“I wanted people to see the truth.”
That’s how George W. Bush explained his decision to authorize the selective dissemination of portions of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s WMD in the summer of 2003, when the main rationale for his war in Iraq was unraveling. But this was no exercise in full disclosure. It was a political operation. With former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and others raising questions about Bush’s overstatement of the prewar intelligence–none of the promised unconventional weapons, after three months, having been found–the Bush gang was beginning to worry. News reports at the time were carrying leaks from unnamed intelligence officials indicating that the President and his team had hyped the WMD threat. And a much noticed Wilson op-ed in the New York Times had made it seem that the White House had used one charge–that Saddam Hussein had been uranium shopping in Iraq–after the Administration had reason to know it was bunk.
So it was fight-back time. That meant discrediting Wilson as a critic. Top White House aides Karl Rove and Scooter Libby told reporters that Wilson’s wife was in the CIA and had been responsible for sending him to Niger to check out the report that Baghdad had acquired uranium there–a report based on sloppy forgeries that was easy to rebut. Their point was to make Wilson’s mission seem like a silly junket born of nepotism, which it wasn’t. (Wilson, an Africa expert with knowledge of the uranium industry, was qualified for the task.) But in this frenzy to undercut Joe Wilson, Rove disclosed Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment–which was classified information–to conservative columnist Bob Novak, who then outed her in print as a CIA operative. Libby passed the information on her CIA connection to two reporters, Time magazine’s Matt Cooper and the Times’s Judith Miller.
The recent twists in the Libby case show that Cheney was in the weeds, huddling with Libby about how to respond to Wilson and other critics. Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s most recent legal filing notes that Cheney “specifically selected” Libby “to talk to the press about the NIE and Mr. Wilson.” That suggests that when Libby disclosed information about Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment, he did so under Cheney’s direction. As part of this Cheney-managed counterattack, Libby shared slices of the NIE with Miller–after Bush had told Cheney it was OK to release those portions. But Libby did not tell Miller about the parts of the NIE that raised serious questions about the Niger allegation. He only cited the passages that supported the Administration’s position.
Which brings us back to the truth. Had Bush, Cheney and Libby been interested in spreading the full story, they could have declassified the entire NIE (with redactions where needed) and tossed out copies in the White House press room. (The Administration did later release parts of the NIE to the press.) Instead, they tried to deploy pieces of the NIE as ammunition in a spin attack. And once the Valerie Wilson story broke, the White House covered up the involvement of Rove and Libby in the leak and said nothing about Cheney’s hands-on participation in the anti-Wilson efforts. After all, it was Cheney who first told Libby that Valerie Wilson–a k a Valerie Plame–worked in a division of the agency’s clandestine service.
So if Bush is sincerely interested in putting the truth before the American public, he can ask the Vice President, Rove, Libby and all his aides to come clean about the Wilson leak. And he can declassify–on his own–hundreds of prewar intelligence reports and memos in CIA, NSC, State Department and Pentagon files that cover Iraq’s supposed WMDs and the operational link between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden that Bush claimed existed. The Bush-backed, Cheney-approved, Libby-arranged misleading leak to Judith Miller was a first step–but a false one.