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White House lie machine exposed

November 4, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

THE PRESIDENT'S men were certain that a war to topple Saddam Hussein was necessary to promote U.S. interests. And they were ready to do anything to get it. That's the real significance behind the indictment of Dick Cheney's top aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby and the revelations in the White House leak scandal splashed across the front pages of newspapers last week. ALAN MAASS looks at what the leak scandal represents--and what will happen next.

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BY ITSELF, the CIA leak scandal is about a narrow question: Did White House officials reveal the identity of an undercover CIA agent, as political retribution against her husband. The frenzy in Washington reached a fever pitch last week as Patrick Fitzgerald--the federal prosecutor who took over a Justice Department investigation after former Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself nearly two years ago--announced an indictment against Lewis "Scooter" Libby, but not Karl Rove, mastermind of Bush's presidential campaigns.

But the scandal raises much deeper questions--above all, why and how the U.S. went to war in Iraq based on lies. The leaks to the press about Valerie Plame are at the end of a long chain of fraud and manipulation, managed by a government within the government--concretely, the White House Iraq Group, established in August 2002 with Rove as its chair, to come up with the strategy to sell the war.

The heart of the leak scandal is one relatively minor claim in the White House case for war--that the Iraqi government was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons from the African country of Niger.

The documents that supposedly proved Iraq's hunt for uranium were crude forgeries. According to an investigative series in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, they were cooked up by an Italian freelance spy with connections to the country's paramilitary police and assorted right-wing groups. The information was fed by Italy's intelligence agency to like-minded right-wingers in Washington, such as Michael Ledeen, the influential neocon in Washington, and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

Several times, intelligence agents for different countries--including the CIA--recognized the Niger story as a fraud. But the information continued to circulate, with the U.S. and British governments each advising the other of the allegations, apparently not realizing that the information came from the same crooked source.

The story became part and parcel of the case against Iraq as the Bush administration stepped up the pressure for war in the fall of 2002. Most famously, Bush claimed in his 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

This was only one among many fabrications. Bush administration officials also repeatedly referred to Iraq's attempts to import special aluminum tubes that were "only really suited" for enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency and experts from the U.S. government's own Energy Department challenged the claim.

Likewise, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that Iraq had the ability to "deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so." As it turned out, Iraq didn't have chemical or biological weapons to deploy--much less a system for using them so quickly--so the government had to demand that its security services make intelligence on this question it "sexier."

Each of these claims was completely wrong--and was proved so when invasion forces couldn't find the slightest trace of Iraq's phantom arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

But this couldn't have come as a total surprise to the Bush administration, which had access to a decade of intelligence indicating that Iraq had nothing of the sort. As of December 2001, for example, the official National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, reflecting the pooled information of all the government's various spy agencies, concluded that Iraq had no nuclear weapons and wasn't trying to reconstitute a nuclear program.

So to make the case for war, the White House had to "fix" inconvenient facts like these.

Their determination to do so is evident in the so-called Downing Street Memo that nearly brought down British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this year. The memo consists of the minutes of a July 2002 meeting, in which Blair and top officials of his government clearly regard an invasion of Iraq--still eight months away--as a foregone conclusion. British officials recently returned from Washington reported that their American counterparts had told them the invasion was to be justified "by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD," according to the memo, and "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

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THE NEOCONS had been preparing for this war long before they stepped into the White House. In September 2000, for example, Paul Wolfowitz, soon to be deputy defense secretary under Donald Rumsfeld, and several other people who would play a role in the Bush administration coauthored a report for the Project for a New American Century, arguing that "the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."

Unfortunately, the document went on to speculate, the public wasn't likely to support a new war on Iraq. Unless there were a "catastrophic and catalyzing event--like a new Pearl Harbor."

Like September 11. The Bush administration immediately recognized that the attacks in New York and Washington were a golden opportunity. Then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urged aides to speculate about "how you capitalize on these opportunities" from September 11, as she told New Yorker magazine writer Nicholas Lehmann.

