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Capital Games | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Beyond Wilkerson's Remark on Cheney as a War Criminal

Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Colin Powell at the State department, is in the news again. He first made headlines several weeks ago by accusing Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld of running a "cabal" that seized control of national security decision-making in the Bush administration prior to the Iraq war. This Tuesday, he's in the news for blasting Cheney for pushing for an anything-goes policy when it comes to detainees held by US forces. Asked during a BBC interview if he believes Cheney is guilty of war crimes for shoving aside the Geneva accords and pushing for harsh treatment (perhaps torture) of detainees, Wilkerson replied,

Well, that's an interesting question. It was certainly a domestic crime to advocate terror and I would suspect that it is--for whatever it's worth--an international crime as well.

That's some statement from a former Bush administration official. (He probably meant to say that it's illegal to conduct, not "advocate," torture, not "terror.") As might be expected, news outfits, bloggers and websites are having a field day with this. But you should read the entire interview, for Wilkerson makes several points that are less melodramatic but as, if not more, important. For instance, he attacks the White House for its recklessly negligent handling of the post-invasion planning for Iraq. This was a criminal--at least in policy terms--act for which Bush and his crowd have escaped accountability. (See what happens when Congress is controlled by the party of the president?) How Bush botched the post-invasion period should have been a bigger issue in the 2004 elections. It wasn't. But it's still not too late to complain and point an accusing finger. Wilkerson told the BBC,

The post-invasion planning for Iraq was handled, in my opinion, in this alternative decision-making process which, in this case, constituted the vice-president and the secretary of defence and certain people in the defence department who did the "post invasion planning", which was as inept and incompetent as perhaps any planning anyone has ever done.

It consisted of largely sending Jay Garner and his organisation to sit in Kuwait until the military forces had moved into Baghdad, and then going to Baghdad and other places in Iraq with no other purpose than to deliver a little humanitarian assistance, perhaps deal with some oil-field fires, put Ahmed Chalabi or some other similar Iraqi in charge and leave.

This was not only inept and incompetent, it was day-dreaming of the most unfortunate type and ever since that failed we've been in a pick-up game - a pick-up game that's cost us over 2,000 American KIAs [killed in action] and almost a division's worth of casualties.

It would have been appropriate for a congressional committee or two to examine what went wrong. But Republicans decided this was not as critical as, say, the Whitewater land deal.

In the interview, a BBC correspondent asked Wilkerson,

You've got also John Kerry recently accusing President Bush of orchestrating one of the great acts of deception in American history, and saying that flawed intelligence was manipulated to fit a political agenda. Now Colin Powell would be tarred with that same brush wouldn't he? Did he feel that he had correct information about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction when he outlined the case against Saddam?

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the latest in the CIA leak scandal, Scooter Libby's view of lying, Republican corruption scandals, and other in-the-news matters.

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Here's Wilkerson's reply:

He certainly did and so did I. I was intimately involved in that process and to this point I have more or less defended the administration.

I have basically been supportive of the administration's point that it was simply fooled--that the intelligence community, including the UK, Germany, France, Jordan--other countries that confirmed what we had in our intelligence package, yet we were all just fooled.

Lately, I'm growing increasingly concerned because two things have just happened here that really make me wonder.

And the one is the questioning of Sheikh al-Libby where his confessions were obtained through interrogation techniques other than those authorised by Geneva.

It led Colin Powell to say at the UN on 5 February 2003 that there were some pretty substantive contacts between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. And we now know that al-Libby's forced confession has been recanted and we know--we're pretty sure that it was invalid.

But more important than that, we know that there was a defence intelligence agency dissent on that testimony even before Colin Powell made his presentation. We never heard about that.

Follow that up with Curveball, and the fact that the Germans now say they told our CIA well before Colin Powell gave his presentation that Curveball--the source to the biological mobile laboratories--was lying and was not a trustworthy source. And then you begin to speculate, you begin to wonder was this intelligence spun; was it politicised; was it cherry-picked; did in fact the American people get fooled--I am beginning to have my concerns.

Beginning? It's not too late for that either. Now when will Colin Powell speak as frankly as his former deputy?

Cheney's White Flag

"No Q and A." That's what Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said to me on the elevator at his think tank on Monday morning. I knew what he meant. Dick Cheney was coming to AEI, the prowar, neocon headquarters, to give yet another speech on the Iraq war. Last week, Cheney blasted critics who claim Bush misled the nation into war, calling these accusations the most "dishonest" and "reprehensible" statements he's ever encountered in Washington. (And he's been around a long time.) But Cheney, as is his custom, refused at AEI to take questions from reporters on this or any other subject. Presumably, if he held a press conference, he'd be asked to explain his prewar claims about Iraq's supposed WMDs and its supposed contacts with al Qaeda that were not supported by the existing intelligence. (I came prepared to inquire if Cheney thought it had been "dishonest" of him to point to a Czech intelligence report that claimed 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before September 11, even though the CIA and FBI had discounted this report.) Cheney also might have been asked about the recent news that executives from four large oil companies did meet with his energy task force in 2001, even though CEOs from these firms testified to Congress this month their executives had not. So many Qs for Cheney. But no As.

When Cheney finished his speech--which consumed only one-third of the hour that AEI had scheduled for the event--he quickly darted off. He didn't even stay to greet the AEI policy wonks who had been seeded in the first rows of seats (thus pushing journalists toward the back) and who had applauded enthusiastically for their man in the White House. MSNBC's David Shuster approached me and remarked, "I thought you were going to shout out a question at Cheney." I had thought about doing so. But before I could close my notebook, Cheney was gone.

His speech was both defiant and yielding. He opened with a White House retreat that George W, Bush began the previous day. Noting that the headlines last week said he had called critics of the war "dishonest and reprehensible," Cheney stated,

I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof. Disagreement, argument, and debate are the essence of democracy, and none of us should want it any other way.

He also praised Representative Jack Murtha, the conservative and hawkish Democrat who last week called for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Murtha's proposal was initially met by hooting from a White House that didn't address Murtha's policy criticisms but that instead derided him as having been captured by Michael Moore and fringe elements of the Democratic Party. Days later, a Republican congresswoman implied that Murtha, a former Marine, was a coward for advocating disengagement. For his part, Murtha fought back by observing that he was not going to fret about attacks from folks who had ducked the Vietnam War by obtaining multiple deferments--a direct reference to Cheney. At AEI, Cheney, following Bush's lead, hailed Murtha as a "good man" and "a patriot," who "is taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion." Clearly, the White House (maybe after polling) had concluded that it could not win a ground war against Murtha. It was waving a white flag.

As part of this strategic, rhetorical withdrawal, Cheney also said there was nothing untoward about

debating whether the United States and our allies should have liberated Iraq in the first place. Here, as well, the differing views are very passionately and forcefully stated. But nobody is saying we should not be having this discussion, or that you cannot reexamine a decision made by the President and the Congress some years ago.

In other words, it's fine to refight that war. No critic need worry about being accused of treason or of undermining the troops by denouncing Bush's war.

But then Cheney made his stand:

What is not legitimate--and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible--is the suggestion by some U. S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence.

Here we go again. Prior to the invasion, Bush, Cheney and other administration officials did make many statements that were not backed up by the available intelligence. Were these merely careless mistakes? Why not call for a quick conclusion to the Phase II investigation of the Senate intelligence committee and see what the evidence indicates? Rather, Cheney declared,

The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped, or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false.

How does he explain that administration officials cited evidence that was in dispute--such as Iraq's infamous acquisition of aluminum tubes that Bush officials said could only be used for a nuclear weapons program--and claimed it was rock solid? Is it not a distortion to repeatedly cite an intelligence report that has been discredited by the CIA and the FBI?

