AFTER A 22-MONTH investigation into the compromising of CIA operative Valerie Plame, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald handed down a five-count indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff,
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Even before that lengthy investigation reached its conclusion, critics of the Bush administration had begun to articulate the new conventional wisdom on its outcome: The Bush administration lied about Iraq before the invasion and has been lying ever since.
Frank Rich, in a column that ran on October 16, 2005, in the New York Times, wrote under the headline, "It's Bush-Cheney, Not Rove-Libby."
Now, as always, what matters most in this case is not whether Mr. Rove and Lewis Libby engaged in a petty conspiracy to seek revenge on a whistle-blower, Joseph Wilson, by unmasking his wife, Valerie, a covert C.I.A. officer. What makes Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation compelling, whatever its outcome, is its illumination of a conspiracy that was not at all petty: the one that took us on false premises into a reckless and wasteful war in Iraq. That conspiracy was instigated by Mr. Rove's boss, George W. Bush, and Mr. Libby's boss, Dick Cheney.
The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel made a similar argument in an appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews last week. In response to a question about the Fitzgerald investigation, she said: "These are serious matters of national security, of misleading the country into the gravest crime one could commit, an unnecessary war."
These efforts to frame the investigation so as to inflict maximum damage on the White House appear to be working. By last Friday morning, David Gergen, who often serves as chief spokesman for the conventional wisdom, was calling the upcoming court battle the "trial of the war in Iraq." This, he says, will "keep the administration on the defensive" for months and will make it very difficult to govern. Congressional Democrats used the occasion to call for hearings into the alleged misuse of intelligence.
In the literal sense, attempts to link the case for war in Iraq to the Fitzgerald investigation are illogical. If a White House official lied to a grand jury in 2004, as Fitzgerald contends, that fact has little bearing on the case made for war in Iraq in 2002.
Fitzgerald was asked directly about the connection between the indictment and the Iraq war during his press conference Friday.
Question: A lot of Americans, people who are opposed to the war, critics of the administration, have looked to your investigation with hope in some ways and might see this indictment as a vindication of their argument that the administration took the country to war on false premises.
Does this indictment do that?
Fitzgerald: This indictment is not about the war. This indictment's not about the propriety of the war. And people who believe fervently in the war effort, people who oppose it, people who have mixed feelings about it should not look to this indictment for any resolution of how they feel or any vindication of how they feel.
This is simply an indictment that says, in a national security investigation about the compromise of a CIA officer's identity that may have taken place in the context of a very heated debate over the war, whether some person--a person, Mr. Libby--lied or not.
The indictment will not seek to prove that the war was justified or unjustified. This is stripped of that debate, and this is focused on a narrow transaction.
And I think anyone who's concerned about the war and has feelings for or against shouldn't look to this criminal process for any answers or resolution of that.
Fitzgerald is, of course, right. And in any case the attempt to link the two issues seems counterproductive. Where they do overlap--Joseph Wilson's claim that he had "debunked" Bush administration assertions about an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Niger--they point to an embarrassment for the war critics and reporters who invested so much in his self-aggrandizing fantasies: Wilson lied.
It may seem strange that war opponents would seek to relitigate the case for war in Iraq on such a flimsy foundation as these now-discredited claims. But the antiwar agitators are not nearly as dumb as their slogans make them sound. They appear to understand that a scandal-hungry news media, the ongoing difficulties in Iraq, and a weary American public provide an environment hospitable to even their most outrageous claims.
And in one very important sense, the critics are right to assert a connection between the case for war in Iraq and the Fitzgerald inquiry. It is this: For the better part of two years, as the case grew from a routine Justice Department inquiry to an independent investigation conducted by a no-nonsense special prosecutor, the Bush administration gradually ceded the debate over the Iraq war to its harshest critics. These two developments are not coincidental.
The investigations have already had a dramatic effect on the Bush White House and its defense of the war in Iraq.
AS THE SUMMER of 2003 began, Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (MET Alpha), the task force assigned to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was having little success. Back in Washington, skepticism about finding such stockpiles grew and finger-pointing began.
