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A Second Take on Scooter-gate

Editorial note: The original version of this column, which ran on October 3, contained a number of errors involving dates, which I have now corrected. I have also added a significant amount of new material, so much that it is, for all intents and purposes, quite a different piece from the original.

It isn’t generally known that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff – now revealed as New York Times reporter Judith Miller‘s source in the Plame affair – is a novelist, as well as a policymaker. Aside from being a co-author of the Bush administration’s narrative of “weapons of mass destruction” and Iraq’s alleged links to al-Qaeda – a story that turned out to be a fable – he is also the author of The Apprentice, published in 1996, a novel set against the backdrop of the Russo-Japanese war. Unlike Lynne Cheney and Richard Perle, whose literary efforts in this vein have garnered less than stellar reviews, Libby appears to have some genuine talent as a fabulist. “As a work of prose, The Apprentice is easily the best of all neoconservative novels ever written,” writes the journalist Jeet Heer, adding: “A dismal compliment, you could say, given the competition. Still, Libby has written a strong first novel that convincingly re-creates an exotic world.” Since becoming the vice president’s chief adviser and confidante, however, Libby has had little time to indulge his artistic imagination. In a profile of Libby published in the National Journal at the beginning of Bush’s first term, he said:

“I try to stay up somewhat with fiction. I am looking forward to writing again some day. But the job is pretty demanding, and I haven’t been progressing very far on the next novel.”

It could be that Libby will have plenty of time to work on his next novel in the very near future – that is, if federal prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has anything to say about it. A stretch in prison could very well give Libby the space to hone his literary talent and fulfill his promise as the foremost neocon novelist – a possibility that seems increasingly likely.

Now that Libby has been identified as Ms. Miller’s source, the focus in the investigation into who “outed” CIA agent Valerie Plame has shifted from Miller and Bush adviser Karl Rove to one of the most powerful men in Washington: “Libby Is to Cheney What Cheney Is to Bush,” as a recent Washington Post headline put it. “Plame-gate” – always a bit of an awkward phrase, and not that descriptive, in any case – has now become Scooter-gate, which, you’ll have to agree, is a much more mellifluous and catchy all-purpose rubric for Fitzgerald’s ever widening investigation, which now seems to be reaching its dramatic climax.

In a denouement worthy of a good novel, prosecutor Fitzgerald is getting ready to wind up his probe and either decline to press any charges – unlikely, but within the realm of the remotely possible – or start issuing indictments. If the latter, then the indictments are likely to fly fast and furious, as this widely discussed clip from a Washington Post story would indicate:

“A new theory about Fitzgerald’s aim has emerged in recent weeks from two lawyers who have had extensive conversations with the prosecutor while representing witnesses in the case. They surmise that Fitzgerald is considering whether he can bring charges of a criminal conspiracy perpetrated by a group of senior Bush administration officials. Under this legal tactic, Fitzgerald would attempt to establish that at least two or more officials agreed to take affirmative steps to discredit and retaliate against Wilson and leak sensitive government information about his wife. To prove a criminal conspiracy, the actions need not have been criminal, but conspirators must have had a criminal purpose.”

“A criminal conspiracy” – but what was its purpose? Aside from sliming former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson, who had the temerity to debunk the most egregious of the administration’s tall tales of Iraqi WMD, and outing his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent, that is.

The characters in this Washington drama share a single characteristic, and it isn’t just that they all appear to be inveterate liars: the major players in this case were part of the campaign of deception that lured us into Iraq and dropped us into the middle of a maelstrom from which there seems to be no escape. Ms. Miller’s “reporting” on Iraq’s alleged WMD required a retraction and apology from the editors of the New York Times: it appears she was using the front page of that venerable paper to broadcast the same sort of propaganda one might expect in the pages of the New York Post or the Weekly Standard.

Scooter was at the epicenter of this threatening storm of misinformation, which eventually reached Katrina-esque proportions in its intensity: he and his boss were pushing hard on the CIA to come up with the evidence of Saddam’s WMD in order to justify an invasion. They both personally visited CIA analysts at Langley and berated them for not coming up with the goods; when the spooks demurred, they did an end-run around the intelligence community, setting up what Mother Jones magazine has called “the lie factory.”