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the battle over the prewar intelligence, Curveball-gate, the rise of the new Open Source Media site, Bush's Zarqawi problem, Ahmad Chalabi's weak defense, and other in-the-news matters.

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And Cheney, despite his earlier statement, could not help but play the undercuts-the-troops card:

American soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq go out every day into some of the most dangerous and unpredictable conditions. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood. This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate. One might also argue that untruthful charges against the Commander-in-Chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself. I'm unwilling to say that, only because I know the character of the United States Armed Forces--men and women who are fighting the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other fronts. They haven't wavered in the slightest,

Cheney was indeed suggestion that questioning whether he and Bush deliberately oversold the intelligence could be bad for the troops. But since American GIs are so swell, such statements do not unduly affect them. The White House has made an obvious calculation: let's not attack Jack Murtha, let's go after Harry Reid.

Then he pulled out the usual rhetoric. The United States could not afford to withdraw and signal weakness to the "terrorists." He noted that the "terrorists" want to "gain control" of Iraq "so they have a base from which to launch attacks and to wage war against governments that do not meet their demands." And he remarked,

Those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions: Would the United States and other free nations be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden, and Zawahiri in control of Iraq? Would we be safer, or less safe, with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?

This is the same simplistic formulation the Bush crowd has been using since the invasion. In this characterization of the war, there is only us and them, the "them" being Zarqawi and the "terrorists" that have flocked to Iraq after the invasion. But Iraq is full of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and the insurgency consists of much more than Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq. Does any reasonable Middle East analyst believe that Zarqawi could take over Iraq, against the wishes of the Shiites and their militias? Zarqawi poses a serious problem, but the more profound dilemma in Iraq involves the rising sectarian conflict and violence within a state that perhaps should not be a state. Bush and Cheney do not fully address this in public.

Cheney, instead, held up a phony argument to assault:

It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone.

Who says that? Who believes that if the United States disengages in Iraq that al Qaeda would say, "Never mind"? Not Jack Murtha. Not any Democrat or Republican who has questioned the war. One could even ask if in making such a claim Cheney was being a tad "dishonest."

Cheney finished up with the "we will not retreat" mantra. He had nothing new to say about what his administration can do to end the war--or US involvement in Iraq--in the near-term. He was playing to his base, throwing out the same old/same old reasons for keeping US troops in Iraq. That Bush and Cheney still have to explain the war and that they had to reverse course on Operation Smear Murtha indicates that Bush and his lieutenants remain alienated and isolated in a bunker of their own making.

Who Was Woodward's Source?

This week, Bob Woodward didn't break a story. He entered the story. On Wednesday, The Washington Post, Woodward's home base, disclosed that two days earlier the nation's most prominent reporter had given a sworn deposition to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. According to a statement issued by Woodward, the week after Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby, Fitzgerald asked Woodward to come in for a chat--under oath. What had happened was that a senior administration official had recently revealed to Fitzgerald that in mid-June 2003--a month before conservative columnist Bob Novak published the administration leak that outed Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA official--this Bush official had told Woodward that Valerie Wilson worked for the CIA as a WMD analyst. (The official apparently has not permitted Woodward to disclose his or her name publicly.) This revelation changes the chronology of the leak case. Previously, Libby's June 23, 2003 conversation with New York Times reporter Judith Miller was the first known instance of a Bush administration official telling a reporter about former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA. Now, it turns out, another top administration figure shared this classified information with Woodward a week or so earlier.

Yet another round of Plamegate guessing has exploded. Who wasWoodward's source? Was this person Novak's original source? (As of now, only the second of Novak's two sources--Karl Rove--has been fingered.) Why did Woodward sit on this information and not even tell the editor of his paper about this conversation until late last month? (Woodward has apologized to Post executive editor Len Downie Jr.) Did Woodward's possession of this inside information prompt him to criticize the leak investigation repeatedly on talk shows? Was he putting down Fitzgerald to protect or curry favor with one of his insider sources? Will this have any impact on the case against Libby?

As for the big who-is-it question, no sooner had the speculating begun that several obvious suspects denied being Woodward's source. An unnamed administration official quickly told The New York Times that neither Bush, White House chief of staff Andrew Card Jr, nor White House aide Dan Bartlett had spilled this secret to Woodward. Spokespeople for Colin Powell, former CIA chief George Tenet and former CIA director John McLaughlin did the same. (By the way, how can an administration official issue such a denial when the White House position is that it will not comment on the leak case while the investigation remains open?) A lawyer for Rove said that Rove was not the one. (Rove only talked about Wilson's wife with Novak--supposedly as Novak's second source--and Time's Matt Cooper.) As the Times noted--slyly?--"Mr. Cheney did not join the parade of denials." Nor, it seemed, did Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state under Powell.

After these denials came out, a smart columnist called me and asked isn't it now clear the available evidence indicates that Cheney, who was previously interviewed by Fitzgerald, was Woodward's source and that Libby had lied to prevent Cheney from being charged with perjury. Not necessarily, I replied. It's worth noting that, according to the Libby indictment, when Cheney told Libby on June 12, 2003, that Wilson's wife was in the CIA, he said she worked at the Counterproliferation Division, which is part of directorate of operations (aka the DO), the clandestine portion of the CIA. Woodward claims that his source described her as a WMD analyst. The difference in the terminology might be significant. Then again, it might not be. It's also hard to imagine Cheney approaching Fitzgerald and conceding anything, even if he was worried about Libby flipping (and there have been signs of that). But if Cheney--who had been collecting information on Wilson's wife apart from what Libby was doing--did tell a reporterabout Valerie Wilson (particularly after finding out she worked in the DO, where most employees are undercover), that would be a rather dramatic shift in the leak saga. [UPDATE: On Thursday night, the Associated Press reported that a "person familiar with the investigation" said that Cheney was not Woodward's source. Richard Armitage, look out. CNN is reporting that a spokesperson for Armitage said "no comment" when asked if Armitage was Woodward's source--which makes Armitage the only person on the Official Speculation List who has not yet denied it.

Woodward Enters--Not Breaks--the Story

This week, Bob Woodward didn't break a story. He entered the story. On Wednesday, The Washington Post, Woodward's home base, disclosed that two days earlier the nation's most prominent reporter had given a sworn deposition to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. According to a statement issued by Woodward, the week after Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby, Fitzgerald asked Woodward to come in for a chat--under oath. What had happened was that a senior administration official had recently revealed to Fitzgerald that in mid-June 2003--a month before conservative columnist Bob Novak published the administration leak that outed Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA official--this Bush official had told Woodward that Valerie Wilson worked for the CIA as a WMD analyst. (The official apparently has not permitted Woodward to disclose his or her name publicly.) This revelation changes the chronology of the leak case. Previously, Libby's June 23, 2003 conversation with New York Times reporter Judith Miller was the first known instance of a Bush administration official telling a reporter about former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA. Now, it turns out, another top administration figure shared this classified information with Woodward a week or so earlier.

Yet another round of Plamegate guessing has exploded. Who was Woodward's source? Was this person Novak's original source? (As of now, only the second of Novak's two sources--Karl Rove--has been fingered.) Why did Woodward sit on this information and not even tell the editor of his paper about this conversation until late last month? (Woodward has apologized to Post executive editor Len Downie Jr.) Did Woodward's possession of this inside information prompt him to criticize the leak investigation repeatedly on talk shows? Was he putting down Fitzgerald to protect or curry favor with one of his insider sources? Will this have any impact on the case against Libby?

As for the big who-is-it question, no sooner had the speculating begun that several obvious suspects denied being Woodward's source. An unnamed administration official quickly told The New York Times that neither Bush, White House chief of staff Andrew Card Jr, nor White House aide Dan Bartlett had spilled this secret to Woodward. Spokespeople for Colin Powell, former CIA chief George Tenet and former CIA director John McLaughlin did the same. (By the way, how can an administration official issue such a denial when the White House position is that it will not comment on the leak case while the investigation remains open?) A lawyer for Rove said that Rove was not the one. (Rove only talked about Wilson's wife with Novak--supposedly as Novak's second source--and Time's Matt Cooper.) As the Times noted--slyly?--"Mr. Cheney did not join the parade of denials." Nor, it seemed, did Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state under Powell.