Even before the war, the CIA began leaking stories that raised the prospect that the intelligence about Iraq's WMD programs was less certain than Bush administration policymakers were making it sound. The stories puzzled and annoyed these policymakers since the finished intelligence products--such as the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate--had included strongly worded conclusions about the threat from Iraqi WMD. Many White House officials suspected that the leaks were condoned by Agency leadership and designed as a preemptive "CIA-CYA"--a contingency plan to shift the blame from the Agency in the event some of the intelligence was bad. These suspicions grew when Joseph Wilson began telling his story, first anonymously, then as a would-be whistle-blower. As some Bush administration officials quietly tried to correct Wilson's misrepresentations, others contemplated a bold move that would undercut the leaks from the Agency.
Ironically, this strategy was revealed in a little-noticed passage in what has become one of the most discussed newspaper columns in recent memory. At the end of his July 14, 2003, column that identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, Robert Novak wrote that understanding the claims and counterclaims about Wilson's mission "requires scrutinizing the CIA summary of what their envoy reported." Novak reported: "The Agency never before has declassified that kind of information, but the White House would like it to do just that now--in its and in the public's interest."
Within days, the CIA had declassified significant portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. That document reflected the consensus view of the 15 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.
We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade. (See INR alternative view at the end of these Key Judgments.)
We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq's WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad's vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information.
We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs. Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.
Iraq's growing ability to sell oil illicitly increases Baghdad's capabilities to finance WMD programs; annual earnings in cash and goods have more than quadrupled, from $580 million in 1998 to about $3 billion this year. Iraq has largely rebuilt missile and biological weapons facilities damaged during Operation Desert Fox and has expanded its chemical and biological infrastructure under the cover of civilian production.
And later, a discussion of Iraq's nuclear capabilities:
Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them. Most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed--December 1998.
The NIE specifically addressed claims of Iraq seeking uranium from Africa:
A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of "pure uranium" (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. We do not know the status of this arrangement.
Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.
And finally, the NIE offered these conclusions with "high confidence":
Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.
We are not detecting portions of these weapons programs.
Iraq possesses proscribed chemical and biological weapons and missiles.
Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons grade fissile material.
There were, to be sure, dissenting opinions included in the NIE. Most notably, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research found the available evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear programs "inadequate." But these judgments were footnotes, figuratively and in some cases literally. Larry Wilkerson, former State Department chief of staff and now an outspoken Bush administration critic, put it this way in a recent speech in which he described the intelligence Colin Powell used for his presentation to the U.N. Security Council. "People say, well, INR dissented. That's a bunch of bull. INR dissented that the nuclear program was up and running. That's all INR dissented on. They were right there with the chems and the bios. . . . The consensus of the intelligence community was overwhelming."
Bush administration officials reasonably believed that releasing the NIE would stanch the flow of leaks coming from the CIA and would weaken the claims that "Bush lied" to take the country to war. They were mistaken.
On September 26, 2003, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell and MSNBC's Alex Johnson reported on the MSNBC website the following: "The CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the White House broke federal laws by revealing the identity of one of its undercover employees in retaliation against the woman's husband, a former ambassador who publicly criticized President Bush's since-discredited claim that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium from Africa, NBC News has learned." The referral from the CIA to the Justice Department was classified and, according to officials with knowledge of the process, was almost certainly leaked by the CIA to put public pressure on the Justice Department to launch an investigation. It worked.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales ordered White House officials to provide the FBI any documents related to the compromising of Valerie Plame. Almost immediately, Democratic politicians and left-leaning editorial boards began a campaign to call for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the case, and on December 30, 2003, Deputy Attorney General James Comey appointed Patrick Fitzgerald.
For much of the next year, the Bush administration was willing to defend the Iraq war because it was the main issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, repeatedly accused the administration of misleading the country into war. But Kerry had been a vocal supporter of regime change in Iraq throughout the Clinton presidency and had voted to authorize the Iraq war. His running mate, North Carolina senator John Edwards, voted the same way and had gone even further than the Bush administration, warning before the war that Saddam Hussein presented an "imminent threat" to the national security of the United States.
On the stump, President Bush continued to make the case that Saddam Hussein had been a threat. On July 12, 2004, nearly a year after the NIE was released, Bush spoke at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee:
Three years ago, the ruler of Iraq was a sworn enemy of America, who provided safe haven for terrorists, used weapons of mass destruction, and turned his nation into a prison. Saddam Hussein was not just a dictator; he was a proven mass murderer who refused to account for weapons of mass murder. Every responsible nation recognized this threat, and knew it could not go on forever.
