The Libby Indictment and the Case for War

October 31, 2005

The Scooter Libby indictments (on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements) are pretty straight-forward. A relentless and meticulous non-partisan prosecutor is unwilling to let Scooter Libby “throw sand in the umpire’s eyes,” to quote Patrick Fitzgerald’s own analogy. He has amassed considerable evidence that Libby learned about Joe Wilson’s CIA wife from four different government sources – including his boss, Vice President Cheney. The indictments charge that Libby then claimed, multiple times, that he heard about Valerie Plame Wilson from various reporters at a later time. The reporters (primarily Judy Miller of the New York Times, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, and Tim Russert of NBC) have testified under oath that when Valerie Plame’s name came up, it was Libby that brought the information to them. Libby resigned his position immediately following his indictment.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney both praised Libby’s service, made the case for a presumption of innocence, and refused to talk about it because, of course, it is still an ongoing investigation. Prosecutor Fitzgerald, who was expected to wrap up last week, is keeping his investigation open though he’s not providing any more detail at this time. The word from insiders is that Fitzgerald was planning to indict Bush senior advisor Karl Rove until Rove’s lawyer interceded with additional information that gave Fitzgerald “pause.”

Not surprisingly, administration supporters are spinning this one way, and critics another. One group of critics is saying that this is an indication of systemic corruption in the Bush administration. Personally, I don’t think that claim is very helpful, because the Bush administration’s major sins revolve around hyping the Iraq threat beyond all reason (to allow them to pursue the pre-election neo-conservative goal of removing Saddam). The second group of critics is arguing that while Libby’s trial will not be about the rationale for the Iraq war, the back-story is ALL about the rationale for that war. These folks are much closer to a reasonable critique of the Bush administration failures.

Supporters are claiming the lone indictment means ‘there was no conspiracy.’ But no conspiracy to do what? Republicans want to limit this to ‘no conspiracy to knowingly leak a covert agent’s name.’ I’m willing to accept the notion that all Libby, Rove, and their friends wanted to do was to play hardball with an administration critic (Joe Wilson). It’s weird they thought that the argument ‘your wife got you the job’ was an effective counter-argument, but let’s assume that they didn’t know her job at the CIA was classified as covert.

The back-story about this effort to discredit Joe Wilson is MUCH larger. There’s no question that the Bush administration was wrong about a number of pieces of information that it says were integral to the claim that Saddam was a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.

One example of how they were wrong is the aluminum tubes Iraq acquired, which the administration insisted were intended for use in centrifuges useful in making fissionable material. Bush, Cheney, and Rice all made this claim. Condi Rice argued that the aluminum tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.” There were dissenting voices at the time that were ignored – both within the U.S. (at the CIA and the State department) and among nuclear experts at the U.N. (primarily the IAEA). Some in the CIA and State department maintained that the 81 millimeter tubes were most likely intended for use in Iraq’s already existing 81 mm conventional rocket program. The IAEA concluded the same thing after their investigation. Coincidentally, that is what Iraq said they were for. Nuclear experts pointed out that these tubes would need extensive modification to be useful for uranium enrichment in centrifuges. All this dissent was ignored and the administration embraced the worst possibility as a sure thing. You can read a very detailed Washington Post story on the aluminum tubes debate here.

A second example is the claim that Saddam was meeting regularly with a team of Iraqi nuclear scientists and that Iraq maintained the know-how to build nuclear weapons. President Bush put this most ominously in his now-famous October 7, 2002 Cincinnati speech when he said: “Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his “nuclear mujahedeen” — his nuclear holy warriors.” I’m not going to provide extensive discussion of the arguments and evidence rebutting this and the remaining claims. Suffice it to say that the IAEA disputed such claims at the time and it now appears that the U.S. was wrong about this and the U.N. was right.

A third example is the claim that Iraq was constructing buildings at sites previously known to be nuclear development sites. The Bush administration inferred that satellite photos showing constructing meant nuclear activity. Colin Powell featured some of these photos in his U.N. presentation that made the case for action against Iraq. But again, the IAEA disputed such claims. Mohammad ElBaradei, leader of the team of nuclear inspectors on the ground at the time, said at the time that there “is no indication of resumed nuclear activities in those buildings that were identified through the use of satellite imagery as being reconstructed or newly erected since 1998, nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities at any inspected sites.” (March 7, 2003)

A fourth example is the claim that Saddam had large quantities of chemical and biological weapons in 2002 (President Bush variously cited 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum, and 500 tons of nerve agents). But the U.N. always said these were estimates of how much Saddam might have produced by 1991 if he all the raw materials needed and full production capabilities. And even if he once possessed them, it’s also well-documented that the U.N. inspection teams uncovered and destroyed much of Iraq’s supply of WMD between 1991-1998. Beyond that, these weapons have a relatively short ‘shelf life’ and most would have been unusable long before the year 2000 and long before the Bush administration claimed Americans should be afraid of those ‘inferred’ stockpiles. When U.N. inspectors when back into Iraq in late 2002, they found very little WMD left over from the 1991-1998 period and no evidence that Saddam had made new chemical and biological weapons after 1998.