This is the criminal conspiracy Fitzgerald has set about uncovering. It isn’t about Karl Rove, as I said months ago; it isn’t about a possible violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, as I maintained from the beginning. It’s about how a small group of government officials, in tandem with their overseas allies, engaged in a criminal conspiracy to falsify “intelligence” – and, in the process, lie the nation into war.

The event that ostensibly precipitated Fitzgerald’s probe – the publication of Valerie Plame’s name in a column by Robert Novak published in the Chicago Sun-Times – has garnered the lion’s share of media attention, but Fitzgerald’s concerns appear to have extended way beyond this starting point. As the Washington Post reported back in July:

“Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has asked not only about how CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name was leaked but also how the administration went about shifting responsibility from the White House to the CIA for having included 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Africa, an assertion that was later disputed.”

From the possible violation of a law that had only been successfully prosecuted on a single occasion, and for which the penalty is a few years in the hoosegow and a hefty but payable fine, the investigation morphed into a probe of one of the most baffling mysteries of recent times: how did the White House fall for the Niger uranium forgeries, crude fabrications of documents that purported to show Saddam’s Iraq was trying to procure fissionable uranium – yellowcake – from the African nation of Niger? It only took the International Atomic Energy Agency a few hours with Google to debunk this “evidence” of Iraq’s efforts to build nukes, yet somehow the infamous 16 words pinpointing “Africa” as the site of Iraq’s supposed violation made it into the president’s 2003 State of the Union address. Who snookered the White House?

This question, I believe, was the real genesis of the inquiry Scooter-gate, and not the outing of Valerie Plame, which didn’t come until July 14, 2003.

The idea that a special prosecutor was appointed, and an 18-month investigation launched, solely because Joe Wilson’s wife was out of a job never made much sense. The outing of a CIA agent was only the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the latest in a series of incidents that underscored a gaping hole in our national security defenses. The outing of Plame – an act of utter disdain for the country, and provocative in itself – provided investigators, already hot on the trail of possible treason in high places, with an opening to make their inquiry public. “Bulldog” Fitzgerald had a bone to pick with the neocons, and once he got his teeth into it he wasn’t going to let go.

Many are wondering why Miller went to jail rather than utilize the waiver Libby’s lawyer now says was given her months ago. The reason is because Floyd Abrams, her lawyer, insisted on gaining a key concession from Fitzgerald: that he would limit his questioning to Miller’s conversations with Libby.

This narrowing condition was essential if Miller was going to continue to protect her other friends – notably Ahmed Chalabi and the INC, the source of much of her “reporting” on Iraq. Miller was at the center of the propaganda campaign that suckered us into war. Her prize source, Chalabi, even boasted that he and his fellow fabricators were “heroes in error” when they funneled phony “evidence” of Iraq’s nonexistent WMD into the U.S. intelligence stream. As the War Party’s major megaphone in the American media, retailing the tall tales spun by the INC and the Pentagon’s “Office of Special Plans,” Miller is a fitting martyr for the neocon cause: self-promoting, shameless, and an accomplished liar on a grand scale, she masquerades as the upholder of the “freedom” of journalists to protect government insiders engaged in criminal actions that can only be described as treasonous.

Even more self-consciously grandiose than Miller, however, we have Libby’s letter to her, in which he says how much he “misses” her reporting – yeah, I’ll bet! – and reiterates what we all know by now: that the waiver to testify was given to her long ago, and she simply chose not to cooperate unless certain other conditions were met. Libby concludes his missive on a distinctly odd note:

“You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover—Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—-and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers.”

If we think of the criminal conspiracy targeted by Fitzgerald as a grove of aspens, then, yes, the neocons turn in clusters, all right, because their roots connect them: the neocon network in Washington is deeply rooted in the national security bureaucracy. Libby was brought to Washington in 1981 by former deputy secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, now head of the World Bank, then working at the State Department; Libby had been one of his students at Yale. In 1989, Wolfowitz brought him back to government service, this time at the Pentagon. During the Clinton interregnum, Libby had his hands full being Marc Rich’s lawyer and writing The Apprentice. He became a central figure in the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, and co-authored, with Wolfowitz, a policy memo charting a post-Cold War foreign policy and defense stance positing American hegemony on every continent and broaching, for the first time, the policy of preemptive aggression that is today enshrined in the Bush Doctrine.

