On Friday, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald will dismiss his grand jury. Already, speculation about likely indictable White House figures goes as high as Vice President Dick Cheney. But regardless of which particular administration heads teeter and roll this week, the real legacy of Mr. Fitzgerald’s investigation concerns how and why intelligence work has been flattened by the White House into a blunt instrument of political retribution, and how then-C.I.A. director George Tenet and that greatly embattled agency are at the heart of the whole mess.
In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald’s entire investigation all leads back to the vigorous Bush administration putsch for the Iraq invasion. “Without intending to,” said intelligence historian Thomas Powers last week, “the investigators have stumbled into the whole case for going to war. And once you start looking into that, it’s not going to be pretty.”
The original aim in sneakily revealing Valerie Plame Wilson’s C.I.A. affiliation, after all, was apparently to discredit the campaign of her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, to publicize the news arising from his trip to Niger. (That news was that Saddam Hussein hadn’t acquired uranium yellowcake from the African nation.)
But what, as Mark Felt famously said to Bob Woodward, of the “overall”? “All this talk of independence from the President, that doesn’t describe what they really do. They work for the President,” Mr. Powers said of the C.I.A.’s senior brass.
Still, by the Bush administration’s lights, there’s working for the President and working for the President—and the C.I.A. was clearly not on board with the program early on.
“The C.I.A. kept looking and saying, ‘We’re not finding any evidence,’” said James Bamford, the author of A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. “And the Pentagon was angry that this was coming out of the agency. And so that’s why they had this special unit. That’s why [David] Wurmser was in there—to become the anti-C.I.A.”
Mr. Wurmser, Vice President Cheney’s Middle East advisor, was recruited by Under Secretary for Defense Policy Douglas Feith to create the Office of Special Plans, a policy group in the Pentagon formed to cherry-pick information that would provide the casus belli for invading Iraq. Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, famously referred to the unit’s handiwork as “a Chinese menu,” offering a readymade connoisseur’s choice of reasons to topple the Hussein regime in Iraq.
“It started within Feith’s Special Plans group,” said a former senior White House official who requested not to be named. “That’s where you first see this business of taking one’s animosity toward Langley and the agency and finding intelligence that would support one’s own position. There was a very direct effort to send out people to come back and report that very thing. You had people going to open-source reports and coming to different conclusions, in many cases, than the authors of the reports themselves did.”
Even though—or perhaps because—the Office of Special Plans was custom-ordering its case for war, it began throwing its weight conspicuously around the rest of the White House. “I went to a White House Situation Room meeting, and [Mr. Feith] took over the meeting, and [then–Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley let him,” said Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Colin Powell. “It was not challenged by any of the intelligence people. It was clear to everyone in the room—not only to people like me, who were consumers of intelligence for many decades, but senior intelligence people themselves—that this guy didn’t know what he was talking about.”
At such moments, Mr. Wilkerson says, the gauntlet was thrown. “If you’re arrayed at the back of the room, and if you don’t see anyone at the table who speaks out, then you say, ‘Well, I’m not going to speak up either.’”
The Plame leak is in itself evidence of how Bush administration officials failed to apprehend the most basic operations of intelligence. “I’ve talked with a number of people who knew [Valerie Plame Wilson] and worked with her,” said Burton Hersh, the author of The Old Boys, the groundbreaking study of the C.I.A.’s Cold War career. “And the whole idea that she [or] her undercover status was not that important is ridiculous. She was key to the effort to contain nuclear proliferation in the Third World. Once she’s taken out, her whole network of people can be exposed. That shows you a disconnect across the board. This was a network trying to keep jihadists from acquiring nuclear weapons …. You know, it’s hard enough to keep these people undercover. To lift that cover for short-term political advantage—that’s indefensible. And to punish Joe Wilson like this—it’s suicidal.”
LONGTIME STUDENTS OF INTELLIGENCE TURF WARS note that such tactics hark back to the darkest days of the Nixon White House. “Nixon politicized the C.I.A. when he went to—this is very important: In the infamous ‘smoking-gun’ tape, he talks about going to [C.I.A. director] Richard Helms to tell [F.B.I. director] Pat Gray he’s got to stop the Watergate investigation,” said historian Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate. “The idea was to tell Gray his investigators ‘were impinging on C.I.A. assets.’ That was the first time in our history that the C.I.A. became involved in ideological, partisan politics.”
