Monday, October 31, 2005

The WHIG (White House Iraq Group)

Elizabeth de la Vega gives a brief description of the formation of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) which figures so prominently in the CheneyGate story:  The White House Criminal Conspiracy 10/31/05.  As the title implies, the article sketches out a legal case for conspiracy and impeachment; the author is a former federal prosecutor.  But it also has good historical information, like this:

But by August 2002, despite the Administration's efforts, public and Congressional support for the war was waning. So Chief of Staff Andrew Card organized the White House Iraq Group, of which Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was a member, to market the war.

The PR campaign intensified Sunday, September 8. On that day the New York Times quoted anonymous "officials" who said Iraq sought to buy aluminum tubes suitable for centrifuges used in uranium enrichment. The same morning, in a choreographed performance worthy of Riverdance, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Gen. Richard Myers said on separate talk shows that the aluminum tubes were suitable only for centrifuges and so proved Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

If, as Jonathan Schell put it, the allegation that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger is "one of the most rebutted claims in history," the tubes story is a close second. The CIA and the Energy Department had been debating the issue since 2001. And the Energy Department's clear opinion was that the tubes were not suited for use in centrifuges; they were probably intended for military rockets. Given the lengthy debate and the importance of the tubes, it's impossible to believe that the Bush team was unaware of the nuclear experts' position. So when Bush officials said that the tubes were "only really suited" for centrifuge programs, they were committing fraud, either by lying outright or by making recklessly false statements.

Quoting again from Joe Wilson's The Politics of Truth (2004), he relates how on March 7, 2003, still before the invasion of Iraq, the later Nobel prize winner Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), revealed publicly that the infamous Niger documents were phony.  Obvious forgeries, actually.

Wilson writes about the how central the administration's claims about Iraq's nuclear program were to the case for war:

In the early months of 2003, the leaders of the political Right held the megaphone, and they were bellowing into it to push for war. By the time we invaded Iraq, a majority of Americans believed that Saddam had been responsible for the attacks on our territory and that he already possessed nuclear weapons. "We cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," the president warned us in his October 8, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, to make the case to the American people for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

The president and his senior advisers had used the "mushroom cloud" metaphor repeatedly over the months to pump up support for war. Now, with the IAEA'S revelation that no negotiation for the Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger had ever taken place, one key element underpinning the charge against Iraq was acknowledged to have been based on a fraud. The only other piece of information that the administration had marshaled as evidence of Saddam's nuclear intentions was a claim that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq, but seized before they could reach their destination, were for centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium and create fissile material. However, experts throughout the government, including at the Department of Energy, had concluded that the tubes were ill suited for that function. In fact, they matched the specifications for artillery rockets and were more likely to have been purchased for that purpose, as David Kay later concluded.

Aluminum tubes ill suited for enriching uranium that did not exist constituted a compound lie that badly undermined the argument that Iraq had posed a grave and gathering danger to the United States. It cut to the heart of the case for war. The casual fashion in which the administration subsequently dismissed the revelation that the uranium charge was false was inexcusable. (my emphasis)

The motives of the Plame-outing conspirators are impossible to understand without this context.  The "mushroom cloud" propaganda about Saddam's nuclear weapons program were far and away the most persuasive part of the administration's case for war, both with Congress and the public.  And, based on the information now publicly available, that claim was based on those two things: the forged Niger documents and the false claims about the aluminum tubes.

Wilson's criticism of the critical Niger claim did indeed "cut to the heart of the case for war."  And that's why they WMD frauds used to justify the Iraq War are inherently a part of the Libby case and the larger CheneyGate scandal.

Joe Wilson and the uranium

The CheneyGate scandal may turn out ultimately to be a game of "follow the uranium."  Because it was the documents forged by perpetrators yet unknown claiming a deal to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger that started the chain of events that led to the indictment of Scooter Libby, currently the chief patsy in the CheneyGate affair.

We do know that SISMI, the Italian military intelligence agency, was a part of the scam in a major way.  Larry Johnson writes (Mambo Italiano and Plame Gate No Quarter blog 10/10/05):

SISME provided the CIA with three separate intelligence reports that Iraq had reached an agreement with Niger to buy 500 tons of yellowcake uranium (October 15, 2001; February 5, 2002; and March 25, 2002). (See Expanded PlameGate Timeline below). The second report from February was the subsequent basis for a DIA analysis, which led Vice President Cheney to ask CIA for more information on the matter. That request led to the CIA asking Ambassador Joe Wilson to go check out the story in Niger.

Even in the much maligned October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the entire intelligence community remained split on the reliability of the Iraq/Niger claim. During briefings subsequent to the publication of the NIE, senior CIA officials repeatedly debunked the claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium. They also dismissed as unreliable reports from Great Britain, which also were derived from the faulty Italian intelligence reports.

Italy’s SISME also reportedly had a hand in producing the forged documents delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in early October 2003 that purported to show a deal with Iraq to buy uranium. Many in the intelligence community are convinced that a prominent neo-con with longstanding ties to SISME played a role in the forgery. The truth of that proposition remains to be proven. This much is certain, either SISME or someone with ties to SISME, helped forge and circulate those documents which some tried to use to bolster the case to go to war with Iraq.

Ironically, the yellowcake itself wouldn't have helped Saddam much in the short run to get a nuclear weapon.  In fact, Iraq already had stores of uranium yellowcake from their previous, long-discontinued nuclear weapons program.  But the quantities in the forged doucments alleged to be involved were so large that they seemed to indicate a serious program.  More importantly, the American public immediately perceived a connection between "uranium" and "nuclear weapons," whereas "aluminum tubes" doesn't really conjure up that mushroom that Condi-Condi warned us about.

Johnson also provides the text of the letter Joe Wilson sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee after they issued the 2004 "SSCI report" (in CheneyGateSpeak): Update on the Lies of Ambassador Wilson No Quarter blog 10/30/05.  The title is somewhat misleading, because Johnson actually vouches for Wilson's credibility, and most of the post is devoted to Wilson own defense of his credibility.  The same piece is available at the TPM Cafe.

Wilson's letter addresses some of the favorite talking points of the conservative comma-dancers (and the Daily Howler) who raise superficial questions about his credibility.  But it's more interesting for the glimpse it gives us at Wilson's now-legendary trip to Niger.  It also is a good reminder of what a whitewash the SSCI report was.  He repeats a point I've made here before:

The first time I actually saw what were represented as the [Niger] documents was when Andrea Mitchell, the NBC correspondent handed them to me in an interview on July 21[2003]. I was not wearing my glasses and could not read them. I have to this day not read them. I would have absolutely no reason to claim to have done so. My mission was to look into whether such a transaction took place or could take place. It had not and could not. By definition that makes the documents bogus.

He also notes:

At the time of my trip [2002] I was in private business and had not offered my views publicly on the policy we should adopt towards Iraq. Indeed, throughout the debate in the runup to the war, I took the position that the U.S. be firm with Saddam Hussein on the question of weapons of mass destruction programs including backing tough diplomacy with the credible threat of force. In that debate I never mentioned my trip to Niger.

Wilson did oppose the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In his memoir The Politics of Truth (2004), he describes an appearance on Nightline of March 5, just weeks before the start of the war.  Other guests included that Maverick McCain and Richard Land a senior official of the Southern Baptist Convention. (See my Blue Voice post Get to know your theocrats of 10/12/05 for more on Land.)  Wilson's account of that appearance gives a good idea that he can be a combative sort when the situation calls for it.

It was an unpleasant evening from the beginning.  Land reflected the views of the one part of the American population that was gung-ho for war from the beginning.  The Christian Right, with its literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation, had become increasingly strident in promoting war in the Middle East as necessary for the return of Jesus and the subsequent "rapture" promised on Judgment Day.

When I was making the point that we could achieve disarmament without resporting to occupation - not the best idea, given the potential for negative outcomes, I was about to say - John McCain interrupted me and likedened my attitude to appeasement.  I take great offense at having my patriotism questioned by anyone.  John McCain's service to his country is unimpeachable but that does give him a monopoly on loyalty, nor is it equatable with wisdom on national security issues.

That quality of being willing to take on critics directly is probably something that the CheneyGate conspirators seriously underestimated.

And also, that's the great Maverick McCain, who is still calling for escalation of the Iraq War.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Various takes on the Plame case

The indictment of Scooter Libby is a big deal, a really big deal.  It might be big enough to shake our Potemkin press corps out of their corporate stupor for a few months.  It might be even be big enough to get the Democrats to start rattling the Republicans' cages over the scandal in a serious way.  There are some glimmers of hope on both scores:

"This indictment is not about the war,'' he insisted to a roomful of reporters and a national television audience. "This indictment is not about the propriety of the war, and people who believe fervently in the war effort, people who oppose it, people who have mixed feelings about it, should not look at this indictment for any resolution of how they feel or any vindication of how they feel.''

Yet even before he had spoken, many of those who opposed the war from the beginning sought to frame the charges as a larger indictment of the administration's march to war.

"At the heart of these indictments was the effort by the Bush administration to discredit critics of its Iraq policy with reckless disregard for national security and the public trust,'' said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who was among the most outspoken opponents of going to war. ...

... But Bush's opponents quickly charged that the developments reflect a culture of dishonesty at the White House that made it perfectly natural for a top official to lie even while under oath.

"Not only was America misled into war, but a Nixonian effort to silence dissent has now left Americans wondering whether they can trust anything this administration has to say,'' said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.  (Iraq war appears likely to go on trial along with Libby by Marc Sandalow (San Francisco Chronicle 10/29/05)

One of the more famous sayings of Bill Clinton's defenders during his impeachment trial was, when they say "it's not about sex", it's about sex.  I can understand that Fitzgerald is prosecuting a particular crime, and not the larger criminal conspiracy around cooking up the case for the Iraq War.

