The investigation into who “outed” Valerie Plame, a CIA agent formerly engaged in deep-cover operations involving weapons of mass destruction, is now threatening to bring down some of the president’s top advisers, including Karl Rove, the Machiavellian mastermind behind the White House’s political machine. This has helped to create a partisan debate that obscures the potential significance of the investigation now being conducted by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. “Bulldog” Fitzgerald, and blocks any real understanding of what in blazes is going on. There’s one way to get beyond this political smokescreen, however, and that’s by clearing the air about the origins of this probe: what prompted it, and why is it so important?
In October 2001, the CIA received a report from a foreign intelligence agency claiming that an agreement between Iraq and the African nation of Niger had been inked sometime in early 1999, and that by late 2000 Niger’s president had personally communicated to Iraq his nation’s willingness to begin uranium shipments pronto.
This news was met with almost universal skepticism by the American intelligence community, and our ambassador to Niger dismissed the claim as being beyond the realm of possibility. In November, the same foreign intelligence service reiterated its claim, this time with more detail. The outcome of a proposal to have the source submit to a polygraph test remains unclear. What is clear is that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) reflected the views of the Niamey embassy: the uranium mines of Niger, tightly controlled by a French consortium, were an unlikely source to fuel Saddam’s alleged nuclear weapons program, particularly since the purported Iraqi order 500 tons of yellowcake amounted to one-sixth of that country’s annual production. Surely such a large chunk torn out of Niger’s yellowcake stock would attract a certain amount of notice. The whole notion just didn’t make any sense.
In the Bizarro World fantasyland inhabited by the purveyors of this tall tale, however, nonsense is truth. After all, the whole idea behind the various shibboleths manufactured to lie us into war is that the War Party makes up its own reality as it goes along. Saddam’s nuclear program, his alleged “links” to al-Qaeda, his stocks of chemical and biological weapons, his plan to bomb American cities using unmanned drones armed with WMD each and every detail of this administration’s war propaganda has been debunked.
Not only that, but the whole operation has been unmasked as part of a coordinated campaign carried out by a cabal of war hawks centered in the civilian upper echelons of the Pentagon and the office of the vice president. This group of neoconservative ideologues did not have many scruples about how they accomplished their grand deception. The suspicion that they may have compromised and deliberately corrupted the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the U.S. government in order to pull it off has solidified into a series of investigations, the most visible sign of which is Fitzgerald’s probe into the outing of Plame.
The effective termination of Ms. Plame’s career as a covert intelligence operative was occasioned by a campaign to discredit her husband, career diplomat Joseph C. Wilson, former ambassador to Gabon and the man assigned by the CIA to travel to Niger and investigate the alleged Iraqi attempt to procure uranium. Wilson’s findings generally debunked these claims, so he was astonished to hear, in the president’s 2003 State of the Union address, the now famous “16 words” a reference to the dubious claims he assumed his mission to Niger, undertaken in late February 2002, had put to rest.
Wilson went public with his findings in a New York Times op-ed piece, but Team Bush had already prepared the ambush, and it wasn’t long before they started taking potshots at him. The denouement came with the publication of a column by Robert Novak, in which Valerie Plame was identified as a CIA agent: her influence, it was said, had been used by Wilson to get the assignment and torpedo the mission for his own narrow partisan ends. Novak cited as sources “two senior administration officials.” This, many believe, was the spark that set off the political firestorm now engulfing the Washington landscape but that’s only part of the story. The other part, I believe, has to do with the investigation into how and why the Niger uranium story refused to die.