After these denials came out, a smart columnist called me and asked isn't it now clear the available evidence indicates that Cheney, who was previously interviewed by Fitzgerald, was Woodward's source and that Libby had lied to prevent Cheney from being charged with perjury. Not necessarily, I replied. It's worth noting that, according to the Libby indictment, when Cheney told Libby on June 12, 2003, that Wilson's wife was in the CIA, he said she worked at the Counterproliferation Division, which is part of directorate of operations (aka the DO), the clandestine portion of the CIA. Woodward claims that his source described her as a WMD analyst. The difference in the terminology might be significant. Then again, it might not be. It's also hard to imagine Cheney approaching Fitzgerald and conceding anything, even if he was worried about Libby flipping (and there have been signs of that). But if Cheney--who had been collecting information on Wilson's wife apart from what Libby was doing--did tell a reporter about Valerie Wilson (particularly after finding out she worked in the DO, where most employees are undercover), that would be a rather dramatic shift in the leak saga. [UPDATE: On Thursday night, Associated Press reported that a "person familiar with the investigation" said that Cheney was not Woodward's source. Richard Armitage, look out. CNN is reporting that a spokesperson for Armitage said "no comment" when asked if Armitage was Woodward's source--which makes Armitage the only person on the Official Speculation List who has not yet denied it. ]

But the whole why-would-Libby-lie fuss has been overblown. It is no great riddle. Ideological allies of Libby have claimed that since no crime was broken by the leakers, there was no reason for Libby to mislead purposefully the FBI agents and grand jurors who questioned him about his role in the leak. This argument is thin. First, who knows if no crime occurred. Perhaps one did, but Fitzgerald cannot prove it. More importantly, at the time Libby first spoke to FBI agents about the leak in October 2003 (and claimed he had only passed to reporters scuttlebutt he had picked up from other journalists), he nor anyone else could be certain no crime had transpired. Yet aside from protecting himself--or another (such as his boss)--from being charged with a crime, Libby had plenty of reason not to own up to being involved in the Plame leak. A crime or not, the leak seemed to be part of a hardball--if not ugly--effort to discredit a White House critic, and it potentially damaged national security. Certainly, Libby would not be eager to acknowledge that he and the vice president had gathered material on Valerie Wilson and that he (Libby) had slipped information about her to reporters. This would have been sufficient motivation for Libby to not tell the truth--especially in those early interviews with the FBI, which occurred before Fitzgerald had been appointed.

At that point, Libby might have seen the FBI inquiry as yet another routine leak investigation destined to go nowhere. He might have believed he could get by with a convenient cover story. But once he told the FBI agents he had merely disseminated gossip--when, according to the indictment, he had actively sought and obtained information on Valerie Wilson--he had to stick to his tale, even after Fitzgerald, the bloodhound prosecutor, inherited the probe.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the battle over the prewar intelligence, the rise of the new Open Source Media site, Ahmad Chalabi's weak defense, and other in-the-news matters.

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So the Woodward revelation does not provide an answer to the not-that-important question of why Libby lied (if he did). Nor does it help Libby's case much, if at all. On Thursday, the Post published a news story titled "Woodward Could Be a Boon to Libby." The article noted that "legal experts" (note the plural) said that the Woodward disclosure could "cast at least a shadow of doubt on the public case against Libby." But it quoted only one legal expert--a former federal prosecutor named John Moustakas--making such an argument. He said that the Woodward revelation "casts doubt about whether Fitzgerald knew everything as he charged someone with a very serious offense."

But who says a prosecutor has to know "everything" before bringing a case? Libby's legal team reportedly plans to use Woodward's deposition--in which Woodward notes he talked to Libby and Libby did not out Valerie Wilson to him--as evidence that Libby was not hell-bent on revealing Valerie Wilson's CIA connection. But none of this has anything to do with whether Libby lied to investigators and the grand jury when he was asked what he had said to other reporters. The Post article also quotes Randall Eliason, former head of the public corruption unit for the US attorney's office in Washington, DC, dismissing this legal strategy as "defense spin" and noting that the Woodward news "doesn't really tell us anything about the central issue in Libby's case."

The newsflash about Woodward tells us more about Woodward (he sat on information while blasting the investigation) and presumably provides Fitzgerald yet another lead. Where this might take Fitzgerald, if anywhere, is open to wide-ranging conjecture. But one need not know the identity of Woodward's latest secret source (Top Throat?) to ask a pointed question of the White House. When the CIA leak first became the subject of an investigation, Bush declared that everyone in his administration with any information on the matter had to come forward and "speak out." Obviously, Karl Rove did not do this. Neither did Libby. The White House grandly--but falsely--denied they had been "involved" in the leak. And here's another administration official who did not come forward until late in the game. (Why Woodward's source contacted Fitzgerald at this stage is another guessing game.) When is Bush going to acknowledge that he has been surrounded by people who ignored the come-clean command? If the White House can leak word that Bush is not Woodward's source, it certainly can explain why Bush has yet to demand that White House officials be held accountable for disobeying his order.

Bush Rewrites History To Criticize His Antiwar Critics

In a Veterans Day speech on Friday, delivered to troops and others at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, George W. Bush veered from the usual commemoration of sacrifice to strike at critics who have questioned whether he steered the country into war by using false information. This has become a tough and troubling issue for his presidency. A poll taken before his speech found that 57 percent of the respondents now believe that Bush "deliberately misled" the nation into war. That is astounding and, I assume, without precedent in history. Has there been another wartime period during which a majority of Americans believed the president had purposefully bamboozled them about the reasons for that war? Addressing this charge is tough for Bush because it calls more attention to it, and the on-ground-realities in Iraq only cause more popular unease with the war. But Bush and his aides calculated that it was better to punch back than ignore the criticism, and that's a sign that they're worried that Bush is coming to be defined as a president who conned the nation into an ugly war. So Bush tried. Let's break down his effort:

Our debate at home must also be fair-minded. One of the hallmarks of a free society and what makes our country strong is that our political leaders can discuss their differences openly, even in times of war.

Conservative who claim raising questions about the war does a disservice to the troops and is anti-American might want to keep these words in mind.

When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support.

Actually, Congress did not approve Bush's decision to remove Saddam. In October 2002, the House and Senate approved a resolution that gave Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq if he deemed that appropriate. At the time, Bush and his aides were claiming it was their goal to force Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction and his WMD programs (which, we know now, did not exist). When the resolution passed---and in the weeks after---the White House insisted that Bush was not bent on "regime change" and that he was willing to work within the UN to force Saddam to accept UN inspectors (which Saddam did) in pursuit of the goal of disarming Iraq. Is Bush now saying that he had already resolved to invade Iraq at this point and all his talk about achieving disarmament through the UN process was bunk? Is he rewriting history--or telling us the real truth? In any event, when Bush did order the invasion of Iraq months later in March 2003, he did not ask Congress to vote on his decision to remove Saddam.

I also recognize that some of our fellow citizens and elected officials didn't support the liberation of Iraq. And that is their right, and I respect it. As President and Commander-in-Chief, I accept the responsibilities, and the criticisms, and the consequences that come with such a solemn decision.

Bush might accept "the responsibilities and criticisms," but has yet to acknowledge the mistakes he and his aides made before and after the invasion about planning for a post-invasion Iraq. He also has not insisted on any accountability for these mistakes. For instance, he gave a spiffy medal to former CIA chief George Tenet, who was responsible for the prewar intelligence failure.

While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.