But this case in inextricably linked to that larger picture.  I assume that Fitzgerald is being entirely serious when he says it's not about the war.  But it is about the war.

Marty Aussenberg has some provocative thoughts about the case:

Libby's case will never get to trial, primarily because Bush and Cheney will never allow such a trial to become precisely the kind of exposé of the administration's motives and actions in the run-up to the war they were worried the indictments would constitute. It would be their worst nightmare to have their war machinations presented to a jury of 12 ordinary citizens in the District of Columbia (read: predominantly African Americans) who would be sitting as proxies for the families of 2,000 plus military fatalities in Iraq and the plurality of the country that opposes the war. The risk there is not just exposure to the possibility of conviction in Washington, D.C., but a subsequent prosecution in The Hague as well. (Fitz’s Knuckle Ball Booman Tribune blog 10/29/05)

I can believe that's what Bush and Cheney are thinking.  But how do they do they make a deal at this point?  It looks like the only way Scooter can cop a plea right now is to flip on Cheney.  They could try giving up Rove to the prosecutor, I guess.  But then Rove and Scooter both would be under pressure to finger the higher-ups.  And Rove and Scooter are already pretty high up themselves.

Steve Gilliard is also focusing on the chief warlord:

The funny thing is that after five years of Bush, people are so cynical that they think he can just throw up a few lies and walk away. He can't, much less pardon anyone. All the conservative bleeting about the indictment is just that, bleeting. It isn't serious.

Reporters take notes, for one thing. A bad memory is going to make your stay in journalism short lived.

No, this is isn't Watergate, this is worse, because the criminality goes right to the WH. No henchmen acting on their own. It is likely this came from Cheney himself.
(Why Bush Is in serious trouble The News blog 10/29/05)

Have I mentioned that the FireDogLake and The Last Hurrah blogs are all over this case?  They are.  And doing good stuff.

James Ridgeway has been writing about the case for the Village Voice:

What did George W. Bush know? When did he know it? That's irrelevant. He's the Harriet Miers - the cipher - of his own administration. As Scooter Libby's expected indictment later today nears, the real questions include these: What lies did U.S. CEO Dick Cheney want the American people to believe about Iraq? How did he and Libby, his chief aide and someone who sat in all the Iraq policy sessions, get that task done? ...

No matter what yakkers like David Gergen say on MSNBC or elsewhere - that this stuff doesn't rise to the level of a Watergate or Iran-Contra scandal - they're wrong. It does. Watergate, Bill Clinton's cum stains - those are mere specks compared with the abuse of presidential power by Bush's main handlers Cheney, Libby, Rove, and Rumsfeld. More on that later. In the meantime, bloody hands all around. (War Criminal Nears Indictment: Charges against Libby would be a major step in unraveling cabal's Iraq plot - finally 10/27/05)

Bush's key adviser Karl Rove made a breathtaking escape from indictment today, and that fact may overshadow the true big news—that Fitzgerald's work will almost certainly mean more investigation of Rove. In all likelihood, Fitzgerald will probe further into dealings between Rove and Libby, and the possibility of a conspiracy running into Vice President Cheney's office and to the V.P. himself. Did Cheney order his flunkies to out Plame?

More to the point, today's indictments are the kiss of death for the Bush White House. Libby has resigned, but that's hardly the end of the problem for the administration. For all intents and purposes, so long as Fitzgerald probes, President Bush and Vice President Cheney are in straitjackets. (Libby Indictments a Kiss of Death for Bush White House: From Plame Affair to Lame-Duck Affair 10/28/05)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Was it really "Fitzmas" on Friday?

There's a lot of good material out there on the blogs and in the press about the indictment of Scooter Libby.  The Iraq War and the lies used to justify it were at the basis of the crimes in which Libby was involved.  And the Iraq War looks to be the defining disaster of the Bush administration.

On the linguistic front, the war could put an end to the use of the word "neoconservative" for years.  Probably not.  More likely, "tipping point" will become as taboo for the military as "light at the end of the tunnel" became after the Vietnam War.

Although Fitzgerald isn't going after the war frauds themselves, e.g., the forged Nigerien documents, the case is still likely to be a kind of "Pentagon Papers" event for the Iraq War.  A lot of information will go on the record on how the phony case for war was ginned up and sold to the public and to an all-too-receptive Congress.

I heard David Brooks on the PBS Newshour today.  I apologize once again for having suggested that Brooks might become a substantial commentator one day.  He's headed toward Victor Davis Hanson levels of hackery.  His line was, oh, shoot, it's just one guy; if there wasn't a conspiracy with everybody sitting around a table saying, hey, Valerie Plame is an undercover CIA agent so let's deliberately break the law and expose her identity publicly, then the whole business was no big deal.

Before you know it, the OxyContin legions will be saying that Scooter was just some eccentric guy that hardly anybody in the government paid any attention to.  Kind of like an alcoholic who retires but then hangs around outside his old office building for years, babbling to passers-by.  (Yes, I actually know of a case where that happened.  Although that guy hung around in the building lobby.)

If some Democrats and war critics are disappointed at only one war perpetrator being indicted on Friday, Joe Wilson is apparently not among them.  He gave an interview to the Spanish daily El País, in an article whose title is one of the key quotes, "Procesar a Libby y seguir investigando a Rove es el peor escenario para Bush" 29.10.05.

Actually, it seems to be standard practice for European papers to use abbreviated quotations in headlines.  So I'll give the full quote.  But I'm going to translate with indirect quotations, because I assume the interview was conducted in English and translated into Spanish.  It's effectively impossible to get the exact original quotation when re-translating it into the original.

The whole quotation is:

La decisión del gran jurado de procesar a Lewis Libby y la determinación del fiscal especial Patrick Fitzgerald de continuar la investigación en torno a la actuación de Karl Rove, el principal asesor del presidente, es el peor escenario para Bush.

He says that the decision of the grand jury to proceed against Lewis Libby and the determinatio of the special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to continue the investigation against Karl Rove is the worst scenario for Bush.

He goes on to say that the Wilsons have directed their attorneys to look into opening a civil proceeding against Libby.  Which is one of many directions this story will develop.  Civil suits by the Wilsons are likely to produce even more information about the administration "lie factory" that manufactured the case for war.

Wilson picked up on Fitzgerald's stress in his news conference Friday on the national security importance of the case.  And he says that people (like that pathetic Kay Bailey Hutchison) who try to minimize the seriousness of the charges are just out of it:

El fiscal Fitzgerald lo ha dicho: es un asunto que afecta a la seguridad nacional. Aquellos que intentan devaluar la gravedad de delitos como perjurio, falso testimonio y obstrucción a la justicia están fuera de la realidad.

Wilson doesn't appear to be especially concerned that Libby is not being charged under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, although he doesn't seem to have any more idea than the lay aficionados of the case why he wasn't.  (I'm taking it for granted that the notion that Plame wasn't really undercover has been banned to the darker caves of Wingnuttia, but who knows?)

But he expresses great confidence in the prosecutor's ability and intention to get to the bottom of this.

In the interview, Wilson seems to think that Fitzgerald said he intends to use another grand jury if he decides to indict Rove: "El fiscal Fitzgerald ha dicho que la investigación no está terminada y que continuará con otro gran jurado."  But I don't know that Fitzgerald has said that publicly.  I've seen one alternative possibility suggested that would involve Rove having waived the right to have the case go before a grand jury.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Iraq War: Body counts

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

Joseph Galloway is thinking about the significance of  The return of the body count Knight-Ridder 10/26/05.

One important lesson [of the Vietnam War] was that using enemy body counts as a metric of success corrupts the system and makes liars out of soldiers and officers.

The high command in Saigon in those long-ago days seized on a strategy of attrition - we will kill far more of them than they kill of us - and then to prove the efficacy of their fatally flawed strategy demanded body counts every time gunfire erupted in the jungle.

GIs ordered to comb the gloom of a battlefield counting bodies joked that they would, at times, tally up the arms and legs and divide by four. Whatever number they reported often grew like Jack's beanstalk as it climbed the chain of command.

That led to straight-faced colonels at the daily press briefing in Saigon, dubbed, not without cause, the "Five O'Clock Follies," reporting that 96 enemy were killed by body count, and 12 weapons were recovered.

And this system of body counts in turn led to gross mistakes in intelligence evaluations.  The basic data - number of enemy killed - were nearly worthless.

But the Pentagon has taken to using them again in the Iraq War.  And, not surprisingly, the same perverse results are occuring as in the Vietnam War:

So what do the Iraq numbers mean? Well, last year American commanders estimated that there were no more than 5,000 active insurgents in Iraq.

Those same commanders have reported that some 1,300 insurgents have been killed since the end of January 2005 and another 8,260 have been detained.

But wait! Before you declare the war over, consider this: Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said on Oct. 2 that he estimates that there now are 20,000 insurgents.

So let's do a little math: Five thousand insurgents minus 1,300 killed equals 3,700 left. Minus 8,260 insurgents captured. Equals 20,000 insurgents still out there.

But the generals, and the Republican politicians who pride themselves on "supporting the military" by sending it on a disastrous and impossible mission like the Iraq War, will tell us that public support for the war has dropped because of poor media reporting.  No, the bigger problem is what the Pentagon is reporting.  Lies and more lies.

Jules Witcover has been noticing the same thing: Not Vietnam Redux? Tribune Media Services 10/26/05.

The latest reminder of Vietnam in the Iraq war is the recent U.S. military's resort to body counts as a measure of progress. As the American forces and their Iraqi soldier-trainees are moving against the insurgents, the military headquarters are increasingly reporting how many have been killed.

