A Formidable Hawk Goes Down

Losing I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, perhaps the most influential national security official without a formal cabinet rank, marks a serious blow to the George W. Bush administration and particularly to the hawks who led the drive to war in Iraq.

Like his boss Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, Libby, who was indicted Friday for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements in connection with leaking the identity of a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been by all accounts a formidable bureaucratic operator who used the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to push U.S. foreign policy hard in a unilateralist, if not neo-imperial, direction.

That skill, coupled with the enormous size of Cheney’s national security staff, and the vice president’s unprecedented influence on foreign policy-making, led one former National Security Council aide to observe to IPS in late 2003 that Libby "is able to run circles around Condi," a reference to Bush’s own national security adviser at the time and the present secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

Libby’s ties to Cheney go back to when the vice president served as defense secretary during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. A constant companion of Cheney and a frequent guest at Cheney’s Rocky Mountain retreat, their closeness raises the question of whether Libby, in exposing Valerie Plame’s identity, was acting at his boss’s behest – a question that remains unanswered by Friday’s indictment.

With a family and a maximum 30-year possible prison sentence hanging over his head, a major question is whether Libby might yet implicate Cheney in any plea bargain.

A protégé of former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was his teacher at Yale University in the 1970s and then hired him onto the policy-planning staff of the State Department under former President Ronald Reagan, Libby, a well-heeled Washington attorney by profession, served Cheney as both chief of staff and his principal national security adviser. He was also linked directly to Bush as an "Assistant to the President."

His next stint in government came during Cheney’s tenure at the Pentagon, when Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense for policy, recruited him for top Pentagon posts under Bush I, the last as Wolfowitz’s principal deputy.

After the first Gulf War, Cheney tasked Wolfowitz and Libby with developing the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), a document designed to map out global U.S. strategy over a five- to 10-year period. When a draft of the document was leaked to the New York Times, its ambition and grandiosity so embarrassed the Bush administration that the two were almost fired from their posts.

The draft called for a world order based on U.S. military power rather than collective security mechanisms like the United Nations. It called for the U.S. to prevent the emergence of any possible global or even regional rival either through co-optation or confrontation, and defined the U.S. objective in the Middle East as "remain(ing) the predominant outside power in the region."

It also called for preemptive or even preventive military action against rogue states seeking nuclear weapons and the development of new nuclear weapons, and the use of "ad hoc assemblies," rather than alliances, such as NATO, in taking military action. It predicted that U.S. military intervention in maintaining order around the world would become a "constant fixture" of the new order.

While rejected by the realists who dominated the Bush I administration, this vision of a unipolar, U.S.-dominated world was explicitly endorsed in 1997 in the founding charter of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which was signed by 25 prominent hawks who would go on to take top positions under Bush II, including Cheney himself, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, neoconservative majordomo Richard Perle, as well as Libby himself.

At the time, Libby was back in private law practice representing, among others, Marc Rich, the fugitive Swiss-Israeli businessman and financier, whose renunciation of his U.S. citizenship and receipt of an eleventh-hour pardon by Bill Clinton in 2001 caused a major storm in Congress.

Many of the middlemen who profited from oil sales by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Oil-for-Food program were closely tied to Rich, according to a recent investigation by Business Week magazine.

In the late 1990s, Libby also served as general counsel to the so-called Cox Committee, a Congressional inquiry into alleged military and nuclear espionage conducted by China against the United States.

Its final report in 1999, which, among other conclusions, found that Beijing’s military spending was twice as much as CIA estimates, was widely denounced by experts as filled with speculation, unproven assumptions and outright errors apparently designed to promote both new military spending by the U.S. and a more confrontational policy toward China.

Libby returned to public life when Cheney appointed him to head his staff in that same year, and, by all accounts, played critical roles not only in ensuring that the DPG’s main points were incorporated into the National Security Strategy of the United States in December 2002, but also in the march to war against Iraq.

In particular, Libby reportedly played a critical role in circumventing the formal intelligence review process that is designed to ensure that intelligence reports are carefully screened and vetted by professional analysts in the CIA, the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and elsewhere before they make their way to policy-makers in the White House.

Thus, when the Pentagon established at least two offices to gather and review "raw intelligence" regarding Iraq’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, their findings were reported directly to Libby, according to at least one first-hand observer, ret. Lt. Col Karen Kwiatkowski, who would presumably pass them along to Cheney and the White House.

Libby and Cheney, who both were known to be contemptuous of the CIA in part because it had failed to uncover Iraq’s nuclear program before the 1991 Gulf War, also made frequent visits to CIA headquarters to quiz officers about specific intelligence reports and press them to follow up.

A number of veteran intelligence officers have claimed that this kind of pressure, as well as the informal flow of reports from the Pentagon to the White House, essentially "corrupted" the process.

Indeed, Cheney was the first senior official to claim that Iraq had indeed reactivated its nuclear weapons program – in a series of television appearances in March 2002, a full year before the U.S. invasion. The CIA and other intelligence agencies were much more circumspect about the question at the time.

Libby also prepared a draft of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Feb. 7, 2003 presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq’s alleged WMD programs.

"This is bullshit," Powell reportedly shouted in anger and frustration while throwing the draft papers up in the air after reviewing it with CIA and State Department analysts on the eve of his U.N. appearance.

The night that Baghdad fell to U.S. forces two months later, Libby celebrated with a quiet, intimate dinner at the vice president’s residence with the Cheneys, Wolfowitz, and Defense Policy Board member and war booster, Ken Adelman, and his wife, Carol, according to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Asked by Lynne Cheney what he thought of the war’s outcome, Libby quietly said, "Wonderful."

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.