USA: Iraq War Scandal

This scandal offers an opportunity to discredit the entire ideology used to justify the war in Iraq.

NOW, AMERICA has its own David Kelly affair. There is no corpse — unless you count the U.S. troops killed in Iraq, whose number is now 2,000 — but all the other elements are in place. A complex saga, turning on the unwanted outing of a government servant; a media organisation rocked by accusations of sloppy editorial processes; and a judicial investigation zeroing in on the charge that the Government cooked up the case on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It will reach its climax any moment now.

We all have a stake in outcome of Plamegate

by Jonathan Freedland

This scandal offers an opportunity to discredit the entire ideology used to justify the war in Iraq.

NOW, AMERICA has its own David Kelly affair. There is no corpse — unless you count the U.S. troops killed in Iraq, whose number is now 2,000 — but all the other elements are in place. A complex saga, turning on the unwanted outing of a government servant; a media organisation rocked by accusations of sloppy editorial processes; and a judicial investigation zeroing in on the charge that the Government cooked up the case on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It will reach its climax any moment now.

It has become known, inevitably, as Plamegate — with CIA agent Valerie Plame the nominally central player. Nominal because, though she is very much alive, she, like David Kelly, is a silent star.

In February 2002, the CIA dispatched Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, to Niger to check claims that Saddam Hussein had been shopping in the country for nuclear material. He concluded that Mr. Hussein had not. Nevertheless, nearly a year after his mission, Mr. Wilson was alarmed to hear George W. Bush and others repeat the Niger claims as if they were true. The ex-diplomat finally wrote a trenchant piece in the New York Times headlined “What I didn’t find in Africa.” He wrote that if his verdict had been “ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretences.”

A furious White House promptly briefed against Mr. Wilson. A column appeared mentioning that Mr. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent — implying that she had engineered his mission to Africa, and that his appointment owed more to nepotism than expertise. That set people wondering. To knowingly expose an undercover CIA agent is to break the law. The columnist said he had two sources in the Bush administration. If so, they were potentially guilty of a serious crime. The White House firmly denied any of its people were involved.

So began an investigation which is now due to bear fruit. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald could bring indictments against one or both of Karl Rove, the political supremo known as Mr. Bush’s Brain, and “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney. Chances are, they won’t be charged under the agent-naming rule — but perhaps with perjury, obstruction of justice, or conspiracy to obstruct justice. As so often with scandals, it will not be the initial crime but the subsequent cover-up that does the damage.

To lose high-ranking officials like Mr. Rove or Mr. Libby would be trouble enough, but the Republican fear is that it won’t end there. Tuesday’s New York Times reported that Mr. Libby was told about Ms. Plame by none other than the Vice-President in June 2003. That’s tricky, since Mr. Libby has testified under oath that it was journalists who first tipped him off about the CIA agent. The revelation makes a liar of Mr. Libby and perhaps of Mr. Cheney too: he went on TV in September 2003 saying he didn’t know Mr. Wilson or who had sent him to Niger. At the very least, there is now proof that the effort to take on Mr. Wilson went all the way to the Vice-President — if not further.

So this is the story — along with a sideshow about the conduct of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who may have got just too close to her White House sources — which has Washington gripped in the scandal fever that has become a perennial feature of every Presidential second term. It was Watergate for Richard Nixon, Iran-contra for Ronald Reagan, Monica for Bill Clinton, and now Valerie Plame for Mr. Bush.

How damaging will it be? If it was just a matter of hardball tactics by his aides, Mr. Bush would be able to ride it out. But there is the question of motive.

As the former presidential candidate and current Democratic party chairman, Howard Dean, said: “This is not so much about Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. This is about the fact that the President didn’t tell us the truth when we went to Iraq, and all these guys are involved in it.”

It is this which makes Plamegate America’s Kelly affair.

The Niger story, and the determination to keep it alive, was part of a wider effort by Mr. Cheney’s office, with allies in Donald Rumsfeld’s Defence Department, to cherry-pick the intelligence that would support the case for military action against Iraq. All through the 2002 summer, Mr. Cheney pressured CIA analysts to come up with anything which might cast Saddam Hussein as a maniac bent on nuking the U.S. He presented Baghdad as an imminent, lethal danger to America. He persisted in claiming a link between Mr. Hussein and Al-Qaeda, even when the evidence was nonexistent. He recycled the wholly discredited claim that Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, had met an Iraqi agent in Prague. He and his White House Iraq Group (Whig), which included Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby, were engaged in a campaign not merely to sex up the case for war — but to make it up altogether.

Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby had differing motives for this effort. Mr. Rove was convinced that branding Mr. Bush a “war President” would ensure re-election in 2004 — but that required a war; Afghanistan was wrapped up, so Iraq would be the necessary sequel. Mr. Libby was part of the ideological neocon set that had long dreamed of an Iraq invasion as the first step to remaking the Middle East and which seized on 9/11 as the opportunity. Plamegate comes as Mr. Bush is especially vulnerable. Hurricane Katrina exposed his administration as careless, cronyish, and, above all, incompetent. In a blistering speech last week, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Laurence Wilkerson, warned that if the U.S. was struck by another terror attack or a major pandemic “you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence.”

The President is assailed from all sides; from Democrats over his plans to privatise the pensions system, and from conservatives who wanted a right-wing titan nominated to the Supreme Court — and who feel insulted by the choice of Harriet Miers, a personal lawyer to Mr. Bush who has never been a judge and whose best credential is that she once oversaw the Texas lottery.

It adds up to a moment of exceptional weakness, a “perfect storm” for Democrats plotting a comeback in next year’s Congressional elections. But it is more important than that. Now there is a chance to discredit not just Mr. Bush’s presidency but the ideology which led to the disastrous adventure in Iraq. Plamegate itself may seem arcane, but that outcome is one in which we all have a stake. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s