This is in spite of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's saying on television two years ago that "we don't do body counts on other people." But Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, last January said the combined American and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 15,000 of the enemy in the previous year.

Witcover also takes note of the fact that the domestic opposition to the Iraq War has grown much more quickly than that against the Vietnam War:

One difference this time around is that the American public appears to be stirring in protest much earlier than it did in the Vietnam war. The United States was involved to one degree or another in the war in Southeast Asia for at least a decade before Americans started taking to the streets in huge numbers against it. Just a month ago, Washington saw its largest anti-war demonstration since the end of the Vietnam war.

In his final paragraph, he writes:

Some diehard critics of Bush continue to muse about impeaching him on grounds he took the country to war on flawed intelligence or deception. But it is very late for such a step, as warranted as they think it may be.

The casual reader of his column might not be aware of what he wrote this summer in his goodbye column from the Baltimore Sun:

I wrote then that there was a more realistic vehicle for expressing public disfavor - the approaching 2004 presidential election. I argued that those who were against the war could use the election as a referendum on what I argued was an illegal war begun under false premises.

Many voters obviously did so, but not enough, in part because the Bush campaign succeeded in making Democratic nominee John Kerry, himself ambiguous on the war, and his Vietnam service record the issue rather than the man who had started that war. In retrospect, I lament not having advocated impeachment, even as achieving it was unlikely.

In an article of 05/23/05, Tom Engelhardt (The Return of the Body Count: Or the Metrics of Losing

Numbers, "metrics," ways of measuring success are now multiplying in Iraq. This in itself is a measure of frustration. Victory seldom needs metrics. Okay, maybe once upon a time, quantifiable loot and slaves mattered; more recently, the metric of victory was territory conquered - and when American troops reached Baghdad and the Bush administration thought its war a raging success, no metrics were necessary.

Our iconic metric of war, which also proved a measure of a losing war, was, of course, the body count which we associate with Vietnam. The body count was, however, an invention of the later years of the Korean War, a way of measuring "success" once the two sides had settled into the bloodiest of stalemates and the taking of significant territory - in fact, the wild movements of armies up and down the Korean peninsula - had become a thing of the past. In a sense, the body count, aka "the meat-grinder," was from its inception both a measure of nothing and a measure of frustration. ...

In our new [post-Vietnam War] world of conflict, where our leaders had imbibed all the "lessons" of Vietnam, Centcom's Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of our Afghan War (now on the board of Outback Steakhouse, which donated shrimp and steak dinners to our troops in Afghanistan), declared that "we don't do body counts." ...

Think of this, then, as a Tomdispatch rule of war (American-style): In place of genuine victory or actual success, metrics multiply. So the next time you see the word "metrics" or a new set of figures being publicly kicked around to prove our "success" in Iraq, just assume that further problems (and yet more frustration) have arisen.

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

How many nuts could a wingnut wing if a wingnut could wing nuts?

My favorite idjit argument from the support-the-war-fraud-at-any-cost crowd is the one that says, well, hey, Valerie Plame used her own name and got married and stuff so everybody in the world must have already known that she was an undercover CIA agent.  So Turd Blossom and Scooter couldn't have outed her since everybody already knew!

Her former CIA colleague Larry Johnson takes that one down (The Marriage Canard and Valerie Plame TPM Cafe 10/27/05) as the "red herring" it is:

... I know of several CIA undercover officers who are married to so-called high profile people. The reality is that their identity is not known to the public and could only be made known to the public if they revealed their identity or someone else familiar with them did. One of these people is a friend of mine, happily married, and serving the United States as a spymaster overseas.

There is another reason to shoot down the silly and specious claim that Val essentially outed herself by marrying Joe. At no point prior to Bob Novak's [2003] column is there a public reference to Valerie as a CIA officer. Moreover, Joe Wilson did not advertise the fact that he had done contracting work for the CIA (i.e., he had been sent on previous missions overseas). Val's cover, while not heavily backstopped, was adequate to allow her to work overseas on sensitive missions.

The cartoonist Tom Tomorrow puts the nails in the coffin (The Waiting Game This Modern World blog 10/25/05):

If you’ve followed this story as reflected in the crazy funhouse mirror world of the right wing we-create-our-own-reality circuit, you know that everyone already knew that Valerie Plame was married to Joe Wilson, why it’s in Who’s Who for chrissakes.

In other words, as I’ve mentioned a time or two, the righties have been trying to conflate knowledge of Valerie Plame’s existence on the planet Earth with knowledge of her status as a CIA agent since this whole story first broke. I actually noticed one of the inexplicably popular Yoostabee bloggers bringing up the Who’s Who canard as recently as a week or two ago. All of which brings us back to the Eternal Question–are they lying, or simply so stupid that it’s a wonder they manage to get up out of bed in the morning without hurting themselves?

Desperately seeking no uranium from Africa

I'm on the verge of concluding, reluctantly, that one of my favorite writers, Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby, has gone over to the Dark Side.

At least on the issue of Joe Wilson, he's pretty much going along with silly Republican comma-dancing.

Somerby for years concentrated on analyzing the mainstream media and celebrity pundits, how their pursuit of celebrity more and more led them to be careless with facts.  His exhibit #1 and his favorite hobby-horse was what he calls the "War Against Gore," the open hostility to Al Gore expressed by the mainstream media.

After last year's national election, he switched his focus more toward looking at how liberal bloggers and liberal journalists writing in an overtly partisan way were dealing with the mainstream media's dysfunctional habits.  Lately he's come to focus more and more on complaining about partisan Democratic bloggers drawing conclusions about unfolding news stories.

And now he's attacking Democrats for seeing the PlameGate/CheneyGate scandal as an important political event!  In his 10/26/05 post, he writes:

We think the liberal cheerleading for prosecution is unbelievably childish and unwise - a childish portent of future disaster for liberal and progressive interests.

Is he kidding?  Does he actually think that Democrats who have been objecting all along to the kinds of conduct being investigated are going to be dismayed that the legal system is working the way it's supposed to work?

On this story, it looks more and more like he's carrying water for tortured Republican efforts to discredit Joe Wilson and his credibility.  I've written in the last few days (10/22/05 and 10/26/05) about his arguments around whether Joe Wilson July 2003 op-ed actually challenged Bush's claims in the 2003 State of the Union address.  In his 10/27/05 post, he writes:

In his speech [the 2003 SOTU], Bush said Iraq sought uranium. Wilson’s column didn’t contradict that. But back in July 2003, liberals were eager for a simple narrative - and we [liberals] were too dumb and too hapless to create a strong story. So we pretended we didn’t notice the logical problems with Wilson’s colorful narrative. And today, more than two years later, Josh [Marshall] still pretends that folk are being “con men” when they mention the world’s simplest facts.

I'm not going to repeat here what I said in my two earlier posts to which I linked above.  Here, I'll just leave it at saying that the best one can say about Somerby's position is that it's a downright eccentric take on Bush's notorious "16 words."  Nobody hearing that speech, least of all Republican war fans, would have assumed he was simply stating a matter-of-fact observation that Britain had made a report.  He was trying hard to convince the Congress and the public that Saddam Hussein was very close to developing a nuclear weapon, which he was very likely to give to terrorists to use against the United States.

Somerby is still repeating the spin that Clifford May of the conservative National Review Online began using very soon after Wilson's op-ed appeared:  Scandal! Bush’s enemies aren't telling the truth about what he said 07/11/03.  (Wilson's famous New York Times op-ed appeared late in the evening of 07/05/03.)

The president's critics are lying. Mr. Bush never claimed that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium from Niger. It is not true - as USA Today reported on page one Friday morning — that "tainted evidence made it into the President's State of the Union address." For the record, here's what President Bush actually said in his SOTU: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Precisely which part of that statement isn't true? The British government did say that it believed Saddam had sought African uranium. Is it possible that the British government was mistaken? Sure. Is it possible that Her Majesty's government came by that belief based on an erroneous American intelligence report about a transaction between Iraq and Niger? Yes - but British Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his Cabinet say that's not what happened.

Josh Marshall calls this the "con-man defense", and the label fits, even though the Howler doesn't like it.  Because the argument is essentially this:  Hey, Bush wasn't saying he believed that Iraq was trying to get uranium.  He was  just trying to trick suckers like you into thinking that he was saying that.  So if you did, you just got snookered.  Don't blame Bush because you let yourself be conned by him.  You should have known he was scamming you!

Why a guy with Bob Somerby's obviously strong analytical skills decided to lock onto a daffy argument like that is beyond me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The state of the CheneyGate scandal

Today looks like it's going to be Fitzmas Eve rather than the big day itself.  I've been thinking that once indictments are handed up, a lot of people will start to focus on this case and be bewildered by it for a while.

Political junkies and Plame case devotees are already speaking routinely about the significance of "the June 23 meeting" and "the SSCI report" and the "16 words in the SOTU".  Some of this is bound to sound near-occult to people just beginning to tune into this drama.

And I'm sure that the good people at FOX News and the myriad other by-ways of the Republican Noise Machine will do everything they can to make the prosecutor's case sound bewildering.  I mean, how can anyone expect people like corporate CEO's and good all-American Christian Right churchgoers to understand anything this convoluted?  And, golly Pete, you can't really expect people to criticize the Preznit based on some hopelessly confusing accusation, can you?

So, here are a few points I'm trying to keep in mind at this point.

The basics

The Plame case involves the exposure of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent.  And the motive for the exposure was to cover up the evidence of the frauds used to justify the Iraq War.

Or, in bullet points:

* An undercover CIA agent was publicly exposed

* The motive was to hide frauds used to justify the Iraq War.