America must remember the lessons of September the 11th. We must confront serious dangers before they fully materialize. And so my administration looked at the intelligence on Iraq, and we saw a threat. Members of the United States Congress from both political parties looked at the same intelligence, and they saw a threat. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence, and it saw a threat. The previous administration and the Congress looked at the intelligence and made regime change in Iraq the policy of our country.
This argument would end up being the administration's strongest defense of the case for war in Iraq to this day.
FITZGERALD'S INVESTIGATION continued largely out of public view. More than two dozen White House officials were interviewed by the FBI. Many of them later testified before the grand jury. An already cautious White House closed in on itself. Emails on issues of any importance were a thing of the past. Written memos about sensitive subjects--even those wholly unrelated to the investigation--were considered unwise.
Months earlier, after the public debate over the "16 words" about uranium from Africa in the president's 2003 State of the Union address, White House chief of staff Andrew Card had ordered an overhaul of the speechwriting process. The changes were mainly bureaucratic and did not dramatically alter the way presidential speeches were written.
The experience of the "16 words" controversy, however, led the president's aides to purge any fact or piece of evidence that could possibly be challenged--whether by vetters in the speechwriting process itself or in the media. "We didn't want to have a pissing match with the [Central Intelligence] Agency on the front page of the New York Times every time we put something out," says one former Bush administration official.
The default position was to refrain from publicly asserting anything that could possibly provoke a public debate, and the result has been that each new Iraq speech the president gives--however well written--ends up sounding a lot like the last speech the president gave. For the most part, the speeches have been heavy on assertions and light on arguments. So for most of his second term the president would claim that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror without stopping to explain why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.
This reluctance comes not from a lack of arguments to make but from a fear that if the administration aggressively makes its case, the CIA will promptly seek to undermine it through leaks that wind up on the front pages. But this self-censorship is keeping the administration from making full use of the information at its disposal. Here are three examples.
When the president mentions Abu Musab al Zarqawi, current head of al Qaeda in Iraq, he rarely points out that Zarqawi was in Iraq before the war, and he never points out that Zarqawi's operatives were working closely with senior Iraqi Baathists even as U.S. troops were engaged in "major combat" in Iraq.
When the president notes the former Iraqi regime's support for terrorism--a rare occurrence these days--he never mentions Abdul Rahman Yasin, the lone fugitive from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who was provided assistance by the Iraqi regime in his flight from the United States. (That fact is not even controversial: It is cited in the July 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on prewar intelligence on Iraq.) The FBI is in possession of documents that indicate Yasin was given financial support by the regime of Saddam Hussein for a decade after his return to Iraq.
There are other documents from Iraq that would help the American public understand the nature of the former Iraqi regime and why a serious war on terror required its removal. Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) documents currently stored in a warehouse in Doha, Qatar, as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency's document exploitation project are a case in point. Many of these documents, listed in a database known as HARMONY, have rather provocative titles:
Money Transfers from Iraq to Afghanistan
Secret Meeting with Taliban Group Member and Iraqi Government (Nov. 2000)
Iraqi Effort to Cooperate with Saudi Opposition Groups and Individuals
Order from Saddam to present $25,000 to Palestinian Suicide Bombers' Families
IIS Reports from Embassy in Paris: Plan to Influence French Stance in UN Security Council
IIS Report on How French Campaigns are Financed
Improvised Explosive Devices Plan
Ricin research and improvement
There are thousands of similar documents. Many have already been authenticated and most are unclassified. That's worth repeating: Most are unclassified.
Of course, nothing is more important than winning on the ground in Iraq. Demonstrating that we are killing terrorists and making steady progress on the political front will do much to blunt the criticism of the war. But if the White House refuses to challenge its critics, and refuses to explain in detail why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, and refuses to discuss the flawed intelligence on Iraqi WMD, and refuses to use its tremendous power to remind Americans that Saddam Hussein was, in fact, a threat, then it risks losing the support of those Americans who continue to believe that the Iraq war, despite all of its many costs in blood and money, was worth it.