The top two stories on yesterday’s front page heralded an event long anticipated in my various columns on the subject: the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame which may soon be dubbed Scooter-gate is about to morph into a scandal that could bring down the roof on this administration, and strike a knock-out blow to the War Party. .
Federal prosecutors are hot on the trail of a series of crimes that may involve more than just the two primary suspects first identified by UPI’s Richard Sale Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the Vice President’s chief of staff, and John Hannah, the VP’s Middle East policy wonk. As the Antiwar.com staff got ready to put up Tuesday’s front page, Matt Drudge had a lead-in to the story that read:
“Prosecutors conduct series of meetings described as ‘tense, combative’… Armed with handwritten White House notes, detailed cell phone logs, e-mails between presidential aides and reporters, prosecutors demand explanations of conversations… Developing…”
Presidential aides? Libby is officially an Assistant to the President, but the use of the plural is intriguing. Just how many neocons nested in the very heart of our government are going to be frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs? I sure hope they show it on television!
The trial and you can bet there’s going to be one promises to be the best show since the Watergate hearings. Time to dust off the old television, get out the popcorn-maker, and stock up on Cheezits. It’s party time!
What we’ll be celebrating, as special counsel Patrick J. “Bulldog” Fitzgerald prosecutes this case, is the Waterloo of the War Party. And it is shaping up to be a real turkey shoot. Hidden amid the inner branches of the national security bureaucracy, the beleaguered nests of the neocons, badly shaken by the enveloping political storm, will start dropping to the ground, and the occupants, flushed out, will scatter, screeching in protest.
The trial of “Scooter” Libby, Hannah, and we don’t know how many others, is going to be a veritable voyage of discovery. Aside from its sheer entertainment value, which ought to be considerable, it will no doubt prove to be educational as well. We’ll sail into the vast, uncharted regions of the Warfare State, exploring whole continents we never knew existed. Ah, but some of us knew .
The propaganda campaign that led to war was conducted out of a little-known department of the Pentagon bureaucracy, indeed one that did not exist until the countdown to war. The Office of Special Plans, under Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, bypassed the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and side-stepped their Air Force counterpart, piping a steady diet of lies into the President’s otherwise empty head including the canard that Saddam had plotted to procure uranium from “an African nation,” which inexplicably wound up in the President’s 2003 State of the Union speech.
The Vice President’s office played a key role in this operation: they were the Praetorian Guard that surrounded the neocon propaganda shop: also its eyes, ears, and mouthpiece. The political operatives handled the media, filtering the public perception of the way decisions were being made, while the Lie Factory worked overtime to manufacture multiple pretexts for war. Long after it was no longer possible to shield the deception, it was still probable that the deceivers would remain hidden. But when they went so far as to commit a crime that could easily be traced back to them exposing the identity of an undercover CIA agent the War Party made a fateful and quite possibly fatal error.
Joe Wilson, fiercely protective of his wife, has been all over them, and all over the media, successfully taking the battle to the enemy. George Tenet and the top CIA brass took up his cause with alacrity, and the series of letters sent by the CIA to the Department of Justice underscores the persistence with which they pursued this case. Ashcroft’s recusal was the beginning of the end for the cabal. The appointment of Fitzgerald, whose reputation as a dogged prosecutor is well-earned, sealed their fate.
It is generally assumed that if charges are brought, chief among them will be violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes the identification of an undercover agent a felony punishable by 10 years in the slammer and a $50,000 fine. The law was designed, in the early 1980s, specifically to go after ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, who made a second career out of exposing his former brethren and placing their lives in mortal danger. That it is now being used against a rogue clique buried deep within the recesses of the U.S. government suggests that something a whole lot bigger is going on.
The intelligence identities bludgeon is being used to crack open a much wider criminal enterprise, one that subverted the intelligence process for its own ends, and, in effect, committed espionage. What were those ends, and what motivated the conspirators? On whose behalf did they manage to successfully divert American power away from Al Qaeda, and toward Iraq? We’re going to get quite an education, as the trial of the neocons unfolds, and at the end of it if we don’t all have advanced degrees in Neoconology, we’ll at least be well versed in the views and loyalties of this mystery cult, which, for the first time in recent years, will be given a highly visible public face by the defendants.