Now, that's really not so hard to grasp.  Yes, we've got the SSCI report and the Butler report and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and something to do with Niger and the Italians and uranium.

But, outside those whose brains have not been pickled in OxyContin, the basics of the thing just aren't that complicated.

One of several recent summaries of "PlameGate" is Plamegate may seem arcane, but we all have a stake in the outcome by Jonathan Freedland Guardian (UK) 10/26/05.

Is Joe Wilson a liar?

I don't pretend to understand the mysteries of the loyal Republican view of the world.  I know they don't think much of how we in the "reality-based" community process things.

But I don't see why it still is such a fad in Wingnuttia to keep saying that Joe Wilson is a liar, liar, pants on fire.  Part of it probably is just learned behavior.  I mean, lots of today's Republicans literally grew up saying, "Liberals are liars, liberals are liars," and that may just be the default reaction to any criticism of their side.  Not that Joe Wilson has been known as a liberal, but he must be, because he criticized Bush the Magnificent, right?

At this point, though, it seems to me that not a great deal is riding on Wilson's personal credibility.  He was apparently not a direct witness to the outing of his wife, and has not claimed to be.  And the related stories about the forged Niger documents and the use that was made of them is not likely to require any additional information based exclusively on his accounts of his now-legendary visit to Niger.

It seems to me that his credibility has held up well.  In fact, the main slip of which I'm aware in that regard is that he admitted to overstating one aspect of the result of his Niger trip.  Bob Somerby, who as I've  mentioned in earlier posts has been surprisingly receptive to the Republican spinmeisters on this point, discussed it in his 10/25/05 post, in which he was still trying to keep this argument on life-support.

He provides a helpful reference to: Husband Is Conspicuous in Leak Case: Wilson's Credibility Debated as Charges In Probe Considered by Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus Washington Post 10/25/05.  In this article, Milbank and Pincus report that Wilson admitted that, when he was a source for a Post article on the Niger trip in 2003, he erroneously stated that his investigation had determined that the documents were fraudulent because the names and dates on them were wrong.  (Public reports earlier that year had aired the information that problems with the names and dates on the documents exposed them as inauthentic.)

But so far as I'm aware, Wilson has been consistent in saying that he concluded from his trip that the documents which had generated Dick Cheney's request to the  CIA for further  information were fraudulent.  It certainly seems to be a plausible conclusion, since if the transaction the documents alleged to have taken place didn't happen, then something must have been wrong with the documents.

As Milbank and Pincus observe:

Wilson's central assertion - disputing President Bush's 2003 State of the Union claim that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger - has been validated by postwar weapons inspections. And his charge that the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq has proved potent.

In deference to Bob Somerby's scruples, the 2003 SOTU did not, as I said, mention Niger.  But since the information publicly available strongly indicates that the Niger forgeries were the source of the SOTU claim, I find it hard to fault the Post writers for specifying Niger in that connection.

[10/29/05 - The Post article now carries a correction note: "An Oct. 25 article incorrectly said President Bush asserted during his January 2003 State of the Union message that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger. The president said that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa."]

Sought vs. bought, aka, the "con-man defense"

This is one of those things that sounds like it's near-impossible to untangle, or even grasp.  But it's been part of the Wilson critics' arsenal since a few days after his 2003 op-ed about his Niger investigation.

Bush in his 2003 State of the Union (SOTU) address used his "16 words" to refer to a British report that Iraq had "sought" to get "uranium from Africa."  He didn't mention Niger specifically.  And Joe Wilson's report on Niger concluded that it was highly unlikely that Iraq had acquired uranium from that country.  Therefore, the argument goes, Wilson's report didn't contradict Bush's SOTU address at all.

I discussed in my post of 10/22/05 the deficiencies of this line of argument.  The Left Coaster's eriposte has dealt with this in detail, most recently in Treasongate: Desperately Seeking (or Buying) Uranium 10/25/05.   Josh Marshall revisited this sought/bought business this week in a 10/25/05 post.

Hischaracterization of this argument is apt:

So the president wasn't saying Saddam had bought uranium. He wasn't even saying he'd tried. He said the Brits had "learned" that he tried.

Some White House defenders still hang their hat on this point, arguing that nothing the president said was in fact false. Anybody who got the wrong impression just didn't read the fine print.

That argument (let's call it 'the con-man defense') speaks for itself, I think.

The Niger documents and the British report

Without wading into the particular arguments, one of the more important outstanding questions about the forged document purporting to show an Iraqi purchase of uranium is, were these documents the main basis, or even the exclusive basis, for the British report cited in the "16 words" claiming Iraq "sought" uranium?  This is important, because the claim about seeking uranium was the single most vivid piece of evidence out of all the prewar WMD claims.  If the Niger documents were the real basis of that British intelligence claim, it looks worse for the honesty of the Bush administration.

Another unanswered question is the origin of the Niger forgeries.  SISMI (another buzzword for aficionados), which is Italian military intelligence, played some role in passing those documents to the United States.  It's entirely possible that American war advocates, Rummy's Pentagon, and/or Israeli intelligence played some role in producing them in the first place.  No definitive answers yet.

Laura Rozen summarizes recent developments in Laura Rozen, "La Repubblica's Scoop, Confirmed", The American Prospect Online, Oct 25, 2005.

WHIPing up a war and Cheney vs. the CIA

The White House Iraq Group, a group of Bush administration officials which was formed in 2002 to market the Iraq War, has also been a focus of prosecutor Fitzgerald's inquiry.  But WHIP was only one of several informal (in the sense of non-statutory) groups that the Pentagon (Rummy) and Dick Cheney's office used to gin up a phony case for war against Iraq.  Part of what these groups did was to take raw intelligence that either had not been vetted by the regular intelligence agencies, or had been vetted and rejected, and used the information to promote war.  The stories that talk about Cheney vs. the CIA have to do with these groups.

See The Lie Factory by Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest Mother Jones Jan/Feb 2004 to get a glimpse at how it worked.


A lot is being written right now about how Cheney's office was central to the WMD fraud.  And there's no reason to dispute that.  But watch for Republican attempts to dump the blame on Cheney in order to shield Bush from criticism.  Based on the circumstantial evidence, I (along with every other sentient Democrat) am convinced that both Bush and Cheney were in on the Plame outing.  Joe Conason reminds us (Bush's aides scramble as inquiry winds down 10/26/05).

Back in September 2003, before the appointment of the special counsel, the President reportedly said, "I want to get to the bottom of this." His press secretary, Scott McClellan, told the country that Mr. Bush considered the leak of Ms. Wilson's identity "a very serious matter." Speaking for the President, Mr. McClellan said: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration." But while specifically exonerating Mr. Rove, the press secretary also offered a broad, categorical denial. "There's been nothing -- absolutely nothing -- brought to our attention to suggest any White House involvement," he said.

That statement, to quote another press secretary [Ron Ziegler from the Watergate days], is no longer operative. Months ago, we learned that Mr. Rove had spoken with reporters about Ms. Wilson's employment by the C.I.A. The Presidential aide had hoped to discredit Ms. Wilson's husband by suggesting nepotism in his C.I.A.-sponsored trip to Niger to gather information about alleged uranium trading with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. (Actually, the former ambassador undertook that arduous trip without pay as a public service -- the kind of act that Mr. Rove may find difficult to understand.) ...

It  has become crystal clear, in fact, that the highest officials in the Bush White House were deeply involved in the campaign to discredit Mr. Wilson in retaliation for his dissent from the Iraq war policy and the fabricated "weapons of mass destruction" argument for invasion.

Still, Cheney's snarling face looms very large in the Shrub Bush administration.  Joan Walsh writes in The real meaning of the Plame scandal Salon 10/25/05:

The mind shrinks from taking in the outlines of the truth, but every day it becomes clearer that a cabal of White House insiders sold a disastrous war based on faulty intelligence that they invented or suborned, and that they engaged in a highly organized and vicious campaign to smear, discredit and sideline those who dared to raise questions about it all. The Fitzgerald investigation just examines some of the laws they may have broken to do it.

It has always been clear that Cheney was at the center of the story, but the Times revelation Tuesday about his role in the campaign against Wilson reveals the strange mixture of  pettiness, fear and arrogance that prevailed in the White House as its lovely little war, and the rationale for it, came crashing down. It's easy to say now that the White House overreacted to Wilson; it's unlikely he'd have gained the stature he has if the White House hadn't become obsessed with his Niger trip. Certainly his July New York Times Op-Ed piece boldly and directly challenged the underpinnings of the war, but we now know the White House was absorbed with discrediting Wilson even before that. The Los Angeles Times reported how Libby was personally driven to distraction by Wilson, monitoring his every utterance and urging a crusade to counter him.

During the 2000 campaign and even early in the current administration, lots of Democrats actually looked to Cheney to be a mature, sensible and moderating influence in this crowd.  As misguided as it seems now, it was a widespread view.  And, yes, I confess that I was of that sadly deluded belief myself.  Josh Marshall made one of the early reality-based  examinations of that assumption: Vice Grip: Dick Cheney is a man of principles. Disastrous principles Washington Monthly Jan/Feb 2003.

Week after week, one need only read the front page of The Washington Post to find similar Cheney lapses. Indeed, just a few days after Cheney hand-picked [Treasury Secretary John] Snow, Newsweek magazine featured a glowing profile of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that began with an anecdote detailing her deft efforts to clean up another Cheney mess. In a July speech, the vice president had argued that weapons inspections in Iraq were useless and shouldn't even be tried. That speech nearly upended the administration's careful late-summer repositioning in favor of a new United Nations-backed inspections program. As the article explained, Rice--the relatively junior member of the president's inner circle of foreign policy advisers--had to take the vice president aside and walk him through how to repair the damage he'd done, with a new statement implicitly retracting his earlier gaffe. Such mistakes--on energy policy, homeland security, corporate reform--abound. Indeed, on almost any issue, it's usually a sure bet that if Cheney has lined up on one side, the opposite course will turn out to be the wiser.

