Friday, November 04, 2005

Libby's Lying Habit

Dennis Kelleher is a legislative director for a Democratic senator.  He was the deputy staff director and general counsel for the senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Help, Education, Labor and Pensions and he was a litigation partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The views expressed are his own.

As the scandal over the outing of the CIA agent mushrooms throughout the White House, people are asking an obvious question: Why didn’t the vice president’s indicted chief of staff and other senior White House officials just publicly and directly rebut Ambassador Wilson’s criticism? He said that the administration “twisted” some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat” and mislead us into the war with Iraq.

Those were deadly serious charges that the administration should have been able to rebut rather quickly and easily. But it never did.  Instead, the Libby indictment alleges that the vice president’s former chief of staff and other administration officials engaged in a far-reaching effort to discredit Wilson and disclose the identity of his CIA agent wife. This was all done by off-the-record leaks from senior administration officials who insisted that reporters conceal their identities.

Yesterday’s Why Would Libby Lie?  explored why Libby might have lied months after the leaking was done: to prevent a scandal from breaking out in the weeks before November 2004, which would have threatened the president’s re-election.  But why, in the summer of 2003, leak in the first place?  Why plan a sneak attack on Wilson, and why out his CIA-operative wife? 

To answer those questions, we have to revisit what was happening when the leaks occurred.  In late spring, early summer 2003, the war was becoming much more difficult and more protracted than anyone in the Bush administration ever suggested might happen. The press and others were just beginning to raise serious questions about the justifications offered for the war, particularly because not a single weapon of mass destruction had been found.

It was right at that time that Ambassador Wilson began to publicly state that “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted [by the administration] to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”  Wilson based this on personal knowledge because the CIA sent him to the African country of Niger, in February 2002, to investigate whether the veracity of a report that Iraq was trying to obtain materials for building nuclear weapons. 

Wilson concluded that the report was “highly doubtful” and that it would be “exceedingly difficult” for Iraq to do that.  One reason for that conclusion was that Iraq was reportedly trying to obtain 500 tons of nuclear material— not something easy to get, transport, conceal or keep quiet.

Equally important, it was Cheney himself who asked for an investigation of the report that Iraq was trying to get this nuclear material from Niger. That request prompted the CIA to send Wilson to Niger and Wilson reported back to the CIA, the State Department and others in the administration in March 2002.  While Wilson did not report directly back to Cheney, there can be little doubt that Cheney was briefed on Wilson’s trip and its conclusions.  After all, this is exactly the information the vice president of the United States had requested in the first place.

Yet, during the remainder of 2002 and until the war began in March 2003—a year after Ambassador Wilson’s report—Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice and other administration officials repeatedly stated that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, posed a nuclear threat and that war was necessary.  Indeed, Bush referenced the Iraqi nuclear threat in his January 2003 State of the Union address to the nation.  Bush specifically referred to a report that Iraq was trying to get nuclear weapons materials from an African country, the now infamous “16 words” that had to be withdrawn by the White House.

In many ways, Iraq’s alleged nuclear threat was the most important argument for war. For ordinary Americans, it was as simple and easy to understand as it was ominous and terrifying.  The mere mention of a mushroom cloud, mankind’s greatest fear, sent shivers up the spines of all Americans.  It was a very compelling argument. 

Just like the effort to get information on Wilson in May/June 2003, Cheney was also at the center of selling the war before it started in March 2003.  As a relentless promoter of the need to attack Iraq because of its weapons of mass destruction, Cheney was in the bull’s eye of Wilson’s criticism.  If the basis for the war was undermined, if Iraq didn’t have or try to get nuclear weapons materials, then the White House, Cheney in particular, would also be undermined.

In this context, Ambassador Wilson, a decades-long career diplomat, told a credible, eyewitness account about what appeared to be a simple and easy-to-understand lie by the White House.  And it was about a matter that originated with a request from Cheney and likely ended in a report of its results to Cheney—all long before the president’s State of the Union reference to the very subject Wilson found “highly doubtful.”

Thus, if Wilson was right in July 2003, Cheney had to know Bush’s statement in the State of the Union was wrong.  No one would have been able to shift blame to someone outside the White House, like the CIA, or claim it was some bureaucratic mistake.  If true, it would have meant that the vice president himself and many other very senior Bush officials knew Bush’s statement was false.  It would have meant that the Bush administration knowingly misled the American people into going to war.

That’s why it was essential to discredit Wilson and change the subject.  That’s why they disclosed that his wife worked for the CIA, and that’s why they began spreading the lie that his wife was the one who arranged for him to go to Niger. That was their way to draw attention away from the fact that Ambassador Wilson went to Niger because the vice president himself asked that the report be investigated.

In June/July 2003, Libby and others in the administration appear to have told reporters a compelling story about Ambassador Wilson and his CIA-operative wife that convinced the press to go away from the vice president and the White House.  This tactic is remarkably similar to what the prosecutor alleges Libby did in 2004 when he told “a compelling story [about the leaks] that would lead the FBI to go away” from the vice president and the White House.

So when Americans look for an answer to the question, why did the White House not directly and publicly rebut Ambassador Wilson’s claims, the answer they will find, the answer that the prosecutor is bound to find, is that they could not. Wilson was right: the “intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” This is now indisputable: Iraq didn’t seek nuclear materials from Niger; it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction; and the claims in the president’s State of the Union were baseless.  It appears that Cheney and other senior administration officials knew this was false at the time these claims were being made.
And that’s why it's not just Rove who has to go.

But, we are not so willing to let presidents off the hook because their staff members put lies in their mouths.
What is up with this habit of saying, "the president's staff did not serve him well" or "Who allowed the president to utter those faithful 16 words?
Who is our president, Charlie McCarthy?
Take the Pledge! I will not vote for insane people!
Not with my money, my time nor, least of all, my silence.
There is one thing worse than incivility; and that is fake civility.
We are talking about war, people.
Lives have been lost. Blood has been spilt.
This is not a matter of whether to pay more for education or healthcare.
It is, and always has been, about killing and dying, being maimed and psychologically wrecked, and about the reasons we were given for that kind carnage.
Leaders of nations must be held to the highest of all possible standards when it comes to words of such of such consequence. In Democracies, it is up to the people, through their elected officials, to do so.


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