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April 11, 2006

Blowing Cheney's Cover

by Ray McGovern

When you invest so much effort into tangling the web – in this case, corrupting intelligence analysis in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq – it becomes hard to know when to stop. Vice President Dick Cheney went to inordinate lengths, including 10 visits to CIA headquarters, to ensure that that crucial NIE on weapons of mass destruction was alarmist enough to scare Congress into authorizing war. And when the evidence turned out to be flimsy, Cheney had a back-up plan: The CIA made me do it.

Ever since their exaggerated claims about Iraq's possession of WMD turned out to be baseless, the Bush administration's defense has rested on blaming the government's intelligence analysts. But one of the great revelations from Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's court filing last week is more evidence that the White House – not the CIA – distorted intelligence on Iraq. It was then-chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, acting on orders from Cheney, who presented evidence of Iraq seeking nuclear weapons material to reporters as a "key judgment" from the NIE, when in fact it was a subject of debate in the intelligence community.

The White House plan to scapegoat the intelligence community about Iraq – aided by eager-to-please CIA Director George Tenet – worked beautifully. But only for a while. The plan faltered once it became clear there were no WMD and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson blew the whistle on the centerpiece report used to deceive Congress and conjure up the specter of a mushroom cloud. That report conveyed the cockamamie story about Iraq seeking uranium in the African country of Niger, in which Cheney took uncommon interest.

Cockamamie? Easy to say in retrospect, you say. No, it was easy to say from the outset. And that is why CIA analysts in early 2002 threw it into the circular file, where it deserved to be – for several good reasons. For starters, the government of Niger does not control the uranium mined there. Rather, it is tightly controlled and monitored by an international consortium led by the French. CIA analysts all agreed that the notion that Baghdad could somehow siphon off some of that uranium and spirit it back to Iraq was preposterous.

The Pentagon's own intelligence-gathering unit – the Defense Intelligence Agency – however, immediately recognized the report for its huge potential to please Vice President Cheney, not to mention its direct boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and wrote it up in a DIA publication. The various investigations of intelligence performance on Iraq show that Cheney took a real shine to the report. Never mind its dubious provenance, or that it could be shown to be false on its face; it served his goal of portraying Iraq as a threat.

The DIA report was on Cheney's desk one morning in February 2002, when the CIA briefer arrived with the the president's Daily Brief. I'll bet Cheney rues that day, for he made the mistake of asking the briefer to find out what CIA analysts thought of the Iraq-Niger report. CIA managers decided to send Joe Wilson to Niger to seek more information on the report. Who better? Wilson, fluent in French, had served in Niger, and had been our last acting ambassador in Baghdad. And he had been asked by the CIA to perform similar special assignments since his retirement from the Department of State.

Wilson went to Niger, found the story baseless – as had previous investigations by the U.S. embassy in Niger and a U.S. general dispatched from Heidelberg – and reported this promptly to the CIA officials who had sent him, who in turn advised the office of the vice president.

No matter. Cheney and Libby put the report on life support and eventually insisted that it be included in the (in)famous NIE prepared in the fall of 2002. The malleable Tenet acquiesced to leaving the DIA-crafted language in the NIE that he signed and released on Oct. 1, 2002. Yet, a day or two later, Tenet seems to have had a pang of conscience; he successfully pleaded with the White House to excise the Iraq-Niger story from a key presidential speech – but the train had left the station. On Oct. 7, President Bush warned the nation that the first sign that Iraq has a nuclear weapon "could come in the form of a mushroom cloud" – a formula repeated by Condoleezza Rice on Oct. 8 and then-Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clark on Oct. 9. On Oct. 10 and 11, the Senate and House voted for war.

Fast forward to January 2003, when President Bush's State of the Union address pulled out all stops in beating the drums for war. As Joe Wilson watched the speech, he found it puzzling to hear the president repeat the story about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa. There must be new intelligence on this, thought Wilson, but he quickly learned it was the same sorry story. He quietly sought to persuade the White House to issue a correction, but was given the brush off. Wilson persisted, and in the end warned then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that, as a matter of conscience, he would be forced to tell the American people that the uranium story was bogus. The reply, through a Rice intermediary: "Go ahead! Who will believe you?"

Six months later, in early July 2003 – more than three months into the war in Iraq – the administration's claims of "Mission Accomplished" proved to be premature. And, worse still, no WMD were anywhere to be found. Even the domesticated U.S. press that led the cheerleading for war seemed a bit unnerved at the discovery that there were no discoveries. (This was before outrage fatigue set in.) Things at the White House were growing very tense.

It is now abundantly clear – thanks to the release of Fitzgerald's court papers – how the White House chose to counter Wilson's charge that the administration had "twisted" intelligence to justify war. Adding insult to injury, not only did Wilson author the July 6 New York Times op-ed titled "What I Did Not Find in Africa;" he also chose to forgo diplomatic parlance in telling Washington Post reporters, "This begs the question regarding what else they are lying about." Wilson had thrown down the gauntlet.

In something of a panic, Cheney picked it up. First, he and Libby tried to get the CIA to support the story about Iraq and Niger. The answer was no. So the administration conceded publicly on July 7 that the information should not have been included in the State Of The Union address. On July 8, Cheney's counteroffensive began. According to Libby, he was dispatched to Bush administration darling Judy Miller of The New York Times to explain why Wilson's charges were wrong. The White House did not twist the intelligence to justify invading Iraq: "The CIA made us do it."

Toward this end, Libby claims he was given permission by Cheney and Bush to release information from the NIE, which, as noted above, had already been cooked to Cheney's recipe. The passage chosen for highlighting? A paragraph buried on page 24 of the 90-page NIE:

"Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake. … A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of 'pure uranium' (probably yellowcake) to Iraq."

I can safely assume that Libby did not tell Miller of the official position of state department intelligence analysts that the uranium allegation was "highly dubious." For once, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell listened to them and faced down Libby. Indeed, Powell deliberately excluded this particular canard in preparing his Feb. 5, 2003, UN speech, into which he threw everything else but the kitchen sink. That's how bad it was.

With the help of this "declassified" passage, Libby could show Judy Miller that the White House had been badly misled. The blame was placed on the intelligence gatherers, not on the White House. In mid-February 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency was given the documents upon which the Iraq-Niger story was based, they were immediately found to be forgeries. Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote a blistering letter to President Bush before the attack on Iraq, claiming that he had been deceived into voting for war on the basis of forged documents. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., refused to ask the FBI to investigate who was responsible.

Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald, however, has an independent bent – plus the authority to look at these aspects of the litany of leaks. I'll bet he has a good idea of who orchestrated the forgery. Indeed, I will not be surprised if the operation is eventually traced back to the office of the vice president.

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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