On Oct. 9, 2002, Elisabeth Burba, a journalist with the Italian magazine Panorama, provided the U.S. Embassy in Rome with copies of documents purporting to be correspondence finalizing the alleged Niger-Iraqi uranium deal. These documents were supposedly never even examined by the CIA: although copies were procured, they were allegedly never distributed. The INR, which did examine them, was extremely skeptical. The Senate report on intelligence “failures” in the run-up to war with Iraq cites the INR analyst as follows:
“The INR Iraq nuclear analyst told Committee staff that the thing that stood out immediately about the documents was that a companion document a document included with the Niger documents that did not relate to uranium mentioned some type of military campaign against major world powers. The members of the alleged military campaign included both Iraq and Iran, and was, according to the documents, being orchestrated through the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, which all struck the analyst as ‘completely implausible.’ Because the stamp on this document matched the stamp on the uranium document, the analyst thought that all of the documents were likely suspect. The analyst was unaware at the time of any formatting problems with the documents or inconsistencies with the names or dates.”
Here is what the “companion document” said, in full:
“REPORT ON THE MEETING REALIZE[D] WITH THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE PLAN OF ACTION ‘GLOBAL SUPPORT’
“Our group, which met today June 14, 2002, at 4 PM in the residence of the Iraqi ambassador, via della Camillucia n° 355 in Rome has determined as follows:
“The group directed by the ambassadors of Niger, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Iran have [plural in original] decided that “Global Support” which is composed of specialists belonging to different military corps of the allied countries will be active immediately.
“We are convinçed [sic] that the high profession of the military belonging to “Global Support” are [subjunctive plural in original] qualified with considerable experiences and very diversified in the sectors of defence and security and without a doubt they are responsible for the tasks assigned to them.
“The Global Support (our group) is active worldwide, in all areas and extreme climates. The competences of the members of Global Support are the following:
“Our support will above all be extended to:
- “governments submitted to an embargo;
- “governments continually suspected, and without just cause, of producing nuclear, bacteriological, chemical weapons; governments accused, without just cause, of international terrorism;
- “Islamic patriots accused of belonging to criminal organizations, to cells having non-existent ramifications.”
This farrago of fantastic fiction was affixed with the “seal of the embassy in Rome of the Republic of Niger.” As the INR analyst tartly observed in an e-mail message to his superiors, “You’ll note that it bears a funky Emb. of Niger stamp (to make it look official, I guess).”
It may have looked official, but the information contained in this document was so obviously phony that it’s no wonder the CIA didn’t care to look too closely. The political pressure was on: the neoconservatives in the administration, whose command post was in Dick Cheney‘s office, were pushing the Niger uranium story hard. John Bolton, then in charge of anti-proliferation efforts, had a hand in it. In spite of George Tenet’s efforts to stop it, this final push to put the Niger uranium hoax over the top succeeded, and a reference to it showed up in the president’s State of the Union speech.
The documents were handed over to the UN’s atomic energy agency, the IAEA, only after the president delivered his address, and it took their analysts only a few hours working with Google to expose them as the crudest of forgeries.
How did a not-very-convincing forgery wind up on the president’s desk and take on the form of the infamous “16 words” without being exposed at some point along the way as a hoax? This is the question the Senate intelligence report did not delve into, but a footnote to that report gives us a clue as to the origins of at least one aspect of the Plame probe:
“The documents from the Italian journalist are those that were later passed to the IAEA and discovered to have been forged. In March 2003, the Vice Chairman of the Committee, Senator Rockefeller, requested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigate the source of the documents, [This sentence is redacted], the motivation of those responsible for the forgeries, and the extent to which the forgeries were part of a disinformation campaign. Because of the FBI’s investigation into this matter, the Committee did not examine these issues.”
In media reports of the Plame investigation, the assumption is that Fitzgerald is investigating a possible violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $50,000 to “out” a CIA agent. However, the conditions attached to this statute are so specific the outer must know the agent is a covert operative, and must be motivated by a desire to obstruct or otherwise damage U.S. national security interests that a conviction seems highly problematic. As a fallback, we are bombarded with the cliché that “the cover-up is worse than the crime,” but surely charges of perjury are not, by themselves, enough to incite seismic convulsions so strong that they are shaking the foundations of the Washington power structure.