The political cognoscenti are well-acquainted with the above-ground intellectual edifice of the neocon network: centered in Washington, this is the constellation of all-too-familiar thinktanks and free-floating policy wonks who created and built up the institutions that generate neoconservative theory. The trial will give us a close look at the less visible centers of neocon power in the government, and let us see these ideologues in action: their underhanded methods, always teetering on the brink of legality, as well as their foreign connections.
Since this was an international operation, involving the bamboozling of at least three or four Western governments, the investigation is bound to extend overseas and a similar process is taking place in Britain, where Tony Blair’s government is in big trouble over the war scandal. Having fended off a preliminary skirmish over the death of a government scientist who served as a source for antiwar BBC broadcasts, Blair is facing yet another round of grilling, this time over the meretricious “intelligence” Parliament was spoon-fed by Britain’s Clinton and his New Labourite minions.
The Plame investigation raises an interesting and vital question: Why did the Washington cabal strike out so hard at Ms. Plame and her husband? Wilson’s mission to Niger not only disproved their uranium gambit, but also threatened to expose how the Niger uranium forgery was imported into the intelligence stream. The Washington Post reports that this case, too, is breaking fast and hard:
“A parallel FBI investigation into the apparent forgery of documents suggesting that Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger is ‘at a critical stage,’ according to a senior law enforcement official who declined to elaborate. That probe, conducted by FBI counterintelligence agents, was launched last spring after U.N. officials pronounced the documents crude forgeries.
As Joshua Micah Marshall points out, it was Dick Cheney who first raised the Niger uranium story in the Spring of 2002, and a few months later presto! a batch of forged documents showed up, just like magic, in Italy. Elisabetta Burba, a reporter for an Italian glossy, Panorama, got them from “an Italian security consultant,” and the editor of Panorama, Carlo Rossella, instead of authorizing a trip to Niger to investigate the matter, had Burba hand over the documents to the American embassy.
Why the Americans, instead of the Italian intelligence services? Panorama, I note in passing, is owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a faithful supporter of Bush’s war policies.
The documents were forwarded to Washington, where the CIA and other intelligence analysts flatly pronounced them fakes. But, as Marshall puts it, “that didn’t stop their life in the U.S. national security bureaucracy.” Why not? Because the War Party needed ammunition in their fight to take us into Iraq, and didn’t mind shooting a few blanks so long as they made a loud noise.
Take a look at this post by Marshall to get an idea of the exact chronology, but the timing of all this is suspiciously serendipitous. The U.S. and the Brits, working in tandem, had launched a major propaganda offensive at September’s end, 2002, pushing claims that Saddam was actively developing a nuclear capacity. The infamous Blair “dossier” averred that “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
But the BBC was already on the case, and on the receiving end of leaks from the British intelligence community that the whole thing was a lot of malarkey. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) took an interest, and wanted to know what evidence the British Prime Minister had to back up his allegation. Across the Atlantic, the CIA was fighting off attempts by the neocons to get the nuclear claims incorporated in the administration’s talking points. The President was scheduled to give a speech in Cincinnati, where the plan was to run the uranium-from-Africa story up the flagpole and see if anyone saluted. The same material was included in a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate released to Congress in late September: the CIA’s skepticism was relegated to a few footnotes.
The CIA had clearly lost the first round, but Director Tenet hadn’t survived Washington’s transition to Republican rule for nothing: he picked up the phone and put in a call to National Security advisor Steve Hadley and told him to delete all references to the African uranium story from the President’s speech. Hadley did so, but the African uranium angle was too good for the War Party to pass up, and it popped up again in yet another presidential peroration: Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech. That the CIA is now being blamed for intelligence failures is the height of hypocrisy on the part of the accusers.
