April 10, 2006
McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical
Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. A 27-year veteran of the
CIA, he is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
When you invest so much effort into tangling the
web—in this case, corrupting intelligence analysis in the 2002 National
Intelligence Estimate on Iraq—it becomes hard to know when to stop.
Vice President Dick Cheney went to inordinate lengths, including 10
visits to CIA headquarters, to ensure that that crucial NIE on weapons
of mass destruction was alarmist enough to scare Congress into
authorizing war. And when the evidence turned out to be flimsy, Cheney
had a back-up plan: The CIA made me do it.
Ever since their exaggerated claims about Iraq’s possession of WMD
turned out to be baseless, the Bush administration’s defense has rested
on blaming the government’s intelligence analysts. But one of the great
revelations from Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s court filing
last week is more evidence that the White House—not the CIA—distorted
intelligence on Iraq. It was then-chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, acting
on orders from Cheney, who presented evidence of Iraq seeking nuclear
weapons material to reporters as a "key judgment" from the NIE, when in fact it was a subject of debate in the intelligence community.
The White House plan to scapegoat the intelligence community about
Iraq—aided by eager-to-please CIA Director George Tenet—worked
beautifully. But only for a while. The plan faltered once it became
clear there were no WMD and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson blew the
whistle on the centerpiece report used to deceive Congress and conjure
up the specter of a mushroom cloud. That report conveyed the
cockamamie story about Iraq seeking uranium in the African country of
Niger, in which Cheney took uncommon interest.
Cockamamie? Easy to say in retrospect, you say. No, it
was easy to say from the outset. And that is why CIA analysts in
early 2002 threw it into the circular file, where it deserved to be—for
several good reasons. For starters, the government of Niger does
not control the uranium mined there. Rather, it is tightly
controlled and monitored by an international consortium led by the
French. CIA analysts all agreed that the notion that Baghdad could
somehow siphon off some of that uranium and spirit it back to Iraq was
The Pentagon’s own intelligence-gathering unit—the Defense Intelligence Agency
—however, immediately recognized the report for its huge
potential to please Vice President Cheney, not to mention its direct
boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and wrote it up in a DIA
publication. The various investigations of intelligence performance on
Iraq show that Cheney took a real shine to the report. Never mind
its dubious provenance, or that it could be shown to be false on its
face; it served his goal of portraying Iraq as a threat.
The DIA report was on Cheney’s desk one morning in February 2002,
when the CIA briefer arrived with the the president’s Daily
Brief. I’ll bet Cheney rues that day, for he made the mistake of
asking the briefer to find out what CIA analysts thought of the
Iraq-Niger report. CIA managers decided to send Joe Wilson to
Niger to seek more information on the report. Who
better? Wilson, fluent in French, had served in Niger, and had
been our last acting ambassador in Baghdad. And he had been asked
by the CIA to perform similar special assignments since his retirement
from the Department of State.
Wilson went to Niger, found the story baseless—as had previous
investigations by the U.S. embassy in Niger and a U.S. general
dispatched from Heidelberg—and reported this promptly to the CIA
officials who had sent him, who in turn advised the office of the vice
No matter. Cheney and Libby put the report on life support and
eventually insisted that it be included in the (in)famous NIE prepared
in the fall of 2002. The malleable Tenet acquiesced to
leaving the DIA-crafted language in the NIE that he signed and released
on October 1, 2002. Yet, a day or two later, Tenet seems to have
had a pang of conscience; he successfully pleaded with the White House
to excise the Iraq-Niger story from a key presidential speech—but the
train had left the station. On October 7, President Bush warned the
nation that the first sign that Iraq has a nuclear weapon "could come
in the form of a mushroom cloud"—a formula repeated by Condoleezza Rice
on October 8 and then-Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clark on October
9. On October 10 and 11, the Senate and House voted for war.
Fast forward to January 2003, when President Bush’s State of the
Union address pulled out all stops in beating the drums for war.
As Joe Wilson watched the speech, he found it puzzling to hear the
president repeat the story about Iraq seeking uranium from
Africa. There must be new intelligence on this, thought Wilson,
but he quickly learned it was the same sorry story. He quietly
sought to persuade the White House to issue a correction, but was given
the brush off. Wilson persisted, and in the end warned
then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that, as a matter of
conscience, he would be forced to tell the American people that the
uranium story was bogus. The reply, through a Rice intermediary:
"Go ahead! Who will believe you?"
Six months later, in early July 2003—more than three months into the
war in Iraq—the administration’s claims of "Mission Accomplished"
proved to be premature. And, worse still, no WMD were anywhere to
be found. Even the domesticated U.S. press that led the
cheerleading for war seemed a bit unnerved at the discovery that there
were no discoveries. (This was before outrage fatigue set
in.) Things at the White House were growing very tense.
It is now abundantly clear—thanks to the release of Fitzgerald’s
court papers—how the White House chose to counter Wilson’s charge that
the administration had "twisted" intelligence to justify war.
Adding insult to injury, not only did Wilson author the July 6 New York Times op-ed titled "What I Did Not Find in Africa;" he also chose to forgo diplomatic parlance in telling Washington Post reporters, "This begs the question regarding what else they are lying about." Wilson had thrown down the gauntlet.
In something of a panic, Cheney picked it up. First, he and
Libby tried to get the CIA to support the story about Iraq and
Niger. The answer was no. So the administration conceded
publicly on July 7 that the information should not have been included
in the State Of The Union address. On July 8 Cheney’s
counteroffensive began. According to Libby, he was dispatched to
Bush administration darling Judy Miller of The New York Times
to explain why Wilson’s charges were wrong. The White House did
not twist the intelligence to justify invading Iran: "The CIA made us
Toward this end, Libby claims he was given permission by Cheney and
Bush to release information from the NIE, which, as noted above, had
already been cooked to Cheney’s recipe. The passage chosen for
highlighting? A paragraph buried on page 24 of the 90-page NIE:
"Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and
yellowcake…A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001,
Niger planned to send several tons of 'pure uranium’ (probably
yellowcake) to Iraq."
I can safely assume that Libby did not tell Miller of the official
position of state department intelligence analysts that the uranium
allegation was "highly dubious." For once, then-Secretary of State
Colin Powell listened to them and faced down Libby. Indeed,
Powell deliberately excluded this particular canard in preparing his
February 5, 2003 UN speech, into which he threw everything else but the
kitchen sink. That’s how bad it was.
With the help of this "declassified" passage, Libby could show Judy
Miller that the White House had been badly misled. The blame was placed
on the intelligence gatherers, not on the White House. In mid-February
2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency was given the
documents upon which the Iraq-Niger story was based, they were
immediately found to be forgeries. Congressman Henry Waxman,
D-Calif., wrote a blistering letter to President Bush before the attack
on Iraq, claiming that he had been deceived into voting for war on the
basis of forged documents. Senate Intelligence Committee
Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, refused to ask the FBI to
investigate who was responsible.
Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald, however, has an independent bent—plus
the authority to look these aspects of the litany of leaks. I’ll
be he has a good idea of who orchestrated the forgery. Indeed, I
will not be surprised if the operation is eventually be traced back to
the office of the vice president.