The main thrust of this investigation as well as parallel investigations into similar breaches of U.S. national security in recent days is aimed at the “disinformation campaign” described in that footnote to the Senate intelligence report. Who ran that campaign, and on whose behalf what government officials were in on it, and what help, if any, did they receive from foreign intelligence agencies? These are all questions, I believe, to which Fitzgerald is seeking answers. The Plame investigation is the result of the FBI’s counterintelligence efforts, which have apparently uncovered the roots of the “disinformation campaign” referred to in the Senate report. The esteemed senators on the intelligence committee were too cowardly to dig too deeply into it, but “Bulldog” Fitzgerald is kicking up a lot of dirt.
What the outing of CIA agent Plame has to do with all this is simple: whoever was out to get Wilson as a Mama’s boy with a partisan agenda was also pushing the Niger uranium story. They knew its falsity, and what’s more, they knew its provenance and yet they ushered it, unexamined, through the intelligence-vetting process. The outing of Plame, which was part of the cover-up, wasn’t the only blow aimed at U.S. intelligence capabilities by this group: whoever outed Plame also injected corrupted intelligence into the information stream that eventually washed up on the president’s desk. Somebody burned the White House, and badly: that’s why the Fitzgerald investigation has been allowed to proceed, and why it involves a lot more than violation of an obscure statute that has only been successfully prosecuted once.
Who burned the White House, and how did they pull it off? W. Patrick Lang, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Middle East bureau, is one of the few to see the rising importance of this question, and his answer is disturbing:
“The newsmedia have worked on this story for years now and several have well documented the result. A major TV news magazine hired me last year to help them look for those who knew the truth in this matter. They succeeded. A national wire service did the same thing without my help and has the result. The same is true of two other national news publications.
“It is very clear now that this document was forged by a couple of the shadowy ex-government characters who dwell in the environs of Washington and was planted in Italy on the basis of the personal contacts of one of them with the intention of influencing the debate over Iraq in this country. How do I know that?
“Well, I just do in the way that intelligence officers learn things. Good sources, multiple sources, first person accounts, probabilities, that is how one learns things. Could I swear to it in court? No. Intelligence conclusions are not things that can be sworn to in court.
“Nevertheless, one must ask why the newsmedia are sitting on this story. The answer seems simple. ‘Carrots and sticks, carrots and sticks.’ Work it out.”
I’ll leave it to others to translate Lang’s sibylline allusions: suffice to say that this is the language of statecraft, not legalese. Who is dispensing the carrots and the sticks and who is the recipient? The main dispenser of such items in this world is the world’s sole superpower, the good old US of A, and the answer to the latter question is clearly whatever “foreign government service” or combinations of services was responsible for the initial reports of a Niger-Iraq arrangement.
The White House belatedly points to the Brits as having independently corroborated the Niger uranium story, but as Josh Marshall points out, this claim amounts to a dizzying act of circular reasoning:
“Contrary to arguments that there was lots of independent evidence of uranium sales between Iraq and Niger, US government sources have told us that almost all of the important evidence derived from the phony documents. Specifically, it came from summaries of the documents Italian intelligence was distributing to other western intelligence agencies including those of the US, Britain and France in late 2001 and 2002.”
In an interview with Pacifica Radio, Vince Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s counterintelligence unit and intelligence director at the National Security Council under Reagan, delved into this subject of how the road to war with Iraq was paved with lies, and, in at least one case, an outright forgery:
“In many cases, the information was fabricated. Information, for example, about an alleged attempt by Saddam Hussein to acquire nuclear material, uranium, from Niger. This, we know now, was all based on fabricated documents. But it’s not clear yet either from this report, or from any other report who fabricated the documents. The documents were fabricated by supporters of the policy in the United States. The policy being that you had to invade Iraq in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and you had to do it soon to avoid the catastrophe that would be produced by Saddam Hussein’s use of alleged weapons of mass destruction.”
