Now, add in one more dot: If Rove and Libby were, in the end, unsuccessful in maneuvering Tenet off a gangplank into shark-infested seas, if Tenet took the fall (but only onto the gangplank itself), later retiring from his disastrous CIA tenure with a Medal of Freedom from the President, it may be that he later leveled his own challenge at the President’s men. After all, the Plame case would not be threatening anyone if, when evidently approached by angry CIA officials over Novak’s outing of Plame (based on information from those “two senior administration officials”), Tenet hadn’t sent a memo in September 2003 to the Justice Department “raising a series of questions about whether a leaker had broken federal law by disclosing the identity of an undercover officer” and requesting an investigation. At that time, Mike Allen and Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported that, “[a]fter an ensuing rush of leaks over White House handling of intelligence, Bush’s aides said they believed in retrospect it had been a political mistake to blame Tenet.” Indeed. It was Tenet who officially started in motion the Plame case we live with today. (However, it is possible, as others have suggested, that his hand was forced by CIA insiders, that he essentially had no choice but to write such a memo once one of his agents had been outed in such a fashion.)

Just before the President left on that trip to Africa, according to the Post’s Pincus, in answer to a question about whether he considered the Niger uranium matter — the matter of those sixteen words — over and done with, he replied, “I do.” And then he and his aides boarded the plane and, with Secretary of State Colin Powell having that State Department document in hand, they — and Rove and Libby back in Washington — evidently began furiously to plan for payback.

It’s the war, stupid. That’s the mantra anyone looking at this administration should keep in mind as the dots spin and the details pile up (a point Frank Rich made clear this Sunday in Eight Days in July, another of his remarkable columns of late). Iraq — that wanted war, the first urge of the Bush administration’s top officials as the September 11, 2001 attacks sank in — has proved the black hole sucking the administration into the depths, despite frantic efforts at damage control beginning that intense week in early July 2003. Now, those dots, hardly noticed for so long, encircle the President’s and Vice President’s right-hand men; a prosecutor waits in the wings; and information as well as guilt, as we learned from Watergate so long ago, have a tendency to migrate upwards where two other men wait, each with his own lawyer.

Jonathan’s Schell’s latest “Letter from Ground Zero” is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of the Nation magazine.

The Bomb and Karl Rove

By Jonathan Schell

Like every important government crisis, the outing of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame by the President’s chief political adviser, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, perhaps among others, must be seen in many contexts at once. (As all the world knows, Rove’s aim was to discredit Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, who had publicly disproved the administration’s claim that Iraq was buying uranium yellow-cake from Niger — a key element in the Administration’s justifications for the Iraq War.) Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Sidney Blumenthal of Salon point to the broader story of Rove’s habitual practice of defending his political clients by smearing their competitors and detractors. Blumenthal titles his piece “Rove’s War” and Fineman speaks of “The World According to Rove.” Frank Rich of the New York Times, on the other hand, suggests that the most important war to look at is the one in Iraq. He says that the injustice to the Wilsons and even to the CIA is secondary: “The real crime here remains the sending of American men and women to Iraq on fictitious grounds.” In other words, what’s important is not the “war” but the war.

Surely, they are all right. It’s true that the harm to the Wilsons cannot be compared to the deaths of thousands in the misbegotten conflict, but it’s also true that the resolution of the scandal is likely to have a lasting impact on American politics, and even on the American system of government. Perhaps the most important political question is whether the Bush administration is to be held accountable for any of its actions, or whether it now enjoys complete impunity and a free field of action to do whatever it likes — from waging war to designing and presiding over systems of torture to breaking domestic law. There are other contexts to consider, too.

If Rich is right that the scandal is really about the Iraq War, then we have to ask what the war was about. The administration’s chief answer is weapons of mass destruction and, more particularly, nuclear weapons. The atomic signature is scrawled all over the scandal. It is present, of course, in the uranium the President falsely said Iraq was seeking from Niger. And Plame, as it turns out, worked for the CIA on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To defend its nuclear lies, the administration destroyed a (possible) source of nuclear truth. The smear campaign thus did double damage in the nuclear-weapon field: It propped up, however briefly, the erroneous justification for the war while shutting down authentic information on the broader problem. The nuclear issue popped up again in a State Department memo Colin Powell brought with him on Air Force One shortly after Wilson’s op-ed piece appeared. It is now famous because it disclosed Plame’s identity as Wilson’s wife. Less noticed is that the bulk of the memo was devoted to rebutting the Niger uranium allegation. This must be one of the most rebutted claims in history. Before Wilson ever spoke up, it had been disproved by several government agencies; the director of the Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei; and, of course, the State Department. (As for Powell, in February 2003 he had told the UN Security Council, “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”)

Whatever else the scandal is, it is also an episode in the six-decade history of the nuclear age. In the wake of the cold war, many people imagined that nuclear danger had disappeared. A decade of utter neglect followed. Then, in 1998, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests launched the two countries on a nuclear arms race. Soon other countries, including North Korea and Iran, were knocking at the door of the nuclear club. But it wasn’t until 9/11 that the neglected peril reared up again in the public mind — and returned to the center of policy. The fictional danger of an Iraqi bomb bursting in an American city was, of course, the chief justification for the war, but it was more than that. It was the linchpin of the broader policy of preventive military strikes — necessary, the President said, to forestall the hostile states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In his words, “as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.”

At the root of the policy was a radical reconception of the way to stop proliferation. Hitherto, the policy had been to address it by negotiation and disarmament treaties. Now it was to be addressed by military force. The decade of neglect had led to the most severe collision of nuclear policy with nuclear reality since the Cuban missile crisis. The Iraq War was the result, though not the only one. While the U.S. military was looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, where there were none, it was in effect ignoring them in North Korea, which reportedly was either acquiring or expanding a nuclear arsenal, and in Iran, which was pressing forward down the nuclear path. It’s worth recalling that the Vietnam War, too, was in part the product of misguided nuclear strategy. Policy-makers, well aware that they could not win a nuclear “general war” with the Soviet Union in the Central European theater, hoped instead to win a “limited war” with conventional arms on the “periphery.” When it went wrong, the consequence was the Watergate crisis, born directly of Nixon’s fury at antiwar protesters.

That chain of reasoning died with the cold war, but nuclear danger lived on to produce new and possibly more dangerous illusions. The worst is that the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their associated technology and know-how can be stopped, or prevented in advance, by arms. Once that conclusion was accepted, mere hints of danger, wisps of fact and speculations became actionable, bomb-able. But if there is one thing in this world that cannot be bombed out of existence, it is an illusion. And illusions, when rigidly defended, breed encounters with the law. Thus did a mistaken revolution in nuclear policy, proceeding under the guise of the “war on terror,” produce the lies that produced the war that produced the whistleblowing that produced the smears that produced the blown cover that produced the cover-up that produced the legal investigation that produced the political and legal crisis that now swirls around Karl Rove.

This article will appear in the forthcoming August 15th issue of The Nation Magazine.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.

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