The spinmasters in print media and talk radio have been breathing a sigh of
relief since the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. did not accompany
indictments of others, most especially President Bush's political adviser,
Karl Rove. The story of what happened, who did what and when, and what it
all means, is somewhat confused in the accounts and deserves a
clarification. The main issue here is not whether someone violated a
specific statute, but rather what was done, why was it done and what is the
context of the deed?
Even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the White House wanted
to invade Iraq. Old-line conservatives from the first Bush administration
and in the CIA were reluctant to support such a move because they thought
it would lead to a quagmire in a country that could easily fall into
anarchy. Bush's advisers included people such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick
Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and many others who
had convinced themselves that war was a desirable option but knew it would
be difficult to sell to the American public. They needed a "hook," as they
A group was formed to advance the cause of war that has come to be called
the White House Iraq Group. While this was going on Bush was, presumably,
on the treadmill in preparation for his 9 p.m. bedtime.
Almost everyone in the high levels of the international diplomatic
community assumed that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of
mass destruction. He had deployed some against the Iranians, the Kurds and
the Shiites in the past, and there was reason to believe that the United
States and its allies had supplied him with materials which could be used
U.N. weapons inspections teams offered that they believed there were few if
any such weapons in Iraq, but people who came forward with such information
and who had been in Iraq conducting searches for weapons were quickly
derided as folks who didn't know what they were talking about. The issue
most likely to push easily-herded American public opinion toward war was
the possibility of nuclear weapons, and the president and WHIG seized on
this as a point of the spear in their propaganda to attack Iraq. The
president included language referencing Saddam's efforts to obtain nuclear
weapons materials in his State of the Union address of Jan. 28, 2003.
Cheney's office asked the CIA whether a story that Saddam had tried to get
nuclear materials from Niger were true. The CIA, acting on its own, sent
former Ambassador Joe Wilson to investigate. He returned convinced the
attempt to obtain materials for a bomb from Niger never happened and he
went public, most visibly in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.
Wilson's intervention enraged the people in WHIG, specifically the
triumvirate of Cheney, Rove and Libby. Cheney had Wilson investigated and
found out that his wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent. Cheney and
Libby had been frequent visitors to CIA headquarters because they found CIA
information inadequately supportive of their point of view of Saddam's
capacity to do harm. Very few doubted Saddam's intent to do harm if he
could, but there was considerable skepticism about his ability to deliver a
blow. He had been accused (wrongly, it turns out) of collusion with
al-Qaida. The story was spun so effectively that many Americans continue to
believe that Iraq was allied with al-Qaida in the attacks of 9/11. Cheney
and his people appear to have felt that the CIA was inadequately
enthusiastic about their quest for war and that the CIA itself was, in the
end, part of the problem.
Cheney told Libby and, apparently, Rove about Plame. WHIG was embarrassed
by Wilson's report, his op-ed piece and some television interviews, and its
members may have thought that simply explaining that Wilson's wife was part
of the plot to send him to Niger and that she was with the CIA would
explain to many people why Wilson did what he did. Wilson was, in their
minds, part of the CIA problem. What happened next will be a puzzle for
historians for decades to come.
The story about Saddam seeking nuclear materials was dramatic, but it was
contrived to appeal to the folks on the home front. Sunday talk shows found
Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and others talking feverishly about the prospects of
a "mushroom cloud" over New York and other cities. Theirs was a massive and
coordinated attack of the type for which the Bush administrations should be
Given the investment in this angle, it is interesting that Saddam's nuclear
potential was not really a mainstay of the effort to dethrone him. The
world assumed he had biological and chemical weapons stockpiles because he
is a devious personality who was known to have acquired them from America
and its allies. His known stockpiles were a far more persuasive argument
for the need to disarm him.
The people in WHIG must have asked themselves, what can we do about Joe
Wilson? The answer: "out" his wife. Apparently, there were no adults in the
room to ask the next question: how is that going to solve the problem and
what are the possible consequences?
Ultra-conservative columnist Robert Novak penned the column, naming Plame
as the CIA person who got her husband the job to go to Niger to write the
report. He probably got the information from Rove. Next, a special
prosecutor was appointed to see if the law forbidding the naming of covert
CIA agents was broken. Libby appeared before the FBI and grand juries in a
near-catatonic state of mind and apparently lied his way into
multiple-count indictments, including perjury. The others escaped
indictment by claiming, it is thought, faulty memories.
Many people think that if it should happen that Libby is found guilty, he
will receive a pardon from his favorite president. No harm done, except for
one thing: people used their national security clearances to get
information that they applied to partisan political purposes, and a
significant part of the American public became aware of this. Even if the
indictments go away, the damage this affair has done to the White House's
credibility is immense and irreversible.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an associate
professor of American studies and director of indigenous studies at the
State University of New York at Buffalo.