When was the last time Bush talked about how the war began--that is, when did he mention that his primary reason for war (protecting the American public from the supposed WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein) was discredited by reality? Is ignoring history the same as rewriting it?

Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.

This is not the full and accurate explanation of the controversy at hand. The issue of whether the Bush administration misled the nation in the run-up to the war has two components. The first is the production of the intelligence related to WMDs and the supposed al Qaeda-Sadam connection. The second is how the Bush crowd represented the intelligence to the public when trying to make the case for war. As for the first, the Senate intelligence committee report did say the committee had found no evidence of political pressure. But Democratic members of the committee and others challenged this finding. Several committee Democrats pointed to a CIA independent review on the prewar intelligence, conducted by a panel led by Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the CIA, which said,

Requests for reporting and analysis of [Iraq's links to al Qaeda] were steady and heavy in the period leading up to the war, creating significant pressure on the Intelligence Community to find evidence that supported a connection.

More to the point, Kerr told Vanity Fair that intelligence analysts did feel pressured by the go-to-war gang. The magazine in May 2004 reported,

"There was a lot of pressure, no question," says Kerr. "The White House, State, Defense were raising questions, heavily on W.M.D. and the issue of terrorism. Why did you select this information rather than that? Why have you downplayed this particular thing?...Sure, I heard that some of the analysts felt pressure. We heard about it from friends. There are always some people in the agency who will say, 'We've been pushed to hard.' Analysts will say, 'You're trying to politicize it.' There were people who felt there was too much pressure. Not that they were being asked to change their judgments, but there were being asked again and again to restate their judgments--do another paper on this, repetitive pressures. Do it again."

Was it a case, then, of officials repeatedly asking for another paper until they got the answer they wanted? "There may have been some of that," Kerr concedes. The requests came from "primarily people outside asking for the same paper again and again. There was a lot of repetitive tasking. Some of the analysts felt this was unnecessary pressure. The repetitive requests, Kerr made clear, came from the C.I.A.'s "senior customers," including "the White House, the vice president, State, Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

Despite Bush's assertion, the question remains whether undue pressure was applied by the White House. And in his Veterans Day speech, Bush ducked the second issue: how he and his aides depicted the intelligence. This is the source of the dispute over the so-called Phase II investigation of the Senate intelligence committee. The allegation is that Bush and administration officials overstated and hyped the flawed intelligence and claimed it was definitive when they had reason to know it was not.

For example, in his final speech to the nation before launching the war, Bush claimed that US intelligence left "no doubt" about Iraq's supposed WMDs. But there was plenty of doubt on critical issues. Intelligence analysts at the Energy Department and State Department disagreed with those at the CIA about the evidence that purportedly showed Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program: its importation of aluminum tubes and the allegation that Iraq had been uranium-shopping in Niger. (In 2002, Dick Cheney said the tubes were "irrefutable evidence," and Condoleezza Rice said they were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." But a year earlier, as The New York Times reported in 2004, "Rice's staff had been told that the government's foremost nuclear expert seriously doubted that the tubes were for nuclear weapons.") The CIA believed Iraq had chemical weapons. But the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that there was no evidence such stockpiles existed. Some intelligence analysts concluded that Iraq was developing unmanned aerial vehicles that could deliver chemical or biological weapons. The experts on UAVs at the Air Force thought this was not so. Was Bush speaking accurately when he told the public--and the world--there was "no doubt"?

Also, did Bush make specific claims unsupported by the intelligence? The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, produced in October 2002, maintained that Iraq had an active biological research and development program. Bush publicly said Iraq had "stockpiles" of biological weapons. There is a difference between an R&D program (which Iraq did not have) and warehouses loaded with ready-to-go weapons (which Bush implied existed). How did an R&D program become stockpiles? This is as intriguing a question as how those sixteen words about Iraq's alleged pursuit of uranium in Africa became embedded in the State of the Union speech Bush delivered in early 2003.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Ahmad Chalabi's weak defense, the Rove/Libby scandal, the slow Phase II review of prewar intellience, and other in-the-news matters.

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On the key issue of Saddam Hussein's alleged connection to al Qaeda, Bush also made statements that went beyond the intelligence. This link was crucial to the case for war, for Bush and other hawks were arguing that Saddam Hussein could slip his WMDs to his pal Osama bin Laden. Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein was "dealing with" al Qaeda. But his intelligence agencies had not reached that conclusion. (And the 9/11 Commission later said there was no evidence of collusion between al Qaeda and Saddam.) So how did Bush come to make such a statement? Recently, Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, released formerly classified material showing that before the war when Bush, Cheney, Colin Powell and other administration officials cited evidence that Iraq had been training al Qaeda operatives in the use of bombs and other weapons, Bush and these officials were relying on the statements of a captured al Qaeda member whose claims had been discounted by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Once more, how had Bush and his senior aides come to disseminate specific and provocative information deemed unreliable by the intelligence community?

Bush's Veterans Days comments addressed none of this.

They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein.

The people with the most hands-on information regarding WMDs in Iraq did not. The International Atomic Energy Agency, led by recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, concluded weeks before the war (after their inspectors had returned to Iraq) that Saddam Hussein had not revived the nuclear weapons program that the IAEA had dismantled in the mid-1990s. And Hans Blix, head of the UN inspectors in Iraq, repeatedly said that his team was not finding evidence of chemical or biological weapons stockpiles.

...And many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: "When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security." That's why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate--who had access to the same intelligence--voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.

As noted above, the Democrats voted to give Bush the authority to use force when he thought he should--but only after Bush had promised to go to the United Nations in an effort to disarm Saddam Hussein, who, it turned out, was telling the truth when he denied his government possessed WMDs. Even the John Kerry quote that Bush cites contains the to-disarm condition. And several Democratic members of Congress have claimed that they did not see all the intelligence that was available to the White House.

The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges.

It's hard to argue with that.

These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them. Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough.

Who said that "it's perfectly legitimate to criticize" the "decision [to go to war in Iraq] or the conduct of the war"? That was Bush, moments earlier, in the same speech. So which is it? Is it okay to criticize the conduct of the war or not?

By the way, while accusing his critics of falsifying history, Bush never conceded that he launched the war on a false premise--that Saddam Hussein was up to his neck in WMDs--and, thus, as he paid tribute to veterans of this war and others, he did not accept responsibility for sending American troops into battle for a cause that did not exist.

Ahmad Chalabi, WMDs, the CIA, No Regrets, and Page 108

Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader whose Iraqi National Council peddled bad intelligence on WMDs prior to the war and who is now a deputy prime minister of Iraq, had just finished speaking for close to an hour in a crowded conference room at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that has been Central Command for neocons favoring the war. Before an audience loaded with journalists, camera crews, policy wonks, admirers and his own entourage, Chalabi had detailed the challenges currently facing the Iraqi government. He gently criticized the post-invasion occupation. He had cheered the new constitution (even its treatment of women). He had tried to position himself as a populist, citing the constitutional provision that declares that Iraq's oil wealth belong to the people of Iraq. He had claimed the present government has stopped "95 percent" of government corruption. He had maintained that Iraq is "not out of the storm" but that it is at "the threshold of a new era." This was a triumphant moment for him. His AEI appearance was the major public event of a trip to Washington during which he was scheduled to see five Cabinet members (including Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld), the national security adviser, and the vice president. Not bad for a guy whom the CIA and State Department booted from the payroll and a fellow (once charged with bilking a Jordanian bank of nearly $300 million) who is under investigation for supposedly leaking classified US information to Iran that may have compromised the United States' ability to read intercepted Iranian communications. Before Chalabi started talking, several reporters were pondering if any head of state--let alone a deputy prime minister--would rate such attention and so many high-level meetings (though not one with the president). The answer: none come to mind. Despite the troubles and accusations of the past, Chalabi was receiving the royal treatment.