The hawks' motives for invading Iraq have never been hidden.

The country sits on top of the world's second largest reserves of oil. Control of Middle East oil was why Iraq was a target for war in 1991--as George Bush Sr. openly admitted at the time. And it was why the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 1980s--when the Reagan White House sent Donald Rumsfeld to meet with him in Baghdad.

Iraq is also strategically located at the heart of a region where the U.S. government wants to assert its military power, and not only to maintain control of oil. The neocons, foreseeing future conflicts throughout Asia in the "New American Century," have always envisioned permanent U.S. bases in Iraq serving as a launching pad for projecting U.S. military power.

Plus, Iraq was an easy target--a ready-made enemy, weakened by the 1991 Gulf War and a decade of barbaric sanctions, to serve as an example to the rest of the world about what happens to anyone who steps out of line.

But none of these aims could inspire much political support for an invasion--not within the U.S., and certainly not internationally. So the Bush administration had to lie. They had to concoct a case about why Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime--contrary to every indication--were an immediate danger.

The centerpiece of the case for war became Iraq's alleged arsenal of "weapons of mass destruction." Disarming Iraq was a goal that different parts of the U.S. government and Washington's allies could agree on--or at least be pressured into going along with. But that meant "developing" evidence to prove the existence of weapons that didn't, in fact, exist.

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DIRECTING THE Bush administration's war drive was a small core of White House officials, many connected to the office of Dick Cheney, the vice president.

From the beginning, the hawks believed that they would have to overcome opposition within the Pentagon and especially the CIA--a symptom, in their arrogant view, of bureaucratic dawdling and liberal mushiness. Cheney and Rumsfeld and their zealous deputies set out to undermine what they considered to be less hawkish generals and other department heads.

They used junior analysts and officials, working under close direction from the White House, and they created alternative intelligence-gathering operations. For example, after September 11, Wolfowitz and another Rumsfeld deputy, Douglas Feith, formed a secret Pentagon unit called the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group to "re-evaluate" previously gathered intelligence on Iraq. The goal of the hawks was to do an end run around anyone in the CIA and elsewhere suspected of being "soft"--and come up with "proper" intelligence that would serve the war drive.

Though the international antiwar movement had exposed many of its lies, the administration's case for war--thanks to a pliant mainstream media--held up long enough for the invasion to be launched in March 2003. But in short order, it was clear that Bush's "mission accomplished" message was premature.

Stories began emerging in the media that summer questioning some of the evidence put forward by the administration--including the story that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium in Niger.

Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson was an anonymous source for some of those stories--and in July, he went public in a New York Times op-ed article, charging that administration officials knew from him and others that the Niger story was wrong, but had kept repeating it anyway. Wilson had been sent to Niger in 2002 on orders of the CIA to check out the claims about Iraq and uranium, and he had concluded they were untrue.

According to the facts uncovered by Fitzgerald's grand jury investigation, Cheney and Libby began looking into Wilson's background when he surfaced as a critic of the administration--and each confirmed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked clandestinely for the CIA.

Cheney and Libby evidently concluded that Wilson's article was part of a campaign by CIA dissenters to make the White House look bad. Given how poorly the search for weapons of mass destruction was going, the hawks must have feared that Wilson and his friends in the CIA could pull at this one thread and unravel the whole pack of lies.

This seems to be why Plame was outed to newspaper reporters--to discredit Wilson and his findings, but more importantly, to serve as a threat to anyone who thought about challenging the White House publicly. Other administration officials, including Rove and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, helped keep the rumor mill turning, though neither has been officially accused of being the source of the leak. Meanwhile, CIA Director George Tenet was pressured to take the blame for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--shifting responsibility away from Cheney and his team.