Question: “Well, Ambassador Wilson publicly refuted the claims particularly the 16 words in the President’s State of the Union address that the Iraqis were trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Niger. That document, I understand, was fabricated … it originally came out of Italian intelligence, I think SISME, or SISDEI’m not sure which one.
Cannistraro: “It was SISME, yeah. [D]uring the two-thousands when we’re talking about acquiring information on Iraq. It isn’t that anyone had a good source on Iraqthere weren’t any good sources. The Italian intelligence service, the military intelligence service, was acquiring information that was really being hand-fed to them by very dubious sources. The Niger documents, for example, which apparently were produced in the United States, yet were funneled through the Italians.”
Q: “Do we know who produced those documents? Because there’s some suspicion …”
Cannistraro: “I think I do, but I’d rather not speak about it right now, because I don’t think it’s a proven case …”
Q: “If I said ‘Michael Ledeen’?”
Cannistraro: “You’d be very close ”
Close, but not quite there? Cannistraro, like Lang, is laconic, but the question of Ledeen‘s involvement in this ought to ring all sorts of alarm bells. To begin with, Ledeen’s role as the go-between who facilitated the Iran-Contra “arms for hostages” deal via Israel, and his history as a founder and former director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), implies an Israeli connection. Not only that, but an Iranian connection as well: The congressional report on Iran-Contra shows that Israel’s involvement was initiated by 1985 overtures made by Iranian arms merchant Manucher Ghorbanifar. Thanks to the reporting of Joshua Marshall, Laura Rozen, and Paul Glastris, we now know we have the makings of “Iran-Contra II” in a series of Ledeen-Ghorbanifar reunions, held in Rome, starting in December, 2001, and, continuing into 2003, in Paris. Aside from Ledeen, the American contingent at the first meeting included Larry Franklin, now indicted [.pdf file] for committing espionage on behalf of Israel, and Harold Rhode, a close associate of Ledeen’s, who works in the Pentagon’s policy division as a top Iran specialist. According to the Washington Monthly piece,
“Also in attendance was Ghorbanifar and a number of other Iranians. One of the Iranians, according to two sources familiar with the meeting, was a former senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who claimed to have information about dissident ranks within the Iranian security services. The Washington Monthly has also learned from U.S. government sources that Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy’s military intelligence agency, SISMI, attended the meetings, as did the Italian Minister of Defense Antonio Martino, who is well-known in neoconservative circles in Washington.”
So, let’s see what we have here: a self-proclaimed Machiavellian with a record as a go-between and advocate on behalf of Israel, who brokered the illegal Iran-Contra arms-for hostages scheme and serves as the chief ideologue of Washington’s neoconservative network: an indicted spy who handed vital U.S. secrets over to Israel, and an unindicteded co-conspirator, Harold Rhode, who, according to UPI’s Richard Sale, is one of the subjects of an FBI investigation into the Office of Special Plans targeting individuals who “passed highly classified U.S. military information to the government of Israel, according to federal law enforcement officials.” Throw Ghorbanifar and the Italians into the mix, and we have all the ingredients for yet another off-the-books “rogue” operation the nexus of the neocon “disinformation campaign” that lied us into war.
Outing agent Plame was only one of the more minor crimes the disinformants committed in their ruthlessly single-minded drive to war. What we are seeing, at the moment, is only a single fin of the whale that is swimming just beneath the surface of this scandal.
It’s not about Rove, Bob Novak, Judith Miller, or any of the other bit players caught up in this maelstrom. It’s about a small group of strategically placed players in the national security bureaucracy who functioned as a two-way transmission belt of treason: feeding the White House, Congress, and the American public a steady diet of lies in the guise of “intelligence,” and, in the other direction, feeding vital U.S. secrets to its foreign sponsors and allies, including not only Israel but also Iran (the latter via Ahmed Chalabi).