During his talk, Chalabi had avoided all mention of the unpleasant business of the past, such as when Iraqi troops backed by US forces raided his home in 2004. And he had said nothing of weapons of mass destruction--the main reason George W. Bush gave for invading Iraq. So now that it was time for questions, I thought he should be granted the opportunity to address the gorilla in the room.

In 2004, I said to him, you were asked if you had misled the US government by providing it bad intelligence on WMD, and you said you and the INC were "heroes in error." Given that over 2000 American lives have been lost so far, would you today defend yourself the same way--particularly to a relative of someone who has been killed in Iraq? What errors did you have in mind when you said that? And can you provide a direct answer to the question of whether you misled the US government?

Chalabi was ready for this. "The quote is false," he stated. "I never said that." (This direct quote was reported in February 2004 by Jack Fairweather, a correspondent for the Telegraph newspaper of London.) He then went on: "We are sorry for every American life that is lost in Iraq. As for the fact that I deliberately misled the US government, this is an urban myth. I refer people to page 108 of the Robb-Silberman report that debunks this entire idea." That report was produced by a commission appointed by George W. Bush to investigate the prewar intelligence flaws; the panel's cochairmen were former Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman. And I'll get to page 108 in a moment.

Then Chalabi moved on to other reporters. Moments later, David Shuster of Hardball followed up. He noted that Chalabi had denied deliberately misleading the US government but Shuster observed that "much of the information" Chalabi's INC had provided was "bogus, false and not true." Would Chalabi, Shuster asked, apologize for passing on information "used to frighten the American people into war?" Chalabi stuck to the reply he had given me: "Read the Robb-Silberman report." Shuster shot back: "Do you regret it?" Chalabi stood firm: "Read the reports." In other words, no.

When Barbara Slavin of USA Today asked if Chalabi was still under active investigation for allegedly leaking US secrets to Iran, he said, "I have no knowledge of any investigation concerning me except what I read in the papers." (His lawyer doesn't tell him anything?) And when a CNN producer questioned Chalabi about his turbulent relationship with the US government, he remarked, "My relationship with the Bush administration is friendly. We have a multi-dimensional relationship. This relationship is developing and growing." He noted that Konrad Adenauer was arrested in Germany after World War II by the British but went on to become the first chancellor of West Germany. A role model?

Before Chalabi had to skedaddle to another meeting with another high-level Bush official, he faced one more question on the WMD issue. What do you believe happened to the WMDs? a reporter asked. Were they taken out of Iraq, buried in the desert, hidden, or did they never exist? "This question," Chalabi replied, "is pregnant with implications. Too many people have said too many things....It is not useful for me to comment on it....We are not engaged in this debate in Iraq."

And he was not engaging in it now. Moreover, he had not told the truth about page 108. On that page, the Robb-Silberman commission does claim that "INC-related sources had a minimal impact on pre-war assessments," but it says that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (the major prewar intelligence summation compiled by the CIA)

relied on reporting from two INC sources, both of whom were later deemed to be fabricators. One source...provided fabricated reporting on the existence of mobile [biological weapons] facilities in Iraq. The other source, whose information was provided in a text box in the NIE and sourced to a "defector," reported on the possible construction of a new nuclear facility in Iraq. The CIA concluded that this source was being "directed" by the INC to provide information to the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Does this passage debunk what Chalabi called the "myth" that the INC supplied bad information to the US intelligence? Instead, the report states that the INC "directed" a fabricator to give information that was false to the CIA. What "directed" means in this instance is not specified. Perhaps Chalabi and the INC did not realize these sources were making it up. But wouldn't sending along a fabricator--wittingly or not--warrant an apology?

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the Rove/Libby scandal, Corn's appearance with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the slow Phase II review of prewar intellience, Samuel Alito and other in-the-news matters.

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After Chalabi's speech was done, Francis Brooke, Chalabi's Washington adviser, told me that the INC had supplied "good-faith information" to Washington and that it was "the responsibility of the United States to evaluate that information. We have no way of evaluating that information." That is a convenient escape for the INC: we send you the fabricators, you do the vetting. But Chalabi, for some reason, did not deploy this defense when the television cameras were trained upon him and he was called to explain his prewar activity. He cited a report that no reporter had in front of him or her at the time. How canny.

As I headed for the elevator, a white-haired woman whom I did not know yelled at me, "You should be paid by the CIA!" She apparently thought my questioning of Chalabi was too rough. Her jeer was a demonstration of how the Iraq war has twisted the ideological lines in Washington. Yes, I said to her, only a CIA provocateur working for a left-of-center magazine would dare question Chalabi in that manner, and I cannot wait to get back to my office and receive my payment from Langley. As the elevator doors closed, I noticed in the lift my former colleague Christopher Hitchens, who moments earlier I had spotted planting a kiss of greeting upon the cheek of one of Chalabi's many spokespeople. Hitchens noted that it was indeed odd that The Nation was now in the business of protecting the CIA. He was referring to the magazine's--and I presume my--coverage of the Plame/CIA leak scandal. There was nothing wrong with the leak, he said. The public had the right to know that the CIA was out to sabotage the administration and undermine its case for war. And that right-to-know, he explained, included being told all about Valerie Wilson because she had participated in this underhanded plot by dispatching her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger on a mission to discredit the allegation Saddam Hussein had been uranium-shopping there.

Hitchens' affection for the Iraq war and its architects--notably, Paul Wolfowitz--is well advertised. But, as I pointed out to him, his justification of the leak was a step beyond. He clung to his position, as he is good at doing. And as we descended, our debate over the leak turned into an argument over the war. I asked him what he thought of his comrades' use of mischaracterized intelligence to grease the way to war. Outside the AEI building, as a few people gathered to watch our exchange, he maintained that Bush et. al. had prudently based their decision to go to war on worst-case assumptions. But, I countered, that is not what Bush had told the public he was doing; Bush had claimed that the intelligence indicated there was "no doubt" that Iraq possessed WMDs. There was much doubt, I noted, and provided several examples. Oh, Hitchens replied, I was being too literal and had missed the nuances of Bush's position. My retort: Bush being nuanced? Christopher, you would not trust Bush to review a single death penalty application, yet you were happy to hand him the keys to this invasion and now you make excuses for how he misrepresented the intelligence he did not even bother to read. Our sidewalk debate fizzled out; Hitchens drifted off to chat with well-wishers.

Chalabi did not make much news at AEI, which, no doubt, was the point. It was not surprising that he ducked responsibility for helping to push the United States to war on the basis of misinformation (or disinformation) and refused to express remorse for sending fabricators into the arms of US intelligence. (I assume his no-apologies stance covers the INC's prewar dissemination of false information to friendly reporters.) This appearance was just another step for him on the road to rehabilitated statesman. "I always knew he would reach this sort of position," said a former US official who was present and who worked with Chalabi years ago. "He knows where the skeletons are for many people. That has always made him very hard to stop. And he hasn't been stopped yet."

Democratic Wins in Virginia, NJ and California

In politics--as the sophisticated analysts say--it is better to win than lose. So Democrats can be happy about their triumphs in New Jersey and Virginia, where their candidates won contests for governor, and they can crow about terminating California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's ballot propositions (particularly the one that would have weakened the political clout of unions). Are these results a bad omen for Republicans in 2006? As several poli-sci experts have pointed out, if you look at recent off-year elections, they predict the outcome of the next election in only two of four cases. That's as good as flipping a coin. But what was notable about these elections is that Rove-style politics did not succeed.

In Virginia and New Jersey, the Republicans campaigned mainly by hurling slash-and-burn ads at the Democrats. In New Jersey, the Republicans even went after Senator Jon Corzine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, by putting up an ad in which Corzine's ex-wife dumped on him. Despite this woman-scorned strategy, Corzine won.