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ONLY LIBBY has been indicted in Fitzgerald's leak scandal investigation. Karl Rove was widely expected to be singled out as well, since he appears to have leaked Plame's name to several reporters. But he seems to have escaped for now, possibly because he finked on Libby to the grand jury, according to some accounts.

The Bush administration would love for Leakgate to stop at Libby, but history isn't necessarily on its side. First of all, Fitzgerald's grand jury isn't the only body that can investigate. Scandals typically attract inquiries by congressional committees, independent commissions and so on.

Also, in the Waterate scandal that took down Richard Nixon, a succession of officials were supposed to take the fall, but the allegations eventually rose all the way to the top. Indeed, one of the designated fall guys, John Dean, cooked Nixon's goose by telling all to the Senate Watergate Committee. Those hearings revealed the existence of Oval Office tapes that implicated the president not only in dirty tricks against his Democratic opponents, buto in a whole series of other crimes.

On the other hand, the indictment of Libby was the minimum that Fitzgerald was expected to come up with last week. He announced that his investigation--particularly into allegations against Rove--is ongoing, but he didn't promise anything. If Libby refuses turn on his former boss or another powerful name in the administration, there's no guarantee that Fitzgerald will take any further actions.

And while liberals are hoping that the indictment will lead to congressional hearings, the Democrats show no sign of taking the offensive--regardless of the golden opportunities placed before them--and Republicans will have to be deeply divided before they really go after Bush.

Still, the leak scandal has done the Bush administration an enormous amount of damage. For one thing, this is the worst tarnish yet on the image of the Bush White House as an efficient, iron-disciplined operation that always manages to avoid defeat.

Federal officials--particularly those, like Fitzgerald, who are themselves upholders of the status quo--may not want to draw the conclusions. But the picture that emerges from the indictment and the media revelations about the leak scandal is one of a vice president who calls the shots for the administration--and who has gathered around him a gang of liars and political fixers to make sure that the policy he wants is carried out. And anyone who gets in the way is a target to be discredited or destroyed.

Even the media are beginning to ask questions that go to the substance of the case--the lies that led to war--rather than narrower concerns about whether a CIA agent's identify was exposed.

The White House leak scandal is a further vindication of the antiwar movement, which from the beginning recognized the Bush administration's case for war as the fraud it was. Now we can take advantage of these revelations to broaden and strengthen the movement against the occupation of Iraq--and Washington's imperial project around the world.

Duped reporter or partner in crime?

NEW YORK Times reporter Judith Miller features as prominently in Patrick Fitzgerald's first leak scandal indictment as many of the White House's most important players. But she's been in that company before.

During the drive to war, Miller served up some of the hawks' most outrageous lies about Iraq. Her front-page "exposés" were filled with wild claims about Iraq's arsenal, based on information from pro-U.S. Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted embezzler who the neocons wanted to rule the "new" Iraq, and assorted "senior White House officials"--who, we now know, were probably Libby most of the time.

Miller wasn't the only journalist to fall for the administration's war lies. Almost without exception, the U.S. mainstream media echoed Bush's case for war, never pausing to investigate the obvious lies and distortions. But Miller's behavior seems to set her apart even from the pro-war cheerleaders--and place her more in the category of co-conspirator.

The details to emerge from Fitzgerald's investigation only compound the questions. According to the indictment, Miller was the first reporter to hear of Plame's identity from Libby, though she never wrote a story about it. Why not? Did Libby talk to Miller first in the hopes that she would help him spread the word about Plame?

Miller's own explanation--made in the pages of the Times--was convoluted and self-serving, raising the question of whether she might be indicted herself, along with Rove and other Bush administration officials.

New York Times management now professes to be shocked and outraged at Miller's behavior. But that comes a little late. "The Times nailed Miller's colors to its mast many years ago," Alexander Cockburn wrote on the CounterPunch Web site. "There are decades' worth of her atrocious mendacities in its archives, and decades' worth of accurate refutations of her news stories ignored by Times' editors."

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