Criminal trials – especially relating to national security scandals – are an imperfect way of learning the larger truth. As with the four-count conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the charges are often structured narrowly to avoid long battles over classified secrets or inherent presidential powers.
But even limited trials can offer important glimpses into the inner workings of an administration, especially one as secretive as George W. Bush’s. Though Libby was convicted only on perjury and obstruction charges, there should be little doubt what the full picture looks like.
If the panorama could be viewed all at once, the American people would see an administration that, in summer 2003, felt it could pretty much do whatever it wanted to anyone. Bush's inner circle validated every cliche about the arrogance of power, particularly the old saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely.
In the modern media context, defending that omnipotence meant coming up with demeaning comments about critics who dared to speak out. The goal was to generate talking points that could be given to the administration’s many friends in Congress or at right-wing and mainstream news outlets.
Dirtying up one’s opponents was the name of the game, just like during political campaigns. “Controversialize” your enemies so the public won’t take them seriously. Turn them into laughingstocks. Make them look self-interested and maybe crazy.
But in summer 2003, the administration took its intimidating strategy a bit too far, exposing the identity of a covert CIA officer and it then had to conduct a cover-up.
It wasn’t obvious at the time but President Bush and his administration were at a crossroads. Though Bush still basked in the glory of a victorious invasion of Iraq, the failure of the U.S. military to find weapons of mass destruction was eroding Bush’s case for war and fraying nerves inside the White House.
The unlikely historical figure who would push the administration off in a more dangerous direction was a dapper former U.S. ambassador named Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had served in U.S. embassies in Africa and had been chargé d’affaire in Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
In summer 2003, however, Wilson’s account of his unpublicized mission more than a year earlier on behalf of the CIA to Niger would put him on a collision course with the Bush administration at the height of its power.
Wilson’s strange journey from obscure ex-diplomat to a chief target of the Bush administration’s attack machine began in early 2002 after Vice President Dick Cheney expressed interest in a dubious document that had surfaced in Italy purporting to show that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger, presumably for a revived nuclear program.
Given Cheney’s near obsession with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, senior officials in the CIA office known as Winpac – for weapons intelligence, nonproliferation and arms control – took the Vice President’s interest seriously.
As they looked around for someone suitable for a fact-finding trip, one CIA officer in the unit, the stunningly attractive Valerie Plame, noted that her husband’s diplomatic background fit many of the requirements. Wilson had experience in both Iraq and Niger.
Plame’s superiors asked her to pass on a message inviting her husband in for a meeting.
“Apart from being the conduit of a message from a colleague in her office asking if I would be willing to have a conversation about Niger’s uranium industry, Valerie had had nothing to do with this matter,” Wilson later wrote in his memoir, The Politics of Truth. “Though she worked on weapons of mass destruction issues, she was not at the meeting I attended where the subject of Niger’s uranium was discussed, when the possibility of my actually traveling to the country was broached. She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.”
Wilson accepted the unpaid assignment with the CIA agreeing to pay his travel expenses. In February 2002, the ex-ambassador flew to Niger, discussed the Iraq suspicions with business and government officials, and returned with a conclusion that the allegations appeared to be false.
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