While Libby is a towering aspen, whose fall will make a rather loud noise, others in the same stand have already met a similar fate, and what we have here is a sort of domino effect. John Hannah, Cheney’s special assistant for Middle East affairs, was fingered early on in this investigation. Last year, Richard Sale of UPI reported a rare leak from the investigators:

“‘We believe that Hannah was the major player in this,’ one federal law-enforcement officer said. Calls to the vice president’s office were not returned, nor did Hannah and Libby return calls. The strategy of the FBI is to make clear to Hannah ‘that he faces a real possibility of doing jail time’ as a way to pressure him to name superiors, one federal law-enforcement official said.”

Hannah has an interesting background. In the early 1990s, he served as head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank associated with the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). As Middle East scholar Juan Cole pointed out, Hannah was a key figure in the intelligence manipulation effort that legitimized phony “evidence” of Iraq’s WMD cooked up by Chalabi. Hannah, like the other aspens in the grove, turned with the rest of the cluster when it came to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:

“The WINEP pro-Likud network, which includes Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith in the Pentagon as well as Libby and Hannah at Cheney’s office, has virtually dictated Bush administration Middle East policy. Wilson’s debunking of one of its central claims might well have led Cheney to fire Hannah or to disregard his opinion. The WINEP crowd takes no prisoners and is very determined, over decades, to get its way. (Josh Marshall notes that they are already trying to protect Hannah with denials he could possibly have been involved, presumably meaning that they would be willing to throw Libby to the dogs.) Wilson had to be punished, from their point of view, and if possible marginalized, to protect Hannah’s position.”

Hannah may have thrown Libby to the dogs, just to save his own skin. This wouldn’t be any more surprising than the actions of former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, who will plead guilty to spying for Israel in return for leniency in sentencing – and for testifying against his handlers, Steve Rosen, who for 20 years served as AIPAC’s foreign policy director, and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s top Iran specialist. Rosen and Weissman pumped Franklin for classified information and handed it over to Israeli “diplomats” stationed in Washington. The trial is scheduled for January.

While Hannah, the former director of AIPAC’s thinktank, was deeply involved in exposing a vitally important U.S. intelligence asset – Plame worked undercover in the CIA’s WMD proliferation unit – AIPAC officials Rosen and Weissman were sneaking around Washington, meeting Franklin in train stations, and handing over U.S. secrets to Israeli spies.

If we put Franklin’s shenanigans [.pdf] with the AIPAC duo and the Israelis in this context, we see that other serious breaches in our security – including the Plame affair, the Niger uranium deception, and the Chalabi-Iran connection – came to light during roughly the same time period. It is useful to look at a timeline:

Since beginning of 2003, the FBI has been hot on the trails of two centers of subversion within the U.S. government – one in the Pentagon, and the other in the office of the Vice President. These two investigations are linked not only because of the personal and political ties between the various players, but also due to the common motives and methods of the conspirators. One investigation fed the other, since they were both essentially about the same small clique of government officials – the neoconservatives – who had led us down the path to war, and were intent on provoking another one, this time with Iran.

As the FBI reviewed Franklin’s conversations with Rosen, Weissman, and the Israelis, the totality of what had happened to U.S. national security in light of the Chalabi revelations, and the Plame affair, had to have dawned on them. Many of the key individuals involved, in the Vice President’s office and the Defense Department’s policy section section (where Franklin worked) had intimate links with Israel, and specifically the radical Likud party policies favored by the neoconservatives. They also had very close relations with Chalabi. Outing Plame was only a measure of the ruthlessness of this cabal: Franklin, and Chalabi’s betrayal, showed that they were not above espionage. The U.S. government, after years of tolerating a fifth column in Washington, was finally moved to crack down.

Now that our attention is focused on Libby, the real outlines of the scandal that will envelope this administration are becoming clearer by the day. Scooter-gate isn’t about revenge, although that’s part of it; it isn’t about intra-bureaucratic infighting, although that certainly played a role; and it sure isn’t about Karl Rove, as the chattering classes were convinced only a few weeks ago. It is about how a band of ruthless ideologues lied us into war – and betrayed their country in the process. It’s about a criminal conspiracy finally felled by its own hubris.

Who knows how many neocons will be caught up in Fitzgerald’s net? Scooter, Hannah, maybe even John Bolton – as I predicted a few months ago – and any number of smaller fry will face their moment of truth in the dock.

As I wrote last year, this is the War Party’s Waterloo. So get out the popcorn, and the chips-and-dip, pull up a chair, and let the show trial begin!

Read more by Justin Raimondo