In Virginia, GOP candidate Jerry Kilgore aired harsh spots that accused Democrat--and eventual winner--Timothy Kaine--of being a wimp on the death penalty. Kaine, a Catholic, explained that he opposed capital punishment due to his moral values but he said he would abide by state law, which allows for executions. Kilgore mercilessly bashed Kaine for holding this view; one Kilgore ad had a murder victim's relative bitterly saying that Kaine could not be trusted on this issue. Kilgore's campaign devoted more resources to anti-Kaine ads than spots celebrating Kilgore's own assets. And in the final weeks of the campaign, Kilgore tried to score points by decrying illegal immigration. That didn't work. Nor did another move aimed at base Republican voters. Shortly before the election, Kilgore declared his support for a measure that would let gun-owners bring concealed weapons into bars. He argued this was safer for gun-owners than requiring them to leave their firearms in their cars whenever they wanted a brewski. (What's next? Permitting guns in schools and courthouses? How about in divorce court?) Pushing the death penalty, pandering to gun-owners, screaming about illegal immigrants, and campaigning with George W. Bush (but only once, and in the last dash of the race)--none of this helped Kilgore in a Red state.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the Rove/Libby scandal, Corn's appearance with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the slow Phase II review of prewar intellience, Samuel Alito and other in-the-news matters.

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That sure ain't bad news for Democrats. Now all they need are effective candidates like Kaine and popular outgoing incumbents like departing Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and they will sweep the nation. Seriously, it's encouraging for Democrats that the traditional weapons of Republicans did not draw blood (at least not in a fatal fashion) in Virginia and New Jersey, states that could be crucial in the next presidential contest. And it has to worry Republicans that Bush is at this moment a dud when it comes to assisting GOP candidates. He will still be able to raise mucho money for Republicans in the 2006 contests. After all, there are plenty of grateful millionaires eager to kick back a small percentage of the large tax cuts they have received courtesy of Bush and the GOP (and a few Democrats). It's usually not too hard for a president to be a cash machine for his party. But the icing on the cake is a president who can hit the road, campaign with candidates of his party, and share his glow with them. Right now, Bush has less glow than a night light. If he doesn't increase his political wattage in the coming year, one motif of the 2006 election will be whether Republicans are running with Bush or away from him.

But remember that whenever anyone discussed the coming elections in terms of national themes, moods, or issues, such talk has to be tempered by the realization that congressional elections in non-presidential years are mostly a collection of 500-odd individual races, each with their own dynamics that may defy or jibe with larger trends. Moreover, the 435 House districts are so gerrymandered that only several dozen of them are likely to be competitive. Most House seats are safe harbors. Consequently, it takes quite a national tide to push enough boats in a direction that leads to a change of control. That did happen in 1994, when GOPers seized the House for the first time in a million years. (It was more like four decades.) But incumbents have done a good job of rigging the system to protect incumbents of both parties.

Still, it's better to have the wind at your back than in your face. Democrats can celebrate. But they still need to build up their 2006 infrastructure. I've heard Democratic activists complain in recent weeks that there is not enough money being raised by the party and--perhaps more importantly--by outside groups for the coming elections. After funders kicked in millions of dollars in 2004 and received nothing on their investment, many are gun-shy this time around. Perhaps Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey will buck them up and loosen up the purse strings. There isn't much time. And one thing is for sure: Republican strategists are scrutinizing yesterday's results and figuring out their next whatever-it-takes strategies.

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BUY THIS BOOK. As regular readers of my davidcorn.com blog know, Marjorie Williams, a wonderful writer and journalist who died of liver cancer earlier this year, was a friend. Fortunately for those who knew her--and for those who did not--her words live on. A collection of her writings, The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, has just been published. The volume was edited by Tim Noah, her husband and a writer for Slate. Whether Marjorie was profiling the powerful of Washington, teasing out the great meanings of everyday family life, or contemplating her own sickness and death, she conveyed the sense that truth was her foremost guide. As Nation columnist Katha Pollitt notes, "Marjorie Williams put her whole best self into everything she wrote--wit, high spirits, honesty, heart, and brilliant literary gifts. She was not just the best Washington journalist of her generation, she was one of the best journalists, period." If you want to know more about Marjorie, see Todd Purdum's poignant piece in The New York Times or my blog item on an excerpt of her book that appeared in last month's Vanity Fair. Here's the link to the book's Amazon.com page. Buy it. Read it. And then join me in regretting this is Marjorie's only and last book.

Squeezing Bush on his Prewar WMD Hype

When Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, promised in 2004 that his committee would investigate how Bush had used (or abused) the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs--an unkept promise that led to the Democratic shutdown of the Senate this week--he made that promise to me.

Actually, what the Democrats did was not bring the Senate to a halt; much of the media mistakenly reported their action was a shutdown. Instead, the Senate Democrats, deploying the rarely used Rule 21, forced the Senate into a closed session--no TV cameras, no visitors, no reporters--in order to discuss (that is, complain about) Roberts' failure to produce the so-called Phase II report, which was supposed to examine whether Bush administration officials had misrepresented the prewar intelligence to whip up public support for the invasion of Iraq. With this maneuver, the Democrats cast attention on the GOP attempt to duck this issue, and pushed the Republicans to establish a bipartisan panel that would review the progress (or lack thereof) of the Phase II inquiry. This panel--which is investigating the investigation--is to report back to the rest of the Senate by mid-November.

But back to me. On July 9, 2004, Roberts' committee released a report on the prewar intelligence. It concluded that the intelligence had been botched and noted that the major conclusions of the intelligence community were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence report." The failure of the intelligence community was obvious in the weeks after the invasion. But what Roberts report did not investigate was whether Bush and his aides had hyped problematic intelligence. For instance, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was produced in October 2002, reported--errantly--that Iraq had an active biological weapons R&D program. Yet Bush in a speech declared that Iraq had "stockpiles" of biological weapons. Having an R&D program is not the same as possessing loads of ready-to-use weapons.

Roberts' investigation had ignored such exaggerations of the Bush administration. At that press conference, Senator Jay Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, pointed this out:

I have to say, that there is a real frustration over what is not in this report, and I don't think was mentioned in Chairman Roberts' statement, and that is about the--after the analysts and the intelligence community produced an intelligence product, how is it then shaped or used or misused by the policy-makers?

Roberts indicated that his committee would get to this in a second phase of the investigation, one that would not likely be finished until after the upcoming presidential election. Was that a coincidence? One intelligence committee staffer told me that such an inquiry could be completed within a month or two.

During the Q&A, Roberts called on me, and I asked:

Given that 800 American G.I.s have lost their lives so far, thousands have had serious injuries, lost limbs, all on the basis of false claims, and that American taxpayers have had to kick in almost $200 billion, don't the American public and the relatives of people who lost their lives have a right to know before the next election whether this administration handled intelligence matters adequately and made statements that were justified--before the election, not after the election?

No, Roberts essentially said. His actual response was this:

We simply couldn't get that done with the work product that we put out. And he has pointed out that that has a top priority. It is one of my top priorities. It's his top priority, along with the reform effort....It involves probably three things -- or at least three. One is the prewar intelligence on Iraq, which is what you're talking about. Secondly is the situation with the assistant secretary of defense, Douglas Feith, and his activity in regards to material that he provided with a so-called intelligence planning cell to the Department of Defense and to the CIA. And then the left one -- what is the last one? What's the third one? Help me with it....There is a third one, and I don't know why I can't come up with it right now. But, anyway, it is a priority. And, hey, I have told Jay, I have told everybody on the other side of the aisle, everybody on our side of the aisle, "We'll proceed with phase two. It is a priority." I made my commitment, and it will be done.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the Rove/Libby scandal, Samuel Alito and other in-the-news matters.