What treason the neocons conceived, and carried out, and whose interests they served these are the real issues at the heart of this investigation. Alexander Cockburn, in his latest column in The Nation reprinted in Counterpunch balks at my use of the T-word:
“If you want to start waving words like ‘treason’ around, the AIPAC spy case is surely a better target than Karl Rove. Here we have a four-year FBI probe of possible treachery by senior U.S. government officials, as well as by Israel’s premier lobbying outfit in the United States, AIPAC. Yet compared with the mileage given to the Plame affair, coverage of the AIPAC spy case in the press has been sparse, and the commentary very demure, until you get to Justin Raimondo’s pugnacious columns on Antiwar.com.”
Demure I’m not: on that we can agree, but it gets better:
“Raimondo’s been comparing the AIPAC spy case to the indictment of State Department official Alger Hiss back in the 1940s, claiming that just as the foreign policy apparatus was allegedly riddled with Communist spies in the 1940s, the same apparatus is now riddled with Israel’s agents today. I’d reckon that when it comes to agents of influence the USSR back then couldn’t hold a candle to Israel today .”
Isn’t it odd how conservatives who delight in telling and retelling the story of how the KGB managed to penetrate the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and still ask “Who promoted Peress?” seem remarkably incurious as to the machinations of a similar cabal in government today? Conservative columnists routinely ignore developments in the Larry Franklin case, including his recent indictment, except for periodic attempts to dismiss the whole matter as thinly disguised “anti-Semitism.” Cockburn, a leftist, is of course acutely aware of the historical parallels:
“One answer in the McCarthyite era to accusations of spying was that the Soviet Union was an ally and the supposed transmission of ‘secrets’ was just a routine exchange of information on such matters as the schedule for the Dumbarton Oaks conference laying the groundwork for the UN (in which Hiss was involved.) Similar talk about ‘allies’ and ‘routine exchanges’ pops from the mouths of Israel’s supporters here, denouncing the FBI probe as some latterday equivalent of the persecution of Dreyfuss.”
Yet Cockburn still somehow manages to go all squishy on us:
“It’s perfectly obvious that Israel exerts huge influence on US policy. Men and women working in Israel’s interest throng Washington. But on the left, in the spy case just as in the Plame affair, we should be leery of words like traitor and ‘national security’. They cut both ways.”
Cockburn is worried that a “fetishization” of secrecy will lead to the criminalization of legitimate inquiries into the actions of our government, citing some obscure 1973 dispute about cost overruns at the Pentagon. That’s a pretty lame excuse to look the other way while Israel steals our secrets, corrupts our intelligence-gathering capabilities, and penetrates the Pentagon and perhaps even the White House with a veritable army of moles.
When Patrick J. Buchanan referred to Washington, D.C., as “Israeli-occupied territory,” he was widely vilified by the legions of political correctness, on the right as well as the multi-culti-goody-two-shoes left. I doubt, however, that when Pat made that remark he knew just how accurate it would turn out to be. He meant it in the metaphorical sense, but now we are beginning to understand that it is literally true. In this context, the antiwar slogan “End the occupation” acquires a whole new meaning.
What we are witnessing is an insurgency arising to take back Washington from the occupiers. It is a two-pronged legal assault, launched from within the FBI and the Department of Justice by patriotic Americans who mean to take back their country from the invader. That is the meaning of the Plame investigation and the AIPAC-Larry Franklin spy case. The battlefield is not Baghdad, it’s an American courtroom: the weapon of choice is not the RPG but the subpoena. As the prosecutor-insurgents inch slowly toward the White House, occasionally scoring direct hits inside the Green Zone, the panic begins to spread: talk of “staying the course” is tempered by hints of negotiations and rumors of withdrawal. Donald Rumsfeld tells us that the Iraqi insurgency could last a decade or more, but the Washington version is likely to end much sooner in a clear victory for the insurgents.