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November 7, 2005

Disturbing Questions Raised by Cover-Up Timeline


by Paul Sperry

At the heart of the obstruction case against Scooter Libby is a cover-up involving co-conspirators from the White House Iraq Group. And they're hiding something far more damaging than the vindictive outing of a war critic's undercover wife, as this chilling timeline reveals:

Sept. 8, 2002: Vice President Dick Cheney and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice go on the Sunday talk shows to warn the nation that Saddam Hussein is "actively and aggressively" trying to acquire nuclear weapons. They cite a front-page New York Times story planted with neocon tool Judith Miller. Rice even draws the specter of a "mushroom cloud" over America.

Sept. 9: Following the kickoff of the propaganda campaign against Hussein, Rice's deputy Stephen Hadley meets with Italy's intelligence chief, Nicolo Pollari.

Oct. 1: The U.S. intelligence community sends a 90-plus page dossier on Iraq to the White House. Italian rumors of an Iraq-Niger uranium deal are not credible enough to make the report's "Key Judgments" section. They do not rise anywhere close to the top of the report – the executive summary read by top decision-makers like the president. In fact, they are called "highly dubious" in footnotes contained in Annex A.

Oct. 5 and 6: The CIA warns Rice and Hadley that the uranium allegation is dubious, and advises them to pull it from a draft of President Bush's planned speech in Cincinnati. They reluctantly agree.

Oct. 9: An Italian journalist working for a magazine owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi provides the U.S. Embassy in Rome with copies of documents alleging an Iraq-Niger uranium deal. Berlusconi later joins Bush's "coalition of the willing" to attack and occupy Iraq.

October: Later in the month, the State Department receives copies of the Niger documents from Italy, which had also provided them to the British government. Copies are shared with CIA officials around the middle of the month.

Dec. 19: State releases a "fact sheet" on Iraq accusing it of hiding "efforts to procure uranium from Niger."

Dec. 19: Seeing the alarming charge, the IAEA, a watchdog group conducting nuclear inspections in Iraq, makes a formal request to State to see any "actionable information" underlying its uranium allegation so it can confront Baghdad with it.

Jan. 28, 2003: Bush, in making a case for war in his State of the Union address, cites evidence that Iraq "recently" tried to buy uranium from Africa – a charge that, when combined with his twin charge that Iraq is trying to obtain aluminum tubes to help process the uranium, makes it seem as if Saddam Hussein is one step away from making a nuclear bomb. Of the litany of charges in the speech, they were the freshest and most shocking.

Jan. 29: IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei casts doubt on Bush's uranium claim in a Washington Post interview: "Niger denied it, Iraq denied it, and we haven't seen any contracts." He also shoots down the tubing claim.

Feb. 4: After a long struggle, IAEA's Iraq Nuclear Verification Office finally obtains copies of the documents it requested from the administration alleging contacts between Iraq and Niger officials.

Feb. 5: Secretary of State Colin Powell makes the case against Iraq to the UN, but leaves out the uranium charge.

Feb. 14: IAEA officials make a preliminary finding that the Niger documents are forgeries, based on the identification of several crude errors overlooked by the Bush administration for months.

March 7: The IAEA, in a report to the UN Security Council, formally announces the Iraq-Niger letters were faked.

March 19: The U.S. strikes Baghdad.

July 6: Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson reveals in an explosive New York Times op-ed that he shot down the Iraq-Niger rumors back in March 2002 following a CIA-sponsored fact-finding trip to Niger prompted by Cheney's intense interest in the rumors. Wilson at the time had reported back that the rumored uranium deal was "highly doubtful." The CIA circulated his findings in a report to the White House and other agencies.

July 7: The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee releases the findings of an investigation into the merits of Britain's dossier on Iraq, and among other things, they reveal that the CIA had tipped the British government off to the Niger uranium hoax the previous year.

July 8: The White House releases a prepared statement expressing regret for the State of the Union charge, admitting for the first time: "We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged."

July 12: Cheney devises a scheme with his top aide Libby to attack Wilson and control the fallout from his New York Times bombshell. Later that day, Libby calls pal Miller of the Times, along with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, to discuss Wilson's wife and how she works at the CIA.

July 21: Bush and Rice meet with Italy's Berlusconi at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

July 22: Bush's communications director Dan Bartlett calls an unusual press conference at the White House to brief reporters on Bush's discredited uranium charge after news of the CIA's earlier warnings find their way into the press. It turns out they are memorialized in at least two CIA memos to the White House. At the lengthy briefing, Hadley takes the blame for the radioactive 16 words finding their way back into the president's speech. His explanation: he simply forgot the CIA had previously tried to wave them off the charge (even though CIA analysts had raised new objections when they saw it resurface in the State of the Union drafts they were clearing). Hadley is not fired for serving the president poorly. Nor is he demoted or reprimanded. Far from it, the president subsequently promotes Hadley to Rice's position after she replaces Powell at State.

As you can see, this chronology reveals an unsettling juxtaposition of events. And it begs a number of questions the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee should demand answers to now that it has been publicly shamed by Democrats into finally investigating the administration's political manipulation of prewar intelligence.

For starters, why did the White House delay telling Congress and the American people that the president's uranium charge was spurious until after the war, when it knew it was underpinned by counterfeit documents before the war? Was it conspiring to defraud Congress and the American people?

Why did the administration delay sharing the Iraq nuke documents with the IAEA until after the president's State of the Union speech? Was it afraid the nuke watchdog would expose them as fakes to the world, and knock out a key charge in Bush's war speech?

The IAEA, using "open-source information" available on the Internet, exposed the Niger letters as frauds within 10 days. Officials there said they were easily identified as forgeries. So why didn't CIA and State Department officials do the same after having them in their hands for months? Why didn't they beat IAEA to the punch?

Or did they? Did they in fact expose them as forgeries, thereby forcing Bush in the final drafts of his speech to cut the transparently bogus reference to "500 tons," couch "Niger"as "Africa," and take the highly unusual step of sourcing a key charge in an American-led war to foreign intelligence – "the British government" – the same government his own intelligence agency had to set straight on the issue?

Did the president know the information was bad and use it anyway in an historic speech to Congress? Did he use the Brits as political cover? Did he clear this with Tony Blair?

And why didn't Powell correct the Iraq "fact sheet" his department issued in December 2002, which included the bogus uranium charge – especially when Powell left it out of his own speech? And why did he leave it out of his speech?

Congress needs to find out by calling Powell and his aides, as well as White House and CIA officials, to testify in formal and open hearings, while at the same time subpoenaing all White House copies of the two CIA memos, drafts of the State of the Union and the NIE report – unless, of course, it plans to forfeit its oversight powers along with its power to declare war. If that's the case, then it's incumbent upon the people to remind their representatives of their constitutional responsibilities by teaching them a painful lesson in the coming congressional elections.

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Sperry, formerly Washington bureau chief of Investors Business Daily, is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of Crude Politics: How Bush's Oil Cronies Hijacked the War on Terrorism (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003).

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