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Roberts has a rather elastic idea of what makes a commitment. After the election, his committee did little, if any, work on the Phase II project, as I reported last spring. Moreover, in March, Roberts declared that further investigation was pointless. He said that if his investigators asked Bush officials whether they had overstated or mischaracterized prewar intelligence, they'd simply claim their statements had been based on "bum intelligence." And he huffed, "To go though that exercise, it seems to me, in a postelection environment--we didn't see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress. I think everybody pretty well gets it." So after making a promise in July to get it done, he then decided to drop the ball. Democrats, including Rockefeller, protested. But they didn't make too much noise about this.

Then came Rule 21. The Democrats had considered calling on Rule 21 to initiate a closed session in 2004 to highlight the inaction on Phase II, according to a senior Democratic staffer. The staff of Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader at the time (who would be defeated in the November election), had researched how to pull off such a maneuver. Daschle wanted to give Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist advance notice of the move, but he never pulled the trigger.

This year, with Senator Harry Reid now leading the Democrats, the Democratic leadership decided not to be so polite and to invoke Rule 21 as a surprise. "The Democratic leadership had finally gotten to the point where--after sending letters to Roberts and holding meetings on this--they figured the only way to draw attention to the Phase II cop-out was to do this," the Democratic staffer says. "It also had the ancillary benefit of changing the subject from Alito to what Bush said to justify the war, and it served as a bridge between the Libby indictment and arraignment. It also made the point that Fitzgerald's investigation was a criminal investigation and was not designed to get into the question of whether Bush had misrepresented the intelligence. That's the job of Congress--or should be."

There's still no guarantee that Roberts and the Republicans will efficiently and vigorously tackle the Phase II assignment. According to a statement released by Rockefeller, the intelligence committee in February 2004 decided that Phase II would focus on five subjects. As he put it,

1. Whether public statements, reports, and testimony regarding Iraq by U.S. Government officials made between the Gulf war period and the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom were substantiated by intelligence information;

2. Pre-war intelligence assessments about post-war Iraq;

3. Any intelligence activities relating to Iraq within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, headed by Douglas Feith;

4. The use by the Intelligence Community of information provided by the Iraqi National Congress; and

5. The post-war findings about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and weapons programs and links to terrorism and how they compare with pre-war assessments.

This past spring, Roberts told me that the report would not only look at what Bush administration officials said about WMDs in Iraq before the war; it would also examine statements made by leading Democrats about Iraq prior to the war--presumably people like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, and John Edwards. Roberts' intent is obvious: to make it seem that everyone was wrong. Thus, Bush would deserve no blame. But Bush had ready access to all the intelligence, and it was his job to review it carefully and to represent it accurately to the American public before taking the country to war. Nevertheless, the Phase II report could become a spin job geared more toward distraction than disclosure.

With the Libby indictment as the backdrop, the Senate Democrats, thanks to Rule 21, did remind the public and the media that Bush's use of misinformation (or disinformation) to sell the war remains an open question. But this battle over the run-up to the war is far from over, and Phase II will likely not be the end of it.

A Grave Indictment, but Grave Questions Remain

If a senior White House official leaks classified information that identifies an undercover CIA officer to reporters in order to undermine a critic of the administration, he is not entitled to lie about it to FBI agents and a grand jury charged with the task of determining if such a leak violated the law. That was special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's message, as he held a dramatic press conference at the Justice Department to explain the five-count indictment his grand jury issued against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. "This is a very serious matter," he insisted.

The indictment charged Libby with two counts of making false statements to the FBI, two counts of committing perjury (by lying twice to the grand jury) and one count of obstruction of justice. All these charges referred to Libby's account of how he came to learn of Valerie Wilson, the undercover CIA official who was married to former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a White House critic, and who was outed in a July 14, 2003 Bob Novak column. During interviews with FBI agents and in his testimony before the grand jury, Libby--who, before the Novak column was published, told Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA--repeatedly claimed that he was merely passing along information he had heard from other reporters. For instance, on March 5, 2004, Libby, answering questions about a July 12, 2003 conversation with Cooper, told the grand jury,

All I had was this information that was coming in from the reporters....I said, reporters are telling us that [about Valerie Wilson's employment at the CIA]. I don't know if it's true. I was careful about that because among other things, I wanted to be clear I didn't know Mr. Wilson. I don't know--I think I said, I don't know if he has a wife, but this is what we're hearing.

On March 24, 2004, Libby, in another appearance before the grand jury, said,

All I had was that reporters are telling us that, and by that I wanted them to understand it wasn't coming from me and that it might not be true....So I wanted to be clear they [the reporters to whom he spoke] didn't, they didn't think it was me saying it. I didn't know if it [the information about Valerie Wilson] was true, and I wanted them to understand that.

But, according to the indictment, Libby had actively gathered information on Joseph Wilson and his wife after newspaper stories appeared about a trip that Joseph Wilson had taken to Niger for the CIA in February 2002, during which he had concluded that the allegation that Iraq had been shopping there for weapon-grade uranium was highly dubious. In May 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, using Wilson as a source, wrote about this trip without naming Wilson. The Washington Post did the same the following month. And on July 6, 2003, Wilson published an op-ed piece in the Times describing his mission to Niger and his findings, which undercut the Bush administration's use of the Niger allegation in making a case for war.

In late May 2003--after the first Kristof column and before Wilson went public with his op-ed--Libby asked Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman for information on the unnamed ambassador's trip to Niger. Grossman ordered the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research to prepare a report on the ambassador and the trip and subsequently told Libby that Wilson had been the ambassador. On June 9, 2003, according to the indictment, classified CIA documents that covered Wilson and the Niger trip (without mentioning Wilson by name) were faxed from the CIA to Libby. Two or three days later, Grossman told Libby, the indictment says, that "Wilson's wife worked at the CIA." About that time, Libby spoke with a senior CIA officer, who also informed Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Also about the time, the indictment states, Cheney told Libby that Wilson's wife was employed at the CIA in the counterproliferation division. This is an intriguing fact. Usually in Washington, principles ask their subordinates to dig up information for them. Apparently, Cheney was doing his own fact-finding on the Wilson front. The indictment does not explain what Cheney was up to or why. It notes that "Libby understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA." Cheney had a back-channel behind his back-channel (Libby).

Libby was not done gathering information on Joseph and Valerie Wilson. On or about June 14, 2003--still weeks before Wilson's op-ed article appeared--Libby, according to the indictment, met with a CIA briefer and "discussed with the briefer, among other things, 'Joseph Wilson' and his wife 'Valerie Wilson' in the context of Wilson's trip to Niger." (Fitzgerald's use of quotation marks in this passage of the indictment suggests he has notes from this meeting.)

Libby, as depicted in the indictment, was aware of the sensitive nature of the material he had collected on the Wilsons. When an assistant asked if information on Wilson's trip could be shared with the press to rebut the charge that Cheney had sent Wilson to Niger (an allegation never made by Wilson, who had said that his trip was a response to a request that had come to the CIA from Cheney's office), Libby told his aide that he could not talk about this topic on a nonsecure telephone line.

Yet days later--on June 23, 2003--Libby met with Judy Miller and told her that Wilson's wife might work at the CIA. And the day after Joseph Wilson's op-ed piece appeared, Libby had lunch with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and informed him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, adding that this was not widely known. That week, Libby twice more discussed Valerie Wilson with Miller. And on July 10 or 11, 2003, Libby, according to the indictment, spoke to a senior White House official--identified as "Official A" and possibly White House aide Karl Rove--who told Libby that earlier in the week he (Official A) had discussed Wilson's wife and her CIA employment with Novak, who would be writing a column about her.

