And you thought Watergate was bad. Tricky Dick's ignoble legacy should pale
in comparison to the trouble that's brewing now in Washington. When Lewis
"Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, was indicted
by a federal grand jury Oct. 28, we witnessed the birth of the biggest
White House scandal in American history.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, appointed by the Republicans,
charged Libby with lying to the grand jury, lying to FBI agents and
obstructing the federal investigation of the White House's coverup of the
lies it told the public to justify the war in Iraq. Top Bush aide Karl Rove
remains under investigation for similar charges, and although given a pass
for the moment, a future indictment would surprise no one.
Libby and Rove are not low-level hacks of the Lynndie England and Charles
Graner variety, but Cheney and President Bush's most trusted right-hand
men. So let's dispense with any "bad apple" theories that might be peddled
as insults to our intelligence. If this plays out the way it started, we're
going to smell corruption and rot emanating from the very top of the
Washington food chain.
This entire scandal is about lies. Which lies? The ones we suspected all
along: Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Remember Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, when he made that
frightening, compelling case for war? He knew the American public would
never send their children to die for oil or something so vague as a "pax
Americana." No, he needed something more dramatic, something visual,
something scary ... a mushroom cloud!
So we heard him deliver those now infamous 16 words: "The British
government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa." One left that speech picturing Iraqi
missiles aimed right at grandma.
Problem is, the White House had known for a year that the charges were
absolutely false. In February 2002, the CIA sent former Ambassador Joseph
Wilson to Niger to investigate precisely those rumors. Wilson not only
concluded that they were baseless, but an actual hoax using forged
documents. He said so to the CIA, which passed the information up to the
The case should have been closed with that. Yet there was Bush, nearly a
full year after Wilson's report, beating the drums of war while chanting
proven untruths. So six months later, in July 2003, Wilson penned an op-ed
for The New York Times, concluding that "the intelligence related to Iraq's
nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
What else could he conclude? It was his investigation. Yet for that simple
act of truth-telling, Wilson was delivered a not-so-divine retribution. A
week after Wilson's Times article appeared, "two senior administration
officials" were cited in Robert Novak's column outing Wilson's wife,
Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative.
That not only ended Plame's 20-year career with the agency, it also
endangered her colleagues at Brewster Jennings and Associates, a CIA front
company monitoring WMDs. Most importantly, it sent a crystal-clear message
to any government employee who might be tempted to mess with the
administration's plans to go to war in Iraq: namely, that there will be
These would be meted out by the White House Iraq Group, an ad hoc committee
charged with selling the war to the American public by making the case that
Saddam had nuclear and bio-chemical weapons. Operating from Cheney's
office, WHIG's membership included not only Libby and Rove, but also senior
White House aides Condoleezza Rice, Mary Matalin, Karen Hughes, James
Wilkinson, Nicholas Calio and Stephen Hadley.
Oh, and let us not neglect to mention Times reporter Judith Miller, who one
insider recently described as "a charter member" of WHIG. Her job was
As sources recently confirmed to the New York Daily News, once people like
Wilson started countering the administration's lies with some actual facts,
WHIG quickly transformed from a public relations outfit into "a virtual hit
squad that took aim at critics who questioned its claims." Wilson was the
first of WHIG's targets, and his wife, Plame, WHIG's first casualty.
Well, except for the truth.
The rest is a simple game of connect-the-dots. In late September 2003, the
Justice Department announced its investigation into possible unauthorized
disclosures of undercover CIA agents, which led to Fitzgerald's appointment
in December, which led to Miller's 85 days behind bars for failing to
disclose her source, which led to her release after she finally disclosed
Libby, which led to his dramatic indictment. And which could lead to more
The question is, how far up will they reach? On Sept. 30, 2003, Bush told
reporters: "I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked
classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd
like to know it, and we'll take appropriate action."
Does that include Cheney? On Oct. 25, the Times reported that evidence
suggests Cheney leaked Plame's identity to Libby on June 12, 2003.
Like I said, bigger than Watergate.
Of course, the real tragedy behind all these lies and coverups is not so
much the leaking of classified information, although that's pretty bad. As
the president's own father rightly remarked in 1999, "I have nothing but
contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the names of
our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors."
The greater tragedy by far is the undeniable conclusion that this grave and
costly war was founded on pure deception. That is, this war has not only
been waged against human beings, but truth and democracy as well.
As a result of all these cover-ups and lies, more than 2,000 American
soldiers have lost their lives and more than 15,000 have been seriously
wounded. Some 30,000 Iraqi civilians have also been killed, although the
British medical journal The Lancet reported in October 2004 that the war in
Iraq had already caused 100,000 "excess deaths."
Do the math; connect the dots; then ask yourself what punishment might
actually befit those who lied in order to produce numbers like these.
Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, teaches writing, literature and
Native American Studies at Syracuse University, and is a columnist for
Indian Country Today.