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July 19, 2005

Why Plame Matters

by Ray McGovern

The significance of the Plame affair is not about former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson; or his wife, Valerie Plame; or Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby; or even President George W. Bush's alter ego, Karl Rove. White House v. Wilsons is about Iraq, where our sons and daughters – and many others – are daily meeting violent death. And it's about manipulation.

It's about how our elected representatives were deceived into voting for an unprovoked war and what happened when one man stood up and called the administration's bluff. And it's about the perfect storm now gathering, as more lies are exposed (whether in journalists' e-mails or in the minutes of high-level meetings at 10 Downing Street), as guerrilla war escalates in Iraq, and as more and more American citizens find themselves agreeing with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) that administration leaders seem to be "making it up as they go along."

It wasn't envisaged this way by the naïve "neoconservative" ideologues that got us into the quagmire in Iraq. They may still believe that all will be well if the Iraqi people can only get it into their heads that we are liberators, not occupiers.

So much smoke is being blown over White House v. Wilsons that it is becoming almost impossible to see the forest for the trees. Bewildered houseguests from outside the Beltway throw up their hands: "It's all just politics … and character assassination." And that may well be precisely the impression the media wish to leave with us. Otherwise, left to our own devices, we might conclude they served us poorly with the indiscriminate, hyper-patriotic cheerleading that helped slide us into the worst foreign policy debacle in our nation's history.

Our weekend guests had a hard time trying to understand why the White House two years ago blew the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame, wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Sure, Wilson had caught and exposed the Bush administration in a very serious lie. But almost immediately, top officials conceded that Ambassador Wilson was essentially correct in dismissing the flimsy report that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium in Africa.

Betrayal of Trust

So why the neuralgic reaction? Why go to such lengths to impugn Wilson's credibility; and what purpose would be served by harming his wife as well? At first blush, it does seem awfully petty. But dig a little deeper and you'll get a glimpse of what lies behind the White House campaign against the Wilsons.

Revenge? There was certainly a strong desire to retaliate. And Karl Rove did tell NBC's Chris Matthews at the time that wives were "fair game." Angry at White House dissembling, Wilson had doffed his ambassadorial hat and thrown down the gauntlet when he told the press that the Iraq-Niger caper "begs the question about what else they are lying about." And, indeed, how many more untruths have been uncovered over the past two years?

Was the relentless White House campaign to vilify the Wilsons aimed primarily at serving notice that a similar fate awaits any whose conscience might prompt them to expose still more of the lies used to "justify" the attack on Iraq? That, too, was surely part of it. And, sad to say, it has worked – at least until now. Yes, we have learned about the "Curveball" deception on Iraqi biological warfare, the misdiagnosed aluminum tubes, and the "unpiloted aerial vehicles" that congresspersons were told could threaten our coastal cities. But it was hard reality and the basic laws of physics that held administration arguments up to ridicule. None of the exposés came from the mouths of people like Joe Wilson, who could not abide crass deception in matters of war and peace.

The main motivation of the White House character assassins had more to do with the particular lie that Joseph Wilson exposed and the essential role it played in the administration's plans. For a nuclear-armed Iraq was the most compelling threat that could be peddled to our elected representatives and senators to deceive them into approving a war launched for reasons we now know were unrelated to any putative Iraqi WMD program.

The Big Lie

The Bush administration needed to assert that Iraq was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Taking that line posed a huge challenge. On the one hand, a new threat had to be created/hyped out of thin air; and, on the other, the pundits had to be too lazy to refresh their memories on what senior U.S. officials had said about Iraq's military capability before 9/11.

"Saddam Hussein has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."
- Colin Powell, Feb. 24, 2001

"We are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt."
- Condoleezza Rice, July 29, 2001

These statements went quickly down the memory hole. Immediately after 9/11, administration officials, with Vice President Dick Cheney in the lead, began to warn that Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" were just over the horizon. On Aug. 26, 2002, a month after senior U.S. officials had convinced their British counterparts that intelligence was being "fixed" around a policy of war, Vice President Dick Cheney was the first to use that fabricated and twisted intelligence to deceive Americans at large. In a major speech he claimed: "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Among other sources, we've gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors – including Saddam's own son-in-law."

In fact, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, had told us just the opposite: "All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed," he told his debriefers in 1995. Everything else he told them was true. And so was that. Kamel had been in charge of those programs; the weaponry was destroyed at his command.

But no matter. Cheney's speech, and the subsequent National Intelligence Estimate cooked to his recipe, allowed the president to raise the specter of mushroom clouds over U.S. cities, to force a yes vote in Congress for war, and to win back the Senate the following month.

The Niger lie was thus both the cornerstone of the Bush agenda and the key to unraveling how the "fixing" worked. Rove, master of the administration's strategy yet only two years out of Texas, tried to scare reporters off the scent and crossed a major legal line, triggering the worst possible result: a special prosecutor with subpoena power and a grand jury.

So it is Rove himself who has invited the skunk to the neocon picnic: Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. He shows no penchant to join in the fun and games, and still less to speak prematurely. He appears to be a real pro, and as long has he can avoid being fired, he could potentially take all the fun out of things. Neocon pundit William Kristol no doubt was reflecting a growing sense of unease when he commented recently that Fitzpatrick is "the problem for the White House; we have no idea what he knows."

Reprinted courtesy of TomPaine.com.


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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