If the indictment is correct, Libby was not only in the loop regarding Valerie Wilson and her connection to the CIA; he had helped to create it. Yet Fitzgerald's indictment quotes Libby declaring over and over he only had heard--and passed along--scuttlebutt received from other reporters. To prop up this cover story, Libby told the FBI agents that it had been NBC News' Tim Russert who had said to him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA and that "all the reporters knew it." Russert told the grand jury that he had not discussed Wilson's wife with Libby and that in this particular conversation Libby had complained to him about an MSNBC reporter (who goes unnamed in the indictment).

Libby appears to have concocted a rather clumsy cover story, especially in that he pointed to a specific reporter as his source--Russert--for the information on Valerie Wilson that he shared with Miller and Cooper. A reasonable assumption is that even if Libby was not a source for the Novak column that identified Valerie Wilson, he was attempting to distance himself--and perhaps Cheney--from the administration's effort to find and leak information on Wilson and his wife (even if it might be classified) to undercut Wilson's criticism. During the press conference, Fitzgerald noted that Libby was the first official who talked to a reporter about Valerie Wilson when he discussed her with Miller on June 23, 2003.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the CIA leak affair and other in-the-news matters.

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Fitzgerald's indictment of Libby seems rather tight. Libby said he knew nothing about Wilson's wife except what he had heard from reporters. Fitzgerald has compiled what looks like solid evidence that Libby was actively collecting information on Joseph Wilson and his wife. And if this case goes to trial, possible witnesses for the prosecution include Russert, Fleischer, Grossman, Libby's principle deputy, a CIA briefer, Official A, and Cheney. Libby could be sentenced up to 30 years if found guilty of all counts. Libby, the first senior White House official to be indicted since the Ulysses Grant administration, is in serious legal trouble.

Is anyone else? Fitzgerald's grand jury expired on Friday. But he has asked the presiding judge to keep a grand jury available for him because he has not completed his investigation. His probe, he said at the press conference, is "not quite done." Then he quickly added, "But I don't want to add to a feverish pitch. It's very, very routine that you keep a grand jury available for what you might need." He noted that the "substantial bulk of the work" has been completed. But he said, "Let's let the process take place."

How to read this? Not over, but mostly finished. Fitzgerald seemed a man who was rather close to the end of a long and tough endeavor, and he yielded no hint of any indictments to come. He certainly did not signal or say, "Stay tuned."

Does that mean this leak investigation could end only with Libby indicted--not for participating in the leak but for lying about his pre-leak actions? That's possible. And Fitzgerald, sticking to the rules of grand jury investigations, refused to reveal any information about the case that was not included in the indictment. Who were Novak's sources for the leak? Fitzgerald wouldn't say. Is Official A a new name for Mr. X--the term used by reporters to refer to Novak's original source? Fitzgerald didn't say. Might Rove be Official A? Fitzgerald didn't say. Why did the leak refer to Valerie Wilson by her maiden name of Plame? Fitzgerald didn't say. What sort of cooperation did Fitzgerald receive from Novak (who presumably spilled all to Fitzgerald, otherwise he would have landed in the slammer like Miller)? Fitzgerald didn't say. Was Cheney in cahoots with Libby regarding the latter's false testimony? Fitzgerald didn't say. How much damage was done to the CIA and its operations by the leak? Fitzgerald didn't say. What about George W. Bush? What did he know about Rove's involvement in the leak and when did he know it? No reporter at the press conference even asked about this.

Fitzgerald did not share much beyond the information he had to disclose in order to indict Libby. He did declare that "the fact that Valerie Wilson was a CIA officer was classified...but it was not widely known outside the intelligence community" and that "her cover was blown" by the Novak column. (So much for the goofy rightwing conspiracy theory that I colluded with Joseph Wilson after the Novak column to out Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA operative. If you don't know about that, don't ask.) And he passionately countered the pre-indictment criticism from Republicans and others who argued that bringing perjury and obstruction of justice charges--rather than accusing anyone of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or other laws that apply to leaking classified information--would be a cheap shot or an act of prosecutorial overreaching. He explained that he and his investigators were assigned the job of investigating the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and determining if any laws--not one particular statute, such as the Intelligence Identities Protection Act--were violated. In such an inquiry, he said, "fine distinctions" are critical, and consequently, it is "important that the witnesses who come before a grand jury, especially the witnesses who come before a grand jury who may be under investigation, tell the complete truth." In this probe, that included Libby.

Fitzgerald indicated he had considered the possibility of charging leakers with violating the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime for government officials to disseminate classified information--to unauthorized individuals. Using the Espionage Act in this manner, some media and legal experts have claimed, would lead to an Official Secrets Act, but Fitzgerald said he didn't accept that analysis. Still, he called this act "a difficult statue to interpret." And he chose not to indict anyone--yet--for violating it. He also defended his choice to pursue Miller and Cooper and to seek Miller's imprisonment, citing a special need for their testimony. ("I do not think that a reporter should be subpoenaed anything close to routinely," he said.) When asked about detractors who have accused him of being partisan, he replied, "for which party?"

Fitzgerald knows far more than what is in the Libby indictment. But the American public may never learn what he has uncovered. There might be no further indictments, and Fitzgerald dismissed the idea of writing a final report. He said that he does not have the authority to issue such a document--and that he does not believe a special counsel should have that authority. Independent counsels used to have the obligation to craft a final report that detailed their investigation and findings and explained decisions to prosecute and not prosecute. But the independent counsel law expired, and Fitzgerald is operating as a special counsel pursuant to Justice Department rules that do not provide for the production of a final report and that do compel prosecutors to keep grand jury material that is not used for an indictment or trial confidential. Feeling the reporter's pain, Fitzgerald remarked, "I know that people want to know whatever it is we know....We just can't do that....We either charge someone or we don't talk about them."

Which means that after the government has paid for a two-year investigation, the public may be left in the dark about much of what happened in the leak case. The leakers may never be held accountable. Rove's role, Bush's knowledge, Cheney's potential involvement--all of that could remain a secret, even though Fitzgerald has apparently dug deep and unearthed much of the tale. When a reporter asked Fitzgerald if he had learned how Washington works, he replied, "Yes," and said no more.

The Libby indictment does stand as a significant development. Libby was an influential aide for an influential veep in an administration that has often been accused of lying to get its way--such as during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. And he has been charged with putting himself above the law and undermining an investigation initiated by his administration's Justice Department. On January 22, 2001, Bush, while swearing in the new White House staff, said, "We must remember the high standards that come with high office. This begins with careful adherence to the rules. I expect every member of this administration to stay well within the boundaries that define legal and ethical conduct. This means avoiding even the appearance of problems. This means checking and, if need be, double-checking that the rules have been obeyed. This means never compromising those rules....We are all accountable to one another. And above all, we are all accountable to the law and to the American people."

Libby, who quickly resigned after the indictment was released, has fallen. But Rove, who also leaked classified information by passing information on Wilson's wife to Cooper and Novak, has violated White House rules and Bush's self-proclaimed standards, if not the law itself. He has not been held accountable yet, and that task may be beyond Fitzgerald's reach. Nor have Bush and Rove explained why the White House misled the public when it denied Rove and Libby were involved in the leak. Neither have accepted responsibility for that. As for Libby, Bush, in a brief statement, said he was "saddened" by the news of his indictment. He said nothing about the ethical standards of his White House.

In politics and policy, lying is not always illegal. And it's easy to see why officials in this White House might think they can escape being held accountable for prevaricating. But Libby seems to have lied to the wrong guy in the wrong forum. "Truth is the engine of our judicial system," Fitzgerald declared while explaining the gravity of the Libby indictment. And this is a grave indictment. It just doesn't answer many grave questions that still remain in the CIA leak affair.

CIA Leak Scandal: Indictments

Five counts against Scooter Libby. Making false statements to federal agents (twice). Perjury (twice). And obstruction of justice for misleading and deceiving the grand jury about how he had learned about Valerie Wilson. I'm off to the press conference being held by Patrick Fitgerald. I'll be back soon.

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