Former CIA analyst
By now it should be clear that the White House assault on former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife had much less to do with personalities than with the “particular lie” that Wilson exposed. I believe this helps to explain the highly unusual role Vice President Dick Cheney played regarding the forged “intelligence” about Iraq seeking to acquire uranium from Niger-the source of that particular lie.
Our Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) writings provide contemporaneous insight into the major flap that hit the White House two years ago, when it was discovered that the “intelligence” was based on a forgery. It was clear at that time that the first item on the White House list of talking points was: “It wasn’t Dick.”
Plus ça change. Investigative journalist Robert Parry, writing yesterday in consortiumnews.com, has noted that atop the Republican National Committee’s current list of “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements” sits this priority item: “Wilson insisted that the Vice President’s office sent him to Niger.”
This is a deliberate distortion of what Wilson has said, but if we were to address all such distortions we would be here all day. Besides, the RNC would very much like us to focus on the distortions and our media have allowed themselves to be led by the nose. So let’s leave this one aside for the moment. What strikes me more and more is the rather transparent two-year-old campaign to dissociate Cheney from L’Affaire Iraq-Niger.
On July 14, 2003, the day of Robert Novak’s opening salvo against the Wilsons, VIPS wrote a Memorandum for the President (http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0714-01.htm) with two main sections: “The Forgery Flap,” and “The Vice President’s Role.” In that memo, we also made an important recommendation that appeared a bit extreme at the time. But it was already possible to discern what was going on:
We recommend that you call an abrupt halt to attempts to prove Vice President Cheney “not guilty.” His role has been so transparent that such attempts will only erode further your own credibility. Equally pernicious, from our perspective, is the likelihood that intelligence analysts will conclude that the way to success is to acquiesce in the cooking of their judgments, since those above them will not be held accountable. We strongly recommend that you ask for Cheney’s immediate resignation.
Protesting (or Protecting) Too Much
We were all children once. Remember how, when you and your peers got caught in some mischief, the ringleader had to be protected? “Who decided to do this terrible thing?” was often the question. “Not Dick (or Tom or Harry)” was often the instinctive, immediate answer. Remember how, as a parent, that made you really wonder about Dick (or Tom or Harry)?
In our memo of July 14, 2003, we warned President George W. Bush that the Iraq-seeking-uranium-in-Niger forgery was “a microcosm of a mischievous nexus of overarching problems” in his White House. We cited the remarks of then-presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer earlier that week, which set the tone for what has followed-right up to today. When asked about the forgery Fleischer noted-as if drawing on well memorized talking points-that the vice president was not guilty of anything. (The denial was gratuitous; the question asked did not even mention the vice president’s possible role.) And the liturgy of absolution continued on July 11, 2003, when then-director of the CIA, George Tenet, did his awkward best to absolve the vice president of responsibility.
The “Particular Lie” and Forgery
As noted earlier, the main motivation of the White House campaign to discredit the Wilsons had to do with the particular lie that Joseph Wilson exposed and the essential role it played in the administration’s plans. The lie was that Iraq was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons and that, despite Iraq’s inability to deliver such weapons on the U.S., this somehow posed a “grave and gathering” threat. The plans were to use that ominous specter-replete with the “mushroom cloud”-to deceive Congress into approving war on Iraq. The problem was that not even the obsequious George Tenet could come up with evidence that could withstand close scrutiny.
U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence knew that Iraq’s nuclear program had been destroyed after the Gulf War and there was no persuasive evidence that Baghdad was moving to reconstitute it. Even the imagery analysts, whom former CIA director John Deutch gave away to the Pentagon in 1996, could not come up with the evidence needed, despite very strong incentive to please their boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
What a welcome windfall, then, when a deus ex machina (and it appears we can take “machina” literally) suddenly arrived on the scene in early 2002 in the form of a report alleging that Iraq was seeking uranium in the African country of Niger. Since Iraq had no other use for uranium, the closely coordinated White House-10 Downing Street spin machine went into high gear, playing up the report as proof that Baghdad was reconstituting its nuclear weapons development program. The intelligence analysts had to hold their noses-not only because of the dubious sourcing but because the substance of the report made little sense. They knew (and Wilson confirmed) that all the uranium mined in Niger is controlled by a French-led international consortium that exercises super-strict control over exports from Niger. It just couldn’t happen.
Provenance and likelihood be damned. The White House now had a “report” that could be used effectively with Congress and our incredibly credulous press. Tenet could be counted on to keep his nose-holding professionals out of sight. And the nature of the source could be kept from experts like those at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until after the vote in Congress. The Iraq-seeking-uranium-from-Africa canard assumed such prominent importance in the administration’s case that, even when it was forced to admit that a forgery was involved, the story simply could not be dropped altogether-either in Washington or in London.
