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Why Cheney Lost It When Joe Wilson Spoke Out

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Testimony at the Libby trial showed a vice president obsessed with retaliating against former ambassador Joseph Wilson for writing, in the New York Times op-ed section on July 6, 2003, that intelligence had been "twisted" to justify attacking Iraq. How to explain why the normally stoic, phlegmatic Cheney went off the deep end?

Vice President Dick Cheney can be forgiven for feeling provoked. The Times, having been led by Cheney and others down a garden path littered with weapons of mass destruction that were not really there, did some retaliation of its own with the snide title it gave Wilson's op-ed: "What I Did Not Find in Africa." Adding insult to injury, Wilson chose to tell Washington Post reporters, also on July 6, in language that rarely escapes an ambassador's lips, the bogus report regarding Iraq obtaining uranium from Niger "begs the question regarding what else they are lying about." That threw down the gauntlet, and Cheney had to worry that others who knew about the lies might feel it safe to go to the press and spill the beans. Retaliation had to be swift and as unambiguous as possible.

Having successfully browbeat then-CIA director George Tenet and other malleable managers of intelligence into doing his bidding, Cheney immediately tried to get the CIA to support the cockamamie story about Iraq getting uranium from Niger. He was no doubt surprised to be stiff-armed by Tenet, who had been warning senior officials about that bogus report for almost ten months. On July 7, the administration publicly conceded that the Iraq-Niger fable should not have been included in the State of the Union address.

On July 8, Cheney mounted his counteroffensive. Libby was sent to Bush administration darling Judith Miller of the New York Times to prove Wilson's charges wrong: the White House did not "twist" intelligence; the CIA made us do it. To prove that, Libby was given permission to release a passage buried on page 24 of the 90-page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 1, 2002, claiming that Iraq was "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."

Cheney intended this revelation to hoist Tenet on his own petard. Under great pressure from Cheney, Tenet and his timorous team had acquiesced in allowing the Iraq-Niger fable into the NIE Tenet signed on October 1. It had already become the centerpiece of the administration's cynical but successful effort to get Congressional approval, culminating in the October 10/11 vote for war.

In the midst of all this, Tenet was successful in getting the Iraq-Niger story out of President George W. Bush's key speech on Iraq on October 7. Yes, you read that right. Tenet signed the NIE on October 1, and a few days later successfully insisted that this dubious intelligence be taken out of the president's speech on October 7.

This piece of "intelligence" smelled so bad that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who threw everything but the kitchen sink into his (in)famous UN speech of February 5, 2003, deemed it below his very low threshold. A month later, the International Atomic Energy Agency director, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the UN Security Council that the documents upon which the story was based were "obvious" fakes-forgeries.

Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, rebuffed an urgent appeal from ranking member Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) to have the FBI investigate the forgery. Cheney told him not to, and so Roberts said that would be "inappropriate." Which raises the question, whom are they trying to protect? I don't think either Dick or Lynne Cheney has a cottage industry of forgery preparation, but they are in close touch with those who do. I continue to believe Cheney and Libby were the intellectual authors of that incredibly clumsy operation.

There was plenty else to enrage Dick Cheney. It is a safe bet that he went bananas when he learned that Joe Wilson's wife was a CIA officer - and working on the issue of highest priority, how to prevent countries like Iraq and Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

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Cheney smelled a rat. It was easy to jump to the conclusion that Valerie Plame and her knowledgeable colleagues would have seen right through the Iraq-Niger report. The embassy in Niger had poured cold water on it, and a very senior US Army general, who had journeyed to Niger, came to the and four-star Marine General Carlton Fulford, who visited Niger and spoke with Niger's president and foreign minister on Feb. 24, 2002, came to the same conclusion. So here was Plame, and by extension her CIA colleagues, preparing to administer the coup de grace. The CIA would send a person with deep substantive expertise on the subject and also very good contacts in Niger (from previous service in Niger and other African countries, not to mention Baghdad).

Already, there was no love lost between Cheney and the CIA. And vice versa, Cheney having destroyed the agency's reputation for objective analysis by insisting on the creation of a fraudulent NIE to get Congress to approve an unnecessary war. The CIA could not very well say, well, Cheney made us do it. Cheney, on the other hand, was free to say, well, the CIA misled us badly - and did say that.

Cheney would have seen the daggers out for him, with the Plame/Wilson team commissioned to administer the coup de grace. For who was in better position to know how spurious the Iraq-Niger report was than the woman professional leading the clandestine effort to collect intelligence on precisely that subject? The agency, Cheney must have thought, was out to knock down his favorite report, the premium "evidence" that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, for what it was - a fraud.

The Worst of Times

Wilson's op-ed of July 6 could not have come at a worse time for the White House. Barely four months into invasion of Iraq, the "justifications" had already evaporated.

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CIA analysts were still insisting, correctly, that there were no meaningful ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, despite Tenet's acquiescence to Powell's request that Tenet sit behind him on camera as Powell wove his web of half- and un-truths at the UN. (Watching Tenet sit impassively as Powell spoke of a "sinister nexus" between al-Qaeda and Iraq was a tremendous blow to the morale of the courageous analysts who had resisted that particular recipe for cooking intelligence. As for their colleagues working on WMD, most of them had long since been pressured to cave in to Cheney's pressure during the dozen visits he made to CIA headquarters and were not as incensed.)

No trace had been found of weapons of mass destruction. In some quarters (even in the corporate press) the casus belli had morphed into a casus bellylaughi. Reports in Fox News that Saddam had somehow transported his WMD to Syria undetected (or maybe buried them in the desert) elicited widespread ridicule. Constant reminders of how difficult it is to find something in such a large country as Iraq - "the size of California" - were wearing thin. The attempt to associate uranium enrichment with the (in)famous aluminum tubes had, well, gone down the tubes. And the "mobile biological weapons laboratories," initially applauded by the president himself as proof the administration had found the WMD, turned out to be balloon-making machines for artillery practice, as the Iraqis had said. It was getting very embarrassing.

So this new challenge from Joe Wilson and his obnoxiously expert wife made for a very bad hair day. Cheney readily saw it as payback by honest CIA professionals for all the crass arm-twisting they had experienced at the hands of Cheney and kemosabe Libby. It is not hard to put oneself in Cheney's frame of mind as he witnessed the gathering storm.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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