Yet somehow, in Washington's collective mind, Cheney's numerous stumbles and missteps have not displaced the reputation he enjoys as a sober, reliable, skilled inside player.Even the Newsweek article, so eager to convey Rice's competence, seemed never to explicitly note the obvious subtext: Cheney's evident incompetence. If there were any justice or logic in this administration as to who should or shouldn't keep their job, there'd be another high-ranking official in line for one of those awkward conversations: Dick Cheney.

Homeland security, foreign policy, corporate scandals: Marshall noted how prominent Cheney was in all these problems of this administration.  And this was before Halliburton started raking in the Iraq contracts, although I believe at that time it had received the job of building jail cells on Guantanamo.  And he analyzed Cheney's decision-making style:

Cheney is conservative, of course, but beneath his conservatism is something more important: a mindset rooted in his peculiar corporate-Washington-insider class. It is a world of men--veryfew women--who have been at the apex of both business and government, and who feel that they are unique in their mastery of both. Consequently, they have an extreme assurance in their own judgment about what is best for the country and how to achieve it. They see themselves as men of action. But their style of action is shaped by the government bureaucracies and cartel-like industries in which they have operated. In these institutions,a handful of top officials make the plans, and then the plans are carried out. Ba-da-bing. Ba-da-boom.

In such a framework all information is controlled tightly by the principals, who have "maximum flexibility" to carry out the plan. Because success is measured by securing the deal rather than by, say, pleasing millions of customers, there's no need to open up the decision-making process. To do so, in fact, is seen as governing by committee. If there are other groups (shareholders, voters, congressional committees) who agree with you, fine, you use them. But anyone who doesn't agree gets ignored or, if need be, crushed. Muscle it through and when the results are in, people will realize we were right is the underlying attitude.

So, in that sense, the blooger Billmon may right in calling this "the Cheney administration."  And maybe "CheneyGate" is the best name for the scandal.

The mystery of the "moderate" Republicans

Gene Lyons isn't exactly overwhelmed by the "moderate" Republican criticism of the Bush administration's failures that we've been hearing lately Mr. Dilbert goes to Washington Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 10/26/05.

Lyons comments on the recent criticisms by Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, and Brent Scowcroft, who is generally assumed to be very close to Old Man Bush's views on foreign policy.

Of Wilkerson's description of a "cabal" in the administration headed by Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, he writes:

It sounds like a comic strip : President Dilbert.

Except it ain’t funny. To Wilkerson, the results have been catastrophic, dragging the U. S. into an ill-conceived war in Iraq, and making policy in so secretive and slapdash a manner that those charged with executing it had no clear idea what they were supposed to do, much less how. In a Los Angeles Times commentary this week, Wilkerson called it the kind of “decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy,” hence a military and political failure.

Lyons evidently has a touch of the same kind of skepticism I've taken toward such pronoucements.  It's hard to see these "moderate" and "realist" Republicans as the cavalry riding in on white horses to save the Republic.  As he puts it:

So now what ? In part because both men, like many genuine conservatives, chose not to speak plainly in October 2004 when it might have made a difference, we’re stuck with these foolhardy incompetents for the foreseeable future. Except that, as Wilkerson implies, functioning democracies usually find ways to change policies and rid themselves of politicians they no longer trust.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Another note on CheneyGate

Dick Cheney must be asking himself that same question the Carter Family sang about.  Personally, I won't miss him a bit.

Former prosecutor Jane Hamsher at the FireDogLake blog caught something my excited layperson's eyes missed (Perjury, Bitches, Perjury! 10/24/05):

Cheney was interviewed by Fitzgerald last year under oath. That would make it perjury to tell a lie. Although Republican logic tells us that perjury is only a crime if you're getting a blow job in the bargain, a legitimate US attorney might not see it that way.

What indication do we have that Cheney lied? Well, if Cheney he had told the truth when he was interviewed last year, i.e., that he was Scooter Libby's source, Fitzgerald would not have needed to threaten Judy Miller and Matt Cooper with jail in order to counter Scooter Libby's testimony that he first heard about Valerie Plame's identity from journalists.

We should soon see what Patrick Fitzgerald has waiting for the Iraq War conspirators.

Pre-indictment fog, or, can we call it CheneyGate yet?

One legal technicality that the Plame-outing conspirators seemed to have been scrupulous about claiming to have abided by is to leave open the defense that they didn't know that Valerie Plame was undercover, only that she worked for the CIA.  As long as they can claim that didn't know she was undercover, that would let them off the hook on violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

By now, that's looking a lot like the Baptist teenagers who didn't mean to have sex, so it couldn't have been a sin.

Because it seems that the conspirators may have violated so many other laws, possibly included the Espionage Act of 1917, that their virgin knowledge of Plame's employment won't help them a whole lot.

There are more fingers pointing at Dick Cheney himself now, although Scooter Libby seems to be the designated fall guy at this point.  We've got the New York Times reporting: Cheney Told Aide of C.I.A. Officer, Lawyers Report by David Johnston, Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl 10/25/05 (made available on Web site 10/24/05).

I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, first learned about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak investigation in a conversation with Mr. Cheney weeks before her identity became public in 2003, lawyers involved in the case said Monday.

Notes of the previously undisclosed conversation between Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney on June 12, 2003, appear to differ from Mr. Libby's testimony to a federal grand jury that he initially learned about the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, from journalists, the lawyers said.

The notes, taken by Mr. Libby during the conversation, for the first time place Mr. Cheney in the middle of an effort by the White House to learn about Ms. Wilson's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was questioning the administration's handling of intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program to justify the war. ...

Mr. Libby's notes indicate that Mr. Cheney had gotten his information about Ms. Wilson from George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, inresponse to questions from the vice president about Mr. Wilson. But they contain no suggestion that either Mr. Cheney or Mr. Libby knew at the time of Ms. Wilson's undercover status or that her identity was classified. Disclosing a covert agent's identity can be a crime, but only if the person who discloses it knows the agent's undercover status.

Larry Johnson, who knew Plame at the CIA, writes on this story (Who told Dick Cheney? TPM Cafe 10/24/05):

Although the NY Times story reports that Libby's notes indicate that George Tenet told Cheney about Plame, there are some intriguing unanswered questions.  For starters it is highly unlikely that George Tenet showed up at the White House and just happened to know the name of Valerie Plame.  Someone at the White House asked for it first.  Tenet clearly came prepared to respond to a White House request.  I'm sure the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, knows who called CIA to ask the question.

Johnson is not happy about the VP: "See Dick.  See Dick run.  See Dick resign."

Then we've got David Wurmser apparently pointing the finger at fall-guy Libby and another of their comrades-in-warmongering: Cheney aide passed Plame's name to Libby, Hadley, those close to leak investigation say by Jason Leopold and Larisa Alexandrovna Raw Story 10/24/05.

Josh Marshall (10/24/05) links to an Italian news story that identifies Antonio Nucera as a colonel with Italian intelligence who is claimed to have been involved with the forgery of the Nigerien documents.  I believe this is the first time this person has been named in the press. But Marshall cautions,:

My experience with this case, going back almost two years now, is that whenever damaging new information was about to come out on the forgery mystery, the Italian government-cum-intelligence agencies put out substantial new information about what happened mixed with disinformation aimed at throwing people off their trail. And when I say 'their trail', I mean the complicity of Italian intelligence in the documents hoax itself.

Steve Clemons at the Washington Note comments on theCheney story: Libby's Source Was Vice President Richard Cheney - Not Journalists 10/24/05.  His take:

This is amazing information. You may ask why?

First of all, this means that Vice President Cheney has known all along that he was Scooter Libby's source - and whether Libby had license from him or not to try and slaughter the reputation of Joe Wilson - CHENEY KNEW.

The entire charade of President Bush stating that he wanted to get to the bottom of who leaked Plame's name - and who was involved - is no longer believable at any level. Cheney would not have failed to disclose this to Bush, and Bush played along as if none of his staff were involved. They confessed nothing - accepted no responsibilty - until forced by Fitzgerald.

Cheney is sounding more and more like Aaron Burr all the time.  Clemons thinks there's a strong possibility that John "I hate the UN" Bolton was also involved.  But, we take what we can get: "For now, we can know that the Vice President of the United States was neck-deep in this affair and knew it ALL along."

The Scowcroft article

I just read the print version of the much-anticipated New Yorker article on Brent Scowcroft's criticisms of Dubya's foreign policy: "Breaking Ranks: What Brent Scowcroft tried to tell Bush" by Jeffrey Goldberg 10/31/05 issue, published 10/24/05.

It was something of a let-down to me, especially after reading the long excerpts Steve Clemons posted Sunday: Brent Scowcroft breaks ranks... Washington Note blog 10/23/05.  So far as I can see, Clemons' post provides the newsworthy portions of the article.

The only thing the print article really adds is a fuller discussion of the distinction between the "realist" foreign-policy outlook and the "neoconservative" approach.  And that is well done.

There is also a 10/24/05 interview with Goldberg on the article available at the New Yorker Web site: The Republican Rift.  From the interview:

Obviously, Scowcroft doesn’t think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. Is he also critical of how the war has been conducted? Does he believe that it could have turned out better, had different tactical decisions been made?

Scowcroft believes that Iraq was a sideshow to the war on terror, and that America should have focussed its attention on resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Once the decision to go to war was made, he supported it, but with deep trepidation. He doesn’t specifically criticize the conduct of the war; what he says is that American policymakers need to think through very carefully the consequences of occupying Arab countries, which, he makes it clear, he doesn’t think the Bush Administration did. He also suggests that this might have been an impossible mission; as a realist, he is doubtful that democracy can be imposed by force.