None of us in VIPS were in the least surprised to learn recently of the line taken by Karl Rove with Time reporter Matthew Cooper on July 11, 2003. In an email that Cooper sent his bosses at Time, Rove insisted that Wilson’s findings on Iraq-Niger were flawed. According to Cooper, Rove “implied strongly there’s still plenty to implicate Iraqi interest in acquiring uranium from Niger.” That was false. Neither British nor U.S. intelligence has come up with anything throwing the slightest doubt on Wilson’s conclusion that the whole thing was bogus.
Who Did It?
Who authored the forgery remains a mystery-but one that our Republican-controlled Congress has avoided trying to solve, even though many legislators expressed outrage at having been snookered into voting for war. Senate intelligence committee chair Pat Roberts, R, Kansas), a White House loyalist, has demonstrated a curious lack of curiosity. And nothing that ranking minority member Jay Rockefeller did could persuade Roberts to ask the FBI to investigate.
So those searching for answers are reduced to asking the obvious: Cui bono? Who stood to benefit from such a forgery? A no-brainer-those lusting for war on Iraq. And who might they be? Look up the “neo-conservative” writings on the website of the Project for the New American Century. There you will find information on people like Michael Ledeen, “Freedom Analyst” at the American Enterprise Institute and a key strategist among “neoconservative” hawks in and out of the Bush administration. Applauding the invasion of Iraq, Ledeen asserted-with equal enthusiasm-that the war could not be contained, and that “it may turn out to be a war to remake the world.”
Beyond his geopolitical punditry, Ledeen’s curriculum vitae shows he is no stranger to rogue operations. A longtime Washington operative, he was fired as a “consultant” for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan for running fool’s errands for Oliver North during the Iran-Contra subterfuge. One of Ledeen’s Iran-Contra partners in crime, so to speak, was Elliot Abrams, who was convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra. Abrams was pardoned before jail time, however, by George H. W. Bush, and he is now George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. Ledeen is said to enjoy easy entrée to the office of the vice president as well as to his friend Abrams.
Made in the U.S.A?
During a radio interview with Ian Masters on April 3, 2005, former CIA operative Vincent Cannistraro charged that the Iraq-Niger documents were forged in the United States. Drawing on earlier speculation regarding who forged the documents, Masters asked, “If I were to say the name Michael Ledeen to you, what would you say?” Cannistraro replied, “You’re very close.”
Ledeen has denied having anything to do with the forgery. Yet the company he keeps with other prominent Iran-Contra convictees/pardonees/intelligence contractors suggests otherwise. Besides, Ledeen has had a longstanding association with Italian intelligence.
According to most accounts, the Italians played an important role in disseminating the forged documents. If Ledeen and his associates were involved, this might also help explain the amateurishness of the forged documents. They would have sorely missed the institutional expertise formerly at their beck and call.
The Cover-up: the Best Defense Is…..
It is a safe bet that Joseph Wilson suspected this kind of skullduggery. He nevertheless played it straight. After hearing the bogus Iraq-Niger story repeated in the president’s January 28, 2003 state-of-the-union address and ascertaining that it was based primarily on the original report, Wilson began to approach administration officials suggesting that they retract the story or he would in conscience be compelled to make public what had happened. He was told, in effect, Go ahead; who will believe you? So he did.
Astonishingly, the administration and our domesticated “mainstream” press have succeeded to a large extent in making Wilson’s credibility the issue-witness, for example, last week’s frontal assault by fast-talking, no-holds-barred Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.
Joseph Wilson had been around long enough to know what to expect. Moreover, the White House apparently made it very clear that they would make him pay if he went public. Three weeks before The New York Times published Wilson’s op-ed “What I Did Not Find in Africa,” he and I shared keynoting duties at a conference on Iraq. It was the first time I met Wilson. He told me then that he was about to publish. I remember him adding, with considerable emphasis, “They are going to come after me big-time. I don’t know exactly how, but they are going to do it.” Well, now we know how; and why.
Last week it became clear that Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was as active as Karl Rove in doing the job on the Wilsons. Surprise, surprise.
We ended our July 14 Memorandum for the President from VIPS with this reminder:
This was no case of petty corruption of the kind that forced Vice President Spiro Agnew to resign. This was a matter of war and peace. Thousands have died. There is no end in sight.
And that was two years ago.
RAY McGOVERN works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour. He began his 27-year career with the CIA as the analyst for Soviet relations with China and Southeast Asia. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and is a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
An earlier version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com.