It wasn’t until a few days after the President delivered his address that the CIA got their hands on the Niger uranium documents, which were also turned over to the IAEA: both quickly discovered they were forgeries, and crude ones at that.
One of the more interesting, and colorful, aspects of the intrigue surrounding the Niger uranium story is the exact origin of these documents. Who forged them?
Italian investigators are pursuing leads that suggest a likely source for the required materials: a January, 2001 break-in at the Niger Embassy in Rome, in which files were plundered, and letterhead stationary was taken, while valuables were left undisturbed. The thieves also got away with official seals. Months passed, and SISME, the Italian intelligence service, found itself in possession of documents that looked authentic, and purported to detail Saddam’s efforts to procure uranium from Niger. From SISME to Ms. Burba to the American embassy and thence on to Washington, the trajectory of the Niger uranium story was an arrow of disinformation aimed straight at the White House. There was only one problem: officials who supposedly signed these documents hadn’t worked for Niger’s government in years, and they referenced agencies that had long since been disbanded. The deception was swiftly uncovered, albeit not until more objective analysts could get a look at them.
A rogue group of U.S. government officials, in league with whomever broke into the Niger embassy in Rome, somehow injected these bogus documents into the intelligence stream, which then flowed directly into the President’s State of the Union. Whoever did it is guilty of much more than violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Try espionage on for size.
This is the same rogue group, operating out of the Office of Special Plans as well as the Vice President’s office, that funneled a cascading series of lies concocted by the Iraqi National Congress, and other sources, incorporating them into the mythology of this war. Middle East expert Prof. Juan Cole relates that the two suspects so far named by Richard Sale of UPI, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and John Hannah,
“Form part of a 13-man vice presidential advisory team, sort of a veep NSC [National Security Council], which helps underpin Cheney’s dominance in the U.S. foreign policy area. Hannah is a neoconservative and old cold warrior who is really more of a Soviet expert than a Middle East expert. But in the 90s he for a while headed up the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank that represents the interests of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC).
“ Hannah had fingers in all three rotten pies from which the worst intel came Sharon’s office in Israel, the Pentagon Office of Special Plans (for which Hannah served as a liaison to Cheney), and fraudster Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Hannah had probably been the one who fed Cheney the Niger uranium story, triggering a Cheney request to the CIA to verify it and thence Joe Wilson’s trip to Niamey in spring of 2002, where he found the story to be an absurd falsehood on the face of it.”
As the myths of Saddam’s military power are debunked, one by one, and the case for the Iraq war collapses, the neocons’ day of reckoning is at hand. They pulled a fast one: on the President, on the country, and on the beleaguered people of Iraq. Now they will get their comeuppance.
More than the defendants will stand trial in a Washington D.C. federal courthouse, when the indictments come down: the rationale for war with Iraq will be judged either innocent or guilty of deceiving the people. The fate of the individuals involved, at that point, will become largely irrelevant. The mere fact that they were hauled into court, along with the nature of the charges, will be enough to discredit the war, and make its continuation all the more intolerable.
Our constitutional republic has not endured, lo these many years, without exercising its natural defenses. The system, challenged by neo-Jacobin revolutionaries who seized power in a veritable coup, reacted instinctively to preserve itself, releasing antibodies in the form of federal prosecutors intent on destroying the alien intruders.
The body politic, shocked by 9/11, temporarily lost its natural resistance to incursions from the outside. The War Party took full advantage of this vulnerability to move in and take over. With Congress, the State Department, and the intelligence community in a depleted near-helpless state, American foreign policy was hijacked by the neocons, along with the nation’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. The thieves might even have gotten away with it, if not for the arrogance that comes with the acquisition of great power. They over-reached themselves, as human beings always do and now the real fun begins.
I keep thinking of the photo that accompanied Matt Drudge’s blaring headline about the break in this case. It was a shot of Cheney, with the President off to the side, taken through a White House window. The bare branches of trees and the slats of the window crisscrossed the Vice President’s image in such a way that it almost looked like a shot taken through the barred window of a jail cell.