But in the Plame case, C.I.A. director George Tenet, who resigned in July, 2004, appeared to hand over a sensitively positioned asset to the Vice President on a platter. “This marks the second major indiscretion by Tenet, together with his ‘slam-dunk’ statement on W.M.D.’s,” said Loch K. Johnson, a former aide to the 1975 Church Committee inquiry into C.I.A. abuses and now a Regents professor at the University of Georgia. “The major difference is that the C.I.A.’s skirts were comparatively clean during Watergate, except for giving a wig and disguise to [break-in burglar] Howard Hunt. Now, as Richard Helms would say, the agency is up to its scuppers in culpability with this.”
“Tenet had this Hobson’s choice to make,” said Mr. Bamford. “And instead of backing his own people—who were right all along—he didn’t want to lose his face time with Bush.” Indeed, the notion of a slam-dunk was apparently more than simply a metaphor for Mr. Tenet. The C.I.A. director “walked around with a basketball under his arm in the halls of Langley,” said Mr. Hersh. “Here you have someone directing the agency, who you’re supposed to take seriously, bouncing a basketball in the halls.” Was Mr. Tenet just working up to the “slam-dunk” flourish? “No,” Mr. Hersh replied. “The idea apparently was that he saw himself as a jock, and as a team player.”
Mr. Tenet’s fealty to the Bush team has already produced prestigious dividends. “Tenet’s Medal of Freedom was obviously a quid pro quo,” said Mr. Kutler, “in exchange for not writing a book. It was quite clear to me that they were greasing the skids for him.”
“You have to understand, the war was beginning to go badly in July 2003,” said Mr. Bamford. “You have the world coming down on Bush. You have these people who are the ultimate spinmeisters for both Bush and Cheney; they call up all their friendly people [in the press]. How are you going to discredit this thing? You say, ‘Well, this thing was all cooked up by [Mr. Wilson’s] wife. This wasn’t serious. This was a wife trying to get her husband a job.’”
And that’s where one might violate the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. “It was a tripwire they stumbled across,” Mr. Bamford said.
Mr. Wilkerson, who recently went public with explosive charges that the administration’s foreign policy had been hijacked by a “cabal” of ideologues, said that analysts and officers touting the pro-invasion line purposely ran interference against any information that threatened the Office of Special Plans’ delicately assembled case for the invasion of Iraq. “The fundamental problem was group-think,” said Mr. Wilkerson. “The group-think was basically, ‘If you disagree with me on anything, I’ll put you in a footnote.’”
EVEN AFTER ALL OF THE INTRIGUE AND HIGH-STAKES ANGST over the Plame investigation, the much bigger black box concerning the elaborate put-up job on W.M.D. remains largely untouched and unopened. And there’s a sickly sense in Washington that, even if the special prosecutor’s office returns a boatload of indictments, that’s where things will stand. After all, the Senate Intelligence Committee still has yet to deliver its follow-up report on who was chiefly responsible for fouling up the W.M.D. case. The committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, announced last year that the inquiry had been scheduled too uncomfortably close to the November 2004 elections—and hasn’t taken it up since then.
Given that Congress—the strongest body to provide intelligence oversight—clearly brings its own political agenda to the table these days, even if the Senate Intelligence Committee were to reconvene its inquiry, agency watchers aren’t expecting it to meet the standard set by independent investigations such as the 1975 Church Committee hearings.
“The Congress will sit there till hell freezes over listening to people explain the details of the aluminum tubes,” Mr. Powers said. “But the aluminum tubes were never about the administration proving the threat that justified our going to war; they were just the administration’s way of persuading the country of the need for going to war. And the thing is, they know that in Congress. And they know that this means you have to accuse the President of being dishonest—and dishonest in a way that cost the lives of American boys. Congress won’t do that, and the Democrats won’t do that, since they voted—very foolishly—to proceed with the war.”
All these recondite and dismal calculations are poor competition indeed for the much-advertised “moral clarity” of the Cheney retinue of war makers. They deftly sidestepped the adverse intelligence reports, even as they assembled their own appetizing Chinese menu of rationales for invading Iraq. Their creed, said Mr. Wilkerson, is “conform or die.”
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