Fifth, there is the issue of Iraq attempting to acquire ‘yellow cake’ (concentrated uranium oxide) from Niger – the focus of the Joe Wilson trip and his editorial attacking George W. Bush for claiming, in his 2003 State of the Union address, that “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Wilson’s position that he personally debunked this claim is subject to debate. What is less debatable is the veracity of Bush’s statement. While some conservatives have mounted a spirited defense of this claim, maintaining that Bush was speaking truthfully based on the information available at the time, U.N. nuclear inspectors always doubted this intel, as did some at the CIA and the State department. Before we invaded Iraq the rest of the world knew, through U.N. nuclear experts, that the documents supporting the Niger uranium story (uncovered by Italian intelligence forces) were crude forgeries. The CIA did not reach that conclusion for some months, and the Bush administration even later than that. But regardless of what you think of Joe Wilson, it’s a fact that the Bush administration retracted the ’16 words’ the day after Wilson’s editorial appeared in the New York Times.

A final example of the Bush administration putting the worst face on every piece of data about Iraq is the attempt to make the link between Saddam and al Qaeda. Vice president Dick Cheney has led the charge on this, frequently claiming such a connection, as he did on Meet the Press, September 14, 2003 with the statement that Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”

Mr. Cheney still occasionally makes the claim of such a link today – long after most adults have given up the fantasy. It was a ‘fantasy’ for the Bush PR machine because it was not enough for them to claim that Saddam had weapons. The administration knew it had to show that he was willing and able to use them against the USA. This is where al Qaeda comes in. The Bush administration repeatedly made the case that Saddam might give WMD to terrorists, who would then use these weapons against us. Doubters pointed out that 1) Saddam ran a secularist regime, 2) there was open dislike and distrust between Iraqi secularism and the religious zealotry of al Qaeda, and 3) while some al Qaeda terrorists might have hid in remote areas of Iraq, there was simply no evidence of a substantive Saddam-al Qaeda connection. That did not stop Dick Cheney and his Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, from repeatedly contacting the CIA about looking one more time for a possible Saddam-al Qaeda link.

This administration did not simply weigh the available evidence on all these issues. It went out of its way to find evidence that fit its theory. And it ignored all the data that contradicted its view of the world.

It is interesting to put all this in chronological context. President Bush was upping the ante about the threat he perceived as Congress got ready to vote on the resolution to give him authority to take action against Iraq in October, 2002. Up until then the American people did not want to go to war simply because Saddam was in violation of U.N. resolutions, or because he was a destabilizing influence in the Middle East. Even the generic specter of “WMD” (conflating chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons) was not enough to move opinion polls sufficienly. It was time to play the nuclear card. Condi Rice and Dick Cheney had already invoked the image of a mushroom cloud engulfing an American city; now it was Bush’s turn: “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” (October 7, 2002) President Bush gave his Cincinnati speech on October 7th and within two weeks both the House and the Senate agreed to give him the clout he sought – to pressure Saddam and also to go to the U.N. with the country behind him. And, of course, all this was one month before the 2002 elections.

Let’s get back to Scooter. Again, I’ll accept for the sake of argument that Scooter Libby was not part of a conspiracy to deliberately reveal a covert agent’s identity. But it’s quite clear that his job as Chief of Staff and National Security advisor to the Vice President is to do Dick Cheney’s bidding. And it’s an acknowledged fact that Cheney and Libby were major players in leading the push for war in Iraq.

Most Democrats and liberals suspect that the Bush team intentionally distorted the intelligence to achieve their pre-set policy aim – war with Iraq. There is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence for this view.

Many moderates and independents now figure that if it wasn’t an intentional distortion, it certainly was a type of incompetence. I would say this view dovetails with my belief that 20%ers misread the data because their skewed lenses give them a worldview that is warped in the direction of their grandest hopes and deepest fears.

Only the base of conservatives and Republicans have totally bought the ‘bait and switch’ that we’re all about bringing democracy to the world. Only the base seems willing to totally forget the original rationale for war.

The (informal) ‘conspiracy’ in which Scooter Libby was involved was much broader than outing a covert agent. It was a plan to use and hype the intelligence and the arguments that supported the case for going into Iraq and to downplay the intelligence and the arguments that worked against going in.

Congress has approved a number of investigations of the “faulty intelligence” about Iraq. But the Republicans in Congress have shielded the Bush administration from the most important type of investigation – how that intelligence was used and whether or not it was politicized by an administration that had its mind made up.

Until such an investigation is conducted, this issue will be replayed, at least implicitly, in a variety of surrogate battles. It surfaced during the confirmation hearings of Condi Rice for Secretary of State and during the hearings on John Bolton for U.N. Ambassador. It also comes up every time Congress authorizes more money for Iraq. And now it’s the backdrop to the Scooter Libby indictment and Patrick Fitzgerald’s ongoing investigation, presumably of Karl Rove.

On one level, Bush would be better off if Congress had an investigation of the use of pre-war intel because then each of these subsequent battles could be confined to what they are intended to be – confirmation hearings or appropriations for the military. There’s only one problem. I don’t think Bush, Cheney, Rumfeld, Rice, Rove, and Libby WANT an investigation of how they used the pre-war intelligence. Can you blame them?