Unfortunately, his discussion of "realism" versus the Bush II foreign policy is more muddled in the interview than in the article.  And I'm not sure exactly how significant it is even if Goldberg is correct when he says that "Scowcroft speaks for the non-neoconservative, non-evangelical, non-human-rights wing of the Republican Party - the businessside of the Party."

Within today's Republican Party, church and country club have become so intermingled I'm not sure what it means to talk about the Party's "business side."  It seems to me that in their Party, the Christian Right and the country clubbers are stuck with each other for quite a while.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Was Valerie Plame the main target of the leak?

Presumably there will soon be court proceedings that will do a lot to clarify these matters.  But Justin Raimundo has a not-entirely-implausible speculation that Valerie Plame and her WMD group at the CIA might have been the real target of the leak, more than retaliation against Wilson himself.

I'm not convinced of this at all.  In fact, I think it's unlikely.  But, wheels within wheels and all that: Let Justice Be Done: Though the heavens fall… by Justin Raimondo 10/24/05.

Remember, the [Niger uranium documents] forgeries were exposed in early March 2003. The New York Times published Wilson's now famous "What I Didn't Find in Africa" op-ed on July 6, 2003 – and we now know that Scooter and the gang were homing in on Wilson even before his piece appeared. We also know that Ms. Plame wasn't the only deep-cover CIA agent outed by Scooter and the Cheney-ites: she worked through a CIA front company, Brewster Jennings & Associates, engaged in anti-proliferation work, whose activities were aborted by Plame's exposure. In one fell swoop, an entire group of undercover CIA experts on nuclear weapons proliferation was neutralized.

Presumaly the latter is speculation on Raimundo's part, although this one is quite plausible.  If anyone else at Brewster Jennings was undercover CIA, the outing of Plame obviously compromised them, as well.

The CIA, after all, hadn't even gotten their hands on a copy of the forgeries until February 2003 – a year after the administration began citing them as "proof" of Saddam's nuclear ambitions. It would have been well within the purview of Brewster Jennings & Associates to trace the origins of the Niger uranium documents back to the forgers: surely they weren't sitting on their hands in the months before columnist Robert Novak printed Plame's name and sparked a furor.

Everyone assumes Libby and his co-conspirators were really after Wilson, but this now seems unwarranted, especially in light of Fitzgerald's reported focus on the Niger uranium forgeries. If this question of the forgeries is now within Fitzgerald's purview, it opens up the possibility that the conspirators really were after Plame on her own account. If Plame and her associates were hot on the trail of whoever forged the Niger uranium documents, by neutralizing Brewster Jennings & Associates the Libby cabal closed one possible route to uncovering their schemes – and opened up another one.

Again, I'm unconvinced by this line of argument.  But I'm not entirely dismissing it, either.

Hopefully, we will soon have court-vetted evidence on the public record that will shine much more light on this dark business.

Perspective on the CIA's "black ops"

Tom Englehardt and investigative journalist Steve Weissman remind us that the outrageousness of the outing of Valerie Plame - a genuinely traitorous act in any normal sense of the word - shouldn't make us cast some kind of sentimental aura around the CIA undercover operations.  Some of which have been seriously criminal, and some of them have damaged American interests badly.  Their comments are well worth keeping in mind: Outing CIA Agents: Valerie Plame Meets Philip Agee by Steve Weissman (introduction by Tom Engelhardt) 10/23/05.

Weissman writes:

As we approach the week when Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury will undoubtedly issue indictments against White House officials, the seldom considered 1982 CIA shield law under which the Plame case was first launched deserves some attention. When Karl Rove, I. Lewis Libby, and possibly others decided to reveal the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, they clearly wanted to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, for undermining administration claims that Saddam Hussein sought "yellowcake" uranium from Niger to build nuclear weapons. But by publicly ruining Plame's undercover career, they were undoubtedly also sending a very personal message to CIA types and other insiders not to question Mr. Bush's rush to war in Iraq.

As despicable as this White House treachery may have been, those of us who oppose it need to regain some lost perspective. Being bashed by Team Bush does not turn the Central Intelligence Agency into the home team or necessarily make Valerie Plame a modern-day Joan of Arc; nor should her outing stop journalists or anyone else from blowing the cover of her fellow agents when they are found engaging in kidnappings, torture, or attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments.

Weissman is identified in the TomDispatch piece as a friend of Philip Agee, a former CIA agent who exposed the names of a number of CIA agents in the past.  Weissman himself notes that he was one of the journalists who publicized agents' names.  He notes, however, that his work was done using open sources - which had presumably long since been exploited by foreign intelligence services:

The identifications came from the U.S.government's Foreign Service Lists and its yearly Biographic Registers, using a time-consuming method that former State Department officer John Marks described in the November 1974 Washington Monthly. Marks called his method "How to Spot a Spook."

No midnight mail drops from the Soviet KGB. No whispered messages from some Cuban Mata Hari. Just the hard slog of journalistic investigation.

I don't follow this kind of thing closely enough to be authoritative, but it's my understanding that the kind of research he describes here deals only with agents with diplomatic cover", not with those like Valerie Plame who are NOC's, i.e., they have "non-official cover."  The latter are far more vulnerable to retaliation if caught, because they are not protected by any kind of diplomatic immunity.  So far as I've ever heard, it seems unlikely in the extremem that an NOC could be outed using the kind of open-source methods he describes there.

Weissman's article is also worth reading because of his description of the way that intelligence services provided helpful information to a film and book on which he worked, called The Islamic Bomb.  He also touches on the kind of critical approach a journalist has to use in dealing with such information.

His perspective is one worth remembering:

None of this should weaken our opposition to the way Team Bush has treated Ms. Plame. But eternal suspicion of our legal, military, and intelligence professionals is one of the prices we will increasingly have to pay if our government continues to insist on relying on torture.

And what has failed so badly in the current context is not only the lack of responsible conduct by the Executive branch, but a shirking of responsibility by Congress and the courts, as well.

A memorable metaphor (or is it a simile?)

It has seemed from the leaks the last few days that on the Plame outing and the related WMD fraud, the White House plans to have the buck stop with Dark Lord Dick Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby.

Or, as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade might have said, "That right, Scooter.  You're takin' the fall!"

But the brilliant wordsmith James Wolcott (Scooter Libby: Shark Bait 10/22/05) has come up with an even better literary/cinematic reference for Karl Rove trying to make Scooter the main culprit.  In the form of giving helpful advice to Scooter, Wolcott writes:

Karl Rove may be the one who more closely resembles Ned Beatty, but you're the one getting oinked in public, and it's not pretty.

James Moore on the Plame case

James Moore, co-author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential (2003), gives his evaulation of the significance of the Plame case: Fitzgerald's Historic Opportunity 10/21/05.

Patrick Fitzgerald has before him the most important criminal case in American history. Watergate, by comparison, was a random burglary in an age of innocence. The investigator’s prosecutorial authority in this present case is not constrained by any regulation. If he finds a thread connecting the leak to something greater, Fitzgerald has the legal power to follow it to the web in search of the spider. It seems unlikely, then, that he would simply go after the leakers and the people who sought to cover up the leak when it was merely a secondary consequence of the much greater crime of forging evidence to foment war. Fitzgerald did not earn his reputation as an Irish alligator by going after the little guy. Presumably, he is trying to find evidence that Karl Rove launched a covert operation to create the forged documents and then conspired to out Valerie Plame when he learned the fraud was being uncovered by Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson. As much as this sounds like the plot of a John le Carre novel, it also comports with the profile of the Karl Rove I have known, watched, traveled with and written about for the past 25 years.

Moore's article tries to connect some of the dots between the Bush neocons, the overlapping Iran-Contra crew and the forged Niger documents.  As I've said before, as bad as Reagan's general foreign policy was, the Iran-Contra affair was still something of an aberration in his administration.  For the Bush II administration, Iran-Contra was a template for the conduct of foreign policy in general.

And he makes an suggestion, based on his knowledge of Rove's modus operandi, on how the the Plame outing played out:

I have seen the spawn of Rove’s tortured mind and watched a hundred of his political scams unfold and I am confident I know how this one played out. Rove might have brought it up with his fellow big brains in the White House Iraq Group, a propaganda organization set up to disseminate information supporting the war. There was likely a consensus to move the plan to smack down Wilson out of the White House. Rove always keeps a layer of operatives between himself and the person he gets to pull the trigger. Libby was probably told to manage it out of the VP’s office to protect the president because Karl always takes care of his most prized assets. Libby then likely ordered John Hannah and possibly David Wurmser to call the ever-friendly Judy Miller at The New York Times and columnist Robert Novak to give them Valerie Plame’s identity. Rove knew that Miller would call Libby of Aspen for confirmation and his old friend Novak was certain to call Rove who, as an unidentified senior White House official, would confirm the identity on background only. Because Novak is a partisan gunslinger, he wrote more quickly than Miller and when she saw the firestorm his story created, she backed off and has since been trying to cover for herself and Libby. Miller’s later claim that she cannot remember who gave her the “Valerie Flame” name is as much dissembling as Rove’s unconvincing argument that he “forgot” he met with Time reporter Matt Cooper. Karl Rove can remember precinct results from 19th-century presidential elections. He neither forgets nor forgives.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

If Fitzgerald indicts...

