Now that Dick Armitage has admitted to being the initial source of right-wing columnist Robert Novak’s news story outing Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent and wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, it’s important to remember what this story is really all about.
The mainstream media has focused on the scandal as a whodunit, all about White House leaks and journalists’ unidentified sources, but the real issue has largely been left unaddressed, namely: Why did the White House go to such lengths to try to attack and discredit Wilson, a career diplomat?
To answer that question we have to go back to 2002 and the march to war in Iraq, and to 2003, when the Bush administration was starting to take the heat for its evident failure to find any "weapons of mass destruction" in the defeated land of Iraq, and for the fiasco of the occupation, which was becoming obvious.
As I wrote in Barbara Olshansky’s and my book, The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, May 2006):
"the Bush-Cheney administration, which had its sights set on Baghdad and `regime change’ from the day it took office, was by 2002 well on the way to invading Iraq, and was only looking for ways, to borrow from the Downing Street memo, to `fix the facts’ so as to win public support for war. The game plan was to make Saddam Hussein look scary to Americans, and what better way to scare people than to say that this bloody dictator was trying to get The Bomb?"
This propaganda goal was accomplished with the help of a crude forgery of documents which were presented as solid evidence of such an effort. The documents-supposedly signed letters of intent to ship 400 tons of uranium ore from Niger in Africa to Iraq, bearing the signature of Niger’s mining minister-had initially been provided to the White House by the sycophantic and obliging Italian Prime Minister, S. Berlusconi, and his chief of intelligence, Nicolo Pollari, back in October 2001. The documents were immediately spotted by the CIA and the State Department’s own intelligence office as forgeries-the minister whose signature appeared on the sale documents had been out of office for years by the time of the signing date.
This is where the plot thickens, though. A team of investigative reporters in Italy, working for the respected newspaper La Repubblica, learned that a group of people, allegedly including Michael Ledeen, Defense Department Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, Defense Intelligence Agency Middle East analyst Larry Franklin, Pentagon Office of Special Plans member Harold Rhode and convicted bank swindler and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, met secretly in Rome. Also present, reportedly, were Pollari and the head of the Italian Department of Defense. The La Repubblica reporters, led by investigative reporter Carlo Bonini, claim that it was at this unusual meeting that a plan was developed to recycle the bogus and discredited Niger documents through British intelligence, so that they would come back to the White House as "new evidence" of Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.
Ledeen, who was deeply involved in similar scheming during the infamous Reagan-era Iran arms-for hostages stinger missile deal, which had been used to raise secret funds for the CIA-backed Contras who were invading Nicaragua, doesn’t deny that meeting, but has denied any involvement in the Niger scam. But the involvement of Feith (an architect of the whole Neocon scheme to invade Iraq and overthrow Hussein), of Franklin, who later pleaded guilty to passing classified information to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and especially of Rhode, who was working in OSP, the Pentagon office Cheney and Rumsfeld created specifically to gin up "evidence" to justify an Iraq invasion, makes this meeting suspicious in the extreme.
On its face, it would appear that this was the start of a so-called "black op," designed to create false evidence for the purpose of deceiving the U.S. media, the Congress and the American public into believing that America was at risk of a nuclear attack from Iraq.
And it worked. In his January 29, 2003 State of the Union address, with war fever growing, Bush declared to the assembled members of Congress and a watching nation, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
This, to most Americans, was the clincher. Never mind that it takes years for a non-nuclear nation to go from buying uranium ore to producing a bomb. The president was saying that was Saddam’s evil plan. But the president, when he said that, was lying through his teeth, since the British government’s "evidence," he knew, was the same set of forged documents that had been discredited two years earlier by his own intelligence people. The president knew it wasn’t new, and it wasn’t true.
This is where Wilson and Plame come in.
Back in 2002, with the White House continuing to promote the bogus Niger uranium purchase story, the CIA reportedly decided it needed to get better information. Plame, whose responsibility at the Agency was nuclear proliferation, apparently suggested to the CIA director of operations that her husband, who had served in Africa and had good relations with officials in Niger, including the minister of mines, be sent over there to investigate.
Wilson was dispatched, and returned reporting confidently that there was no uranium there to sell (it had all been sold to Japanese and European customers), and that any documents purporting such a sale "would not be authentic."
Wilson’s report went the rounds in the CIA, and that might have been the end of it, but the White House, and especially Vice President Cheney and the Pentagon Office of Special Plans, had other ideas. Talk of Saddam’s uranium purchases and nuclear ambitions began cropping up in administration speeches in August, 2002, with both then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Bush himself referring darkly to a "mushroom cloud" threatening America, and ultimately with Bush’s reference to the forged documents in early 2003.
Wilson grew frustrated with the lies and deceit, and ultimately went public in 2003 with what he knew, first in May to Congress and then on July 6 in an opinion article in the New York Times.
Having a lowly former ambassador undermine a statement by the president might anger a White House, but the attack that ensued, which appears to have been orchestrated by the White House and the Vice President, was so virulent, involving the criminal outing of Plame and the jeopardizing of all her contacts and her critical work on nuclear proliferation, including in countries like Iran, that clearly more was involved than just administration pique.
The real concern, I suspect, was the possible discovery of who was behind the document forgeries, and of a black-op scheme to recycle them through British intelligence.
It appears that the investigation into the Plame outing scandal, which is being conducted by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, has been successfully obstructed by the White House, and, unless Fitzgerald has some surprise in store, will be limited to the prosecution of Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on a charge of perjury and obstruction.
We cannot expect Fitzgerald to get to the bottom of this scandal, which goes to the heart of a criminal war that has killed 2600, Americans and 100,000-plus Iraqis. Nor, sadly, does it seem we can count on the mainstream media, which continues to treat the story as being all about leaks and Valerie Plame.
Only an impeachment hearing can do the job. At such a hearing, the House Judiciary Committee would not face the same hurdles regarding whom it would call to testify, what questions it could ask, and what documents it could demand to see as does a prosecutor operating under the rules of a federal court.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s new book is "The Case for Impeachment",
co-authored by Barbara Olshansky.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org