The Sharks Are Circling in Washington

To say that there’s blood in the water and the sharks are circling around the Bush administration’s Iraq policy would be understatement at this point.

It’s more like a blood bank that’s been dropped into the water, the sharks have taken the first bites, and Amazonian piranhas are clamoring for visas on an expedited basis.

The administration of US President George W Bush – including virtually all of its top officials, from Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice – is on the defensive. Not only have the president’s approval ratings plunged to the lowest level in his term, but his administration has opened a potentially lethal credibility gap on so many different fronts that reporters hardly know which to write about.

The Justice Department’s announcement on Tuesday that it has launched a formal investigation at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency of the identification by as-yet-unidentified "senior White House officials" of a covert CIA agent is just the latest of a series of brewing scandals that are likely to dominate the media agenda in the coming weeks and months.

With the exception of practicing extramarital sex in the Oval Office, Bush and his Iraq policy are now being charged with violating just about every imaginable tenet – from deceit and corruption, to incompetence and betrayal – of what has come to be called "good governance".

That many of these charges have moved in just the past few weeks from the alternative to the mainstream media and from grassroots activist groups to Capitol Hill indicates the seriousness of the situation faced by Bush.


The administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion about an active nuclear-weapons program, have been totally discredited. It now appears that Iraq never reconstituted its WMD efforts after the first Gulf War in 1991.

The failure of chief WMD hunter David Kay and his team of 1,400 troops and experts to find any evidence of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons after four months of scouring Iraq has now created a major credibility problem for the administration. It has now retreated from its earlier promise to release Kay’s report when it was filed, and most experts do not expect early disclosure. No matter, the damning details – no evidence of WMD – are being leaked to Congress and the media.

Worse, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss (himself a former CIA official), and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Jane Harmon, have now publicly charged that, in making its case that Iraq posed a major WMD threat, that the underlying intelligence did not support such a conclusion.

"It appears, and I hate to say this, that the Iraqis were mostly telling the truth," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The corollary – that the United States wasn’t – is being increasingly embraced by Democrats running for president.

Venality and Corruption

Lawmakers are also increasingly unnerved by the extent to which Bush’s and Cheney’s political and business cronies appear to be profiting from the Iraq war and its reconstruction. Congressional complaints have already resulted in the decision to rescind a huge no-bid contract that went to Halliburton, the giant construction company that Cheney headed (and retains an interest in) before becoming vice president.

But evidence that Bush’s major campaign contributors and associates are looking to make big money in the reconstruction effort is growing almost daily; indeed, the administration’s opposition to inviting the United Nations or other countries to take a bigger role in the effort is increasingly being attributed to the White House’s desire to pass along the goodies to its supporters back home.

"By treating contracts as prizes to be handed to their friends, administration officials are delaying Iraq’s recovery, with potentially catastrophic consequences," warned Harvard economist Paul Krugman on Tuesday in a New York Times column that charged the administration’s beneficiaries with "war profiteering".

The Times disclosed that a group of businessmen closely linked to Bush, his family and other top officials – including his 2000 campaign manager – have set up a consulting firm to advise companies that want to do business in Iraq.

The news followed a report last month that a former Israeli law partner of Douglas Feith, the senior Pentagon official in charge of postwar planning in Iraq, was also advising companies on business opportunities in Iraq in association with the nephew of the Pentagon-backed leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Ahmad Chalabi. The nephew, Salem Chalabi, is advising the 25-member, US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council on reconstruction.

Added to these concerns is the lack of transparency, a potential new scandal that surfaced this week when a Florida newspaper reported that Rumsfeld’s office had asked the Special Operations Command in Tampa to "park" US$40 million for eventual use by the secretary. The diversion, which was disclosed by a "whistleblower" in the Pentagon, was never reported to Congress and is now being investigated by an internal auditor. The Washington Post on Tuesday called the investigation "explosive", in major part because lawmakers have long complained that Rumsfeld has kept them in the dark on many issues.


Evidence of sheer incompetence both in the postwar planning and in its implementation has now become the dominant view in Washington, particularly since Bush himself implicitly admitted that things were not going according to plan by asking Congress to approve $87 billion for expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan over the coming year.

Not only did postwar planners fail to anticipate the armed resistance that has killed at least one US soldier every 36 hours, but they also completely underestimated the frailty of Iraq’s infrastructure. Compounding the problem has been the preference of the big US companies that grabbed the reconstruction contracts for importing expensive new equipment that may not be compatible with the existing system, over seeking out older spare parts that would get basic systems up and running much more quickly and cheaply.

And, while the administration still insists that it doesn’t need any more than the 130,000 US troops currently deployed in Iraq, top commanders say they cannot begin to control Iraq’s borders through which, it is believed, hundreds of Islamist and other fighters are being infiltrated. Worse, they have also been unable to secure literally thousands of munitions sites containing tens of thousands of tonnes of weapons and ammunition and will be unable to do so for years, according to an account in Tuesday’s Times.

Betrayal, if Not Treason

This concern arises from this week’s big scandal: the apparent involvement of "two senior White House officials" in leaking the name of a CIA agent in retaliation for her husband-diplomat’s role in discrediting Bush’s contention in last year’s State of the Union Address that Iraq tried to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger.

The case revolves around retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, who traveled to Niger in 2002 at the CIA’s behest to check out the story (which turned out to be based on forged documents). His conclusion – that the story was a fraud – was reported back to the CIA many months before Bush gave his address. After the Iraq invasion, he published an article in the Times that recounted both his trip and his conclusions, noting also that he had been told by the CIA that Cheney had explicitly requested that the story be investigated.

Shortly after the appearance of Wilson’s article, at least six reporters, including right-wing columnist Robert Novak, were informed by "two senior White House officials" that Wilson’s spouse, whom they identified by name, was a covert CIA agent working on non-proliferation issues who had urged that her husband be assigned to Niger.

The apparent intent was to discredit Wilson, although Wilson has said it was designed to demonstrate to other former and serving officials that they would pay a price for crossing the administration. Wilson, who has very good contacts within both the State Department and the CIA, has also claimed that Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, "at a minimum condoned" the effort to expose his wife, and may even have been one of those two "senior White House officials". Rove and Novak, who ironically opposed the Iraq war, have long been close.

Under a 1982 law, however, identifying a covert CIA agent is a felony punishable by 10 years in prison. The CIA filed a complaint invoking the law with the Justice Department shortly after Novak’s column appeared, and three weeks ago turned in the paperwork required for the investigation to proceed. The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that an investigation had been launched.

Democrats are already demanding that, given Attorney General John Ashcroft’s status as an administration appointee, the case should be handed over to an independent prosecutor, demands that so far have been rebuffed. But, based on what is already known by the press – including the reporters who were contacted by those two, still-unnamed, "senior White House officials" – there appears little doubt that a very serious felony has been committed and that a major scandal is in the offing.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.