Norman Solomon reminds us:

Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered wild beast. And if the day comes that its political survival appears to be at stake, the Bush administration will counterattack with extreme ferocity. Judging from the past, there are solid reasons to doubt that the press corps – and leaders of the overly loyal opposition – are inclined to pursue key issues of White House deception to the point that the administration will be truly backed into a corner. As usual, the tasks of demanding truth and affecting the course of history for the better will fall to independent journalists and grassroots activists. (Media at a Huge Crossroads, 25 Years After Reagan's Triumph 10/22/05)

For those who may be feeling a shortage of reasons to be paranoid, Laura Rozen points out that there's always the "wag the dog" scenario:

The establishment of an international front against Syria regarding Lebanon is a welcome development from Israel's standpoint. From the U.S. standpoint, however, Iraq is the burning issue. The United States accuses Syria of encouraging and assisting terrorists and saboteurs in Iraq to operate from its territory. Washington cannot accept a Syrian border that is wide open to those who kill American soldiers in Iraq. If it becomes clear today that Assad was responsible in any way for Hariri's murder, this suspicion will be linked with his role as an abettor of terror in Iraq, as well as with his efforts to continue to tie Lebanon to his coattails. As a result, he will be labeled, almost officially, as a "superfluous leader," whose country would be "appropriate" for American military action.

But if this is the operative conclusion derived from the investigative report, it is liable to be hasty and simplistic. Assad is not an enlightened ruler who does good for his people, but the alternative to his regime would not necessarily be any better. The regime's opponents represent extremist ideologies, both religious and nonreligious. An American invasion of Syria - even if it had British and French support along with UN approval - would be liable to create a second Iraq, this time on Israel's border. In the aftermath of a western invasion, the terror trickling from Syria into Iraq might also start trickling south and east, into Israel.
Bashar in the eye of the storm Ha'aretz editorial 10/21/05)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Condi, Condi's grand strategy for Iraq

I know that I've been uncharacteristically harshing on Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby lately.  But I still like to steal his phrases.  And as the Howler might say, our Potemkin press corps just luu-uuvs Darling Condi.

So it's not surprising that Condi-Condi has been applauded for her Congressional testimony this past week on the Iraq War.  If David Shields and Tom Oliphant on the PBS Newshour Friday are any measure (and they normally are), the punditocracy is performing as expected, praising her brilliant statement of war aims and her pronouncement of a "victory strategy."

Ivo Daalder, being one of those dull foreign policy experts, isn't going along with the Big Pundits: Why We're in Iraq TPM Cafe 10/19/05.  Quoting her statement of war objectives, he writes, "Now, read that again, and tell me if this is serious."

He does find a bright spot in her testimony, though:

Which leaves me with this thought: the limited nature of these objectives suggests that the administration may finally be realizing the extraordinary disaster we're in and is trying, desperately, to find a way to declare victory so we can get out.

We can only hope along with him in that regard.

But even as anti-establishment a figure as songwriter Steve Earle can advise Ivo on how to get with the program on praising Darling Condi (another phrase pilfered from the Howler):

So skank for me, Condi
Show me what you got
They say you're too uptight
I say you're not
Dance around me, spinning like a top
Oh, Condi, Condi, Condi, don't ever stop
                        - Steve Earle, "Condi, Condi"

Waiting for the indictments - or the anti-climax

John Dean is an expert on major federal government scandals in a way that few people alive are.  That obviously doesn't mean he's always right.  But he's definitely worth paying attention to: Waiting For The Valerie Plame Wilson Grand Jury: The Big Question Is Whether Dick Cheney Was a Target by John Dean, 10/21/05.

Dean approves of Patrick Fitzgerald's professionalism so far:

Fitzgerald, and those who work for him, have acted throughout the investigation just as prosecutors should. Lips are zipped. Fitzgerald has held his information so close to his chest that, as one wag put it, he's got it in his underpants. Accordingly, Washington is filled with rumors.

Despite the fact that Republicans are the main suspects in this case, I am glad he conducted himself in this way, in dramatic contrast to that wretched fanatic Kenneth Starr.

Dean offers us some of that experienced perspective:

Something is going to happen, and, I think, fairly soon. It has been many years since my conversations with well placed friends in Washington have reflected the sort of inside-the-Beltway tension that is now mounting. This tension was not matched during the Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation, nor during Iran-Contra. But it is very reminiscent of the wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in Nixon v. United States - the decision that famously forced Nixon to turn over his secretly recorded taped conversations - and ended his presidency.

The similarity is, of course, because there is the real potential that this investigation and prosecution could reach right into the top of the Bush White House. How high is the source in question? Could it be George Bush himself? Dick Cheney? Karl Rove? Scooter Libby? My guess is that, in different ways, all four likely were involved in the exposure of Plame's covert identity. (my emphasis)

Dean answers one question raised in the comments here recently about whether Fitzgerald is protected from Bush firing him.  The answer is no: "a president can remove any federal prosecutor who might indict him, for they all serve at his pleasure."

He thinks that an indictment ofCheney is probably a long shot:

The really big fish in this case is the Vice President. And I have little doubt, based on my knowledge of the case, and of the way Cheney typically operates, that a case could be made against him.

But Fitzgerald is an experienced prosecutor, and that means only if he found himself confronted with an exceptionally egregious case (the equivalent of Spiro Agnew's taking payoffs from Maryland contractors in his Vice Presidential Office), would Fitzgerald consider indicting Vice President Dick Cheney.

Make no mistake, Fitzgerald has the power to indict anyone he finds to have violated federal law - and there are over 4,000 criminal laws today. And understand that prosecutors who truly want to nail someone (as Kenneth Starr did with President Bill Clinton) can do just that.

But Ken Starr was not a seasoned prosecutor. And it may make a difference that Fitzgerald was appointed by the Bush Administration, whereas, of course, Starr was not chosen by Clinton and they were politically opposed. As a rule, prosecutors do not bite the hand of the administration that feeds them.

In the end, Dean concludes that unless Fitzgerald can clearly establish that the leakers of Valerie Plame's identity as a undercover CIA operative acted for reasons they knew had nothing to do with national security, charges based on the outing itself or on the misuse of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War, are unlikely.  An anti-climactic outcome is still very possible.  But he ends:

Unless, of course, these folks were foolish enough to give false statements, perjure themselves or suborn perjury, or commit obstruction of justice. If they were so stupid, Patrick Fitzgerald must stay and clean house.

Another look at the Howler's take on the Plame case

I normally don't spend a lot of time quibbling over arguments with which I basically agree.  But in the case of Bob Somerby's take on the Plame case and related matters, I find myself doing just that.

Somerby's main argument has two parts.  One is that our sad excuse for a press corps has oversimplified the significance of Joe Wilson's report on the Niger uranium document forgeries to the point of blurring the facts, at best a sloppy approach.

As he puts it in Friday's (10/21/05) Daily Howler:

At any rate, the press corps was beginning to look for a tale which would illustrate their (accurate) new conclusion: Bush misled us on the way into war. But right up to this very day, Wilson’s “contradiction” doesn’t quite parse. Result? To this day, scribes misstate what Wilson said. It builds a more dramatic tale, in which contradictions are more direct. But that’s what Aesop’s press corps typically does when it decides to convince us rubes of the truth of its latest Group Judgment.

In this case, their judgment was accurate. They just chose a rather weak tale with which to convey that new judgment.

Somerby also makes a specific argument that Wilson himself amplified the results of his findings in acting as a source for the following articles:

Missing in Action: Truth by Nicholas Kristof New York Times 05/06/03 ( reprint)

CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data: Bush Used Report Of Uranium Bid by Walter Pincus Washington Post 06/12/03

The First Casualty by John B. Judis & Spencer Ackerman New Republic (06/19/03; 06/30/05 print edition) Link to New Republic pay-archive version here.

The amplification he thinks Wilson made was to say that he had not only debunked the report of uranium sales to Niger, but that he had also determined that the documents were forgeries.

There are lots of people who are far more immersed in the Plame case and its many side-stories than I am.  So I'm not going to try to cite chapter and verse here.  But the following is my basic understanding of these two questions.

First of all, there are the famous "16 words".  Often when politicians get caught saying something false and/or stupid, they will complain that they were "quoted out of context."  In this case, the real meaning of what Bush said only makes sense if it is examined in its relevant context, the 2003 State of the Union (SOTU) address:

Today, the gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror, and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation. ...

Now, in this century, the ideology of power and domination has appeared again, and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror. Once again, this nation and all our friends are all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility. (Applause.)

Here is the paragraph with the notorious 16 words (my emphasis):

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

And he elaborated on the alleged threat in the paragraphs after the "16words".  For example:

Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes. (Applause.)

Following the passage quoted above which begins, "Today, the gravest danger ...", Bush painted a pretty scary picture with phrases like the following:

* ... learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq.

* A brutal dictator ... will not be permitted to ... threaten the United States. (Applause.)

* ... Saddam Hussein [between 1991 and 2003] ... pursued chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons ...

* Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons ...

* It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons, lay those weapons out for the world to see, and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened.

* The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary; he is deceiving. ...

* With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein ...

* Evidence ... reveal [sic] that Saddam Husseinaids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.

* If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.

* The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons ...

* ... a serious and mounting threat to our country ...

* Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world. ...

* ... for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world ...

In the context, it's hard to see how anyone could doubt Bush's belief in the credibility of what "British intelligence has learned ..."  Yes, if we parse the exact words, Bush did not say, "Iraq has procured uranium from Niger."  But the claim about Iraq seeking uranium was clearly not only meant to be taken by his audience as fact or high liklihood.  It was also the most frightening of all the claims about Iraq's (non-existent) nuclear weapons programs.  If Iraq had designs for nuclear bombs that included five different methods of enriching uranium to weapons-grade, and he also had uranium, then it was only a matter of time before he got the Bomb. Aluminum tubes had to be spun heavily to make a connection in the average's listener's mind (including those in Congress) with nuclear weapons.  "Uranium" isn't nearly so hard to connect.

Since many of the relevant documents are not public at this point - e.g., the British intelligence report(s), the CIA's report on Wilson's Niger trip - it's impossible to say with certainty to what extent the claim in the "16 words" was based on the allegation that Wilson was investigating about Iraq have actually procured uranium from Niger.

But as I mentioned in my post of 10/18/05, the Bush administration certainly reacted as though Wilson's op-ed and his anonymous conversations with the press were a threat to the credibility of that claim in 2003 SOTU.

So, I buy Somerby's argument inthe narrow sense, which is that reporters and some bloggers are being somewhat sloppy in the way they talk about the relation of Joe Wilson's public criticisms to Bush's actual claim about uranium in the 2003 SOTU.

But he goes beyond arguing that the writers should be more careful.  He argues as well that there is no reason to find any contradiction between Wilson's accounts on his Niger mission and the SOTU claim. For instance, from the 10/21/05 Howler:

* Yep! Bush said Iraq sought uranium from Niger. Wilson said a sale couldn’t likely take place. But from Day One, the press corps acted as if Wilson had flatly contradicted Bush’s troubling statement.

* But perhaps it took a bit of time for the press to notice an awkward fact - Wilson’s column  didn’t really contradict what Bush had said in his State of the Union.

* But Bush never said a transaction took place!

If this were an argument over whether Bush violated the federal law that makes it a crime to lie to Congress, even when one is not under oath, those points of Somerby's would be well taken.

But in the context of the Plame case and the "16 words", that part of his argument is silly.  The reaction of the administration to Wilson is developing into what promises to be a major public scandal.  And let's look at a quick chronology:

07/05/03: Wilson's famous op-ed What I Didn't Find in Africa dated 07/06/05 appears late in the evening on the New York Times Web site.

07/06/03: Wilson is interviewed by Andrea Mitchell - who is Alan Greenspan's wife, by the way, although her husband's job is not classified information - on Meet the Press.  According to this unofficial transcript, part of the exchange went as follows (Joe Wilson with Andrea Mitchell, July 6, 2003 Just One Minute blog 07/20/04):

MS. MITCHELL: Now,we only learned later when U.N. inspectors first looked at the documents, this was a year later, that, in fact, these documents were fraudulent, a year after your first trip. What did you think when you first saw the president making that comment in the State of the Union?

AMB. WILSON: Well, first of all, Andrea, when the president made the comment, he was referring to a British White Paper Report that came out in September of the previous year, September 2002; again, referring to uranium sales from an African country to Iraq. Now, there are four African countries that produce uranium or have uranium stockpiles: South Africa, Namibia, Gabon and Niger.So throughout this, whenever the British and then the president were mentioningAfrica, I assumed that they were talking about one of the other countries and not Niger since we had, I believed, at the time effectively debunked the Niger arms uranium sale.

MS. MITCHELL: But, in fact, many officials, including the president, the vice president, Donald Rumsfeld, were referring to the Niger issue as though it were fact, as though it were true and they were told by the CIA, this information was passed on in the national intelligence estimate, I’ve been told, with a caveat from the State Department that it was highly dubious based on your trip but that that caveat was buried in a footnote, in the appendix. So was the White House misled? Were they not properly briefed on the fact that you had the previous February been there and that it wasn’t true?

AMB. WILSON: No. No. In actual fact, in my judgment, I have not seen the estimate either, but there were reports based upon my trip that were submitted to the appropriate officials. The question was asked of the CIA by the office of the vice president. The office of the vice president, I am absolutely convinced, received a very specific response to the question it asked and that response was based upon my trip out there.

MS. MITCHELL: So they knew months and months before they passed on these allegations that, in fact, that particular charge was not true. Do you think, based on all of this, that the intelligence was hyped?

AMB. WILSON: My judgment on this is that if they were referring to Niger when they were referring to uranium sales from Africa to Iraq, that information was erroneous and that they knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British White Paper and the president’s State of the Union address.

07/07/03, later in the day: A "senior administration official" tells reporters:  "Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech."  See White House Backs Off Claim on Iraqi Buy by Walter Pincus Washington Post 07/08/03 (from the Web site of the University of Missouri Journalism School's Freedom of Information Center).

The opening paragraphs of Pincus' story remind us that Wilson's op-ed was not the only source of pressure over the "16 words", a point which is in favor of Somerby's argument:

The Bush administration acknowledged for the first time yesterday that President Bush should not have alleged in his State of the Union address in January that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Africa to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program.

The statement was prompted by publication of a British parliamentary commission report, which raised serious questions about the reliability of British intelligence that was cited by Bush as part of his effort to convince Congress and the American people that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program were a threat to U.S. security.

The British panel said it was unclear why the British government asserted as a "bald claim" that there was intelligence that Iraq had sought to buy significant amounts of uranium in Africa. It noted that the CIA had already debunked this intelligence, and questioned why an official British government intelligence dossier published four months before Bush's speech included the allegation as part of an effort to make the case for going to war against Iraq.

Yet it's also notable that this statement cam on the day after Wilson's op-ed appeared on the Times Web site.  And, working against Somerby's argument, it was clear right away that the White House and the Republican attack machine were going after Wilson.

07/11/03 - CIA Director George Tenet issues statement on the uranium claim in the SOTU:  Statement by George J. Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence CIA Press Release 07/11/05. Tenet said:

Legitimate questions have arisen about how remarks on alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa made it into the President’s State of the Union speech. ... These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President. ...

Although the documents related to the alleged Niger-Iraqi uranium deal had not yet been determined to be forgeries, officials who were reviewing the draft remarks onuranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary natureof the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed.From what we know now, Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct - i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a Presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for Presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.

Since we're in Howler close-reading mode here, we should note that Tenet here treats the "16 words" in more-or-less the way Somerby does, as though on the face of it, the statement was technically just a straightforward acknowledgement that the British had produced such a report.  I'm quite confident that when most listeners understood Bush's statement in those 16 words that the "British government has learned that Saddam Hussein ...", they understood it to be an endorsement by the President of the findings of that report as he stated, not as a matter-of-fact comment that such a report existed.

Tenet's statement has been widely understood, then and since, as his taking the rap for the deception.

The Republicans publicly attacked Wilson and his credibility in the days following.  Here's Clifford May at National Review Online of 07/11/03: Scandal! Bush’s enemies aren't telling the truth about what he said.

Josh Marshall on that same day had a brief response from Wilson on the charge.

If you look at Marshall's other blog posts for the few days before and after, you can certainly get a sense that Wilson's criticisms over the uranium claim were taken as challenges to Bush's credibility in the SOTU, though by no means the only one.

The second major element of Somerby's argument is that Wilson has made careless claims at times in connection with the controversy.  In his 10/21/05 post, Somerby criticizes him for claiming/suggesting that he had discovered that the Niger documents were forgeries.  Wilson had not examined the forged documents himself in his Niger trip.

It seems to me that Somerby, in his criticism over that, is jumping to conclusions that the material he cites don't justify.  To make his argument, Somerby assumes that Kristof in the article cited above recorded Wilson's information exactly right, and he assumes that the "sources" cited by Pincus in the 2003 article were actually one source, Joe Wilson.  And Somerby puts undue confidence, it seems to me, in the Senate cover-up report on prewar intelligence (aka, Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq 07/07/04; *.pdf file), which I discussed last year, including its treatment of Wilson.

And, in general, I think he makes an exaggerated distinction between the idea that Iraq "sought" uranium (Bush's SOTU) and the "the sale of uranium yellowcake  ... by Niger to Iraq" (Wilson's description of what he investigated from his 07/06/03 op-ed).  After all, an agreement to make a sale or an actual sale, whether or not delivery of the uranium occurred, would also have meant that Iraq "sought" uranium.

He also cites a vague report, mentioned in Tenet's statement quoted above, which could be used in the very narrow sense to say that there was evidence that Iraq "sought" uranium.  As discussed in the Senate cover-up report, former Nigerian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki related to Wilson on his Niger trip "that in June 1999, [portion redacted] businessman, approached him and insisted that Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss 'expanding commercial relations' between Niger and Iraq."  Mayaki told Wilson that he had not followed up on it because of the UN sanctions against Iraq, though he did meet with the Iraqi delegation.  Somerby argues that such a meeting could be evidence that Iraq "sought" uranium.

At this point, the hair-splitting gets to be absurd.  No one interpreted Bush's "16 words" in the 2003 SOTU to mean, "Well, four years ago there was a group that represented itself as an Iraq delegation that had very preliminary discussion with Niger about the possibility ofexpanding trade relations, which meant they were trying to get uranium, because that's Niger's main export.  Nothing came of it, and arranging such a sale would have been effectively impossible because of the French and Nigerien controls in place.  And there's no evidence that even a preliminary approach like this one was ever made again."

For all the information in the public information provided by Tenet and by Sen. Pat Roberts' cover-up report, this "Iraqi delegation" could have been a few of Ahmad Chalabi's guys up to some scam of their own.

Also, speaking directly to the objection that Somerby raises on what Wilson was refuting, the cover-up committee reported on p. 44 of their report that Wilson's presentation to their staff indicated he saw his findings from his Niger mission as "refuting both the possibility that Niger could have sold uranium to Iraq and that Iraq approached Niger to purchase uranium."  They note that the report written by the CIA based on their debriefing of Wilson "did not refute the possibility that Iraq had approached Niger to purchase uranium."

My conclusion is that, on the story of Joe Wilson and the outing of Valerie Plame, Somerby's dissecting of the coverage suffers in part from not being able to see the forest for the trees.