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Friday, July 29, 2005

Iraq-Niger: Cheney and the Forgery

By now it should be clear that the White House assault on former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife had much less to do with personalities than with the “particular lie” that Wilson exposed. I believe this helps to explain the highly unusual role Vice President Dick Cheney played regarding the forged “intelligence” about Iraq seeking to acquire uranium from Niger—the source of that particular lie.

Our Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) writings provide contemporaneous insight into the major flap that hit the White House two years ago, when it was discovered that the “intelligence” was based on a forgery. It was clear at that time that the first item on the White House list of talking points was: “It wasn’t Dick.”

Plus ça change. Investigative journalist Robert Parry, writing yesterday in consortiumnews.com, has noted that atop the Republican National Committee’s current list of “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements” sits this priority item: “Wilson insisted that the Vice President’s office sent him to Niger.”

This is a deliberate distortion of what Wilson has said, but if we were to address all such distortions we would be here all day. Besides, the RNC would very much like us to focus on the distortions, and our media have allowed themselves to be led by the nose. So let’s leave this one aside for the moment. What strikes me more and more is the rather transparent two-year-old campaign to dissociate Cheney from L’Affaire Iraq-Niger.

On July 14, 2003, the day of Robert Novak’s opening salvo against the Wilsons, VIPS issued a Memorandum for the President (http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0714-01.htm) with two main sections: “The Forgery Flap,” and “The Vice President’s Role.” In that memo, we also made an important recommendation, which may have seemed a bit extreme at the time. But it was already possible to discern what was going on:

We recommend that you call an abrupt halt to attempts to prove Vice President Cheney “not guilty.” His role has been so transparent that such attempts will only erode further your own credibility. Equally pernicious, from our perspective, is the likelihood that intelligence analysts will conclude that the way to success is to acquiesce in the cooking of their judgments, since those above them will not be held accountable. We strongly recommend that you ask for Cheney’s immediate resignation.

Protesting (or Protecting) Too Much

We were all children once. Remember how, when you and your peers got caught in some mischief, the ringleader had to be protected? “Who decided to do this terrible thing?” was often the question. “Not Dick (or Tom or Harry)” was often the instinctive, immediate answer. Remember how, as a parent, that made you really wonder about Dick (or Tom or Harry)?

In our memo of July 14, 2003, we warned President George W. Bush that the Iraq-seeking-uranium-in-Niger forgery was “a microcosm of a mischievous nexus of overarching problems” in his White House. We cited the remarks of then-presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer earlier that week, which set the tone for what has followed—right up to today. When asked about the forgery Fleischer noted—as if drawing on well memorized talking points—that the vice president was not guilty of anything. (The denial was gratuitous; the question asked did not even mention the vice president’s possible role.) And the liturgy of absolution continued on July 11, 2003, when then-director of the CIA, George Tenet, did his awkward best to absolve the vice president of responsibility.

The “Particular Lie” and Forgery

As noted earlier, the main motivation of the White House campaign to discredit the Wilsons had to do with the particular lie that Joseph Wilson exposed and the essential role it played in the administration’s plans. The lie was that Iraq was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons and that, despite Iraq’s inability to deliver such weapons on the U.S., this somehow posed a “grave and gathering” threat. The plans were to use that ominous specter—replete with the “mushroom cloud”—to deceive Congress into approving war on Iraq. The problem was that not even the obsequious George Tenet could come up with evidence that could withstand close scrutiny.

U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence knew that Iraq’s nuclear program had been destroyed after the Gulf War and there was no persuasive evidence that Baghdad was moving to reconstitute it. Even the imagery analysts, whom former CIA director John Deutch gave away to the Pentagon in 1996, could not come up with the evidence needed, despite very strong incentive to please their boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

What a welcome windfall, then, when a deus ex machina suddenly appeared in the form of a report issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency on February 12, 2002. According to the exhaustive report of the Senate intelligence committee on U.S. intelligence performance on Iraq, the DIA report was based on information the CIA had included in a field report a week before from a “[foreign] government service.” Although State Department and other intelligence analysts had earlier labeled such reporting “highly suspect,” the DIA report of February 12, 2002 included no judgments regarding credibility.

Cheney Highly Interested

Oddly, the DIA report was flagged for Vice President Cheney. Why “oddly?” Because in more than two years of briefing then-Vice President George H. W. Bush every other morning, not once did he ask a question about a DIA report or even indicate that he had read one. That this particular report was given to Cheny almost certainly reflects the widespread practice of “cherry picking” intelligence—a practice honed to a fine art by the current administration—and suggests perhaps even more. It seems to me a safe bet that the DIA report was prepared in a response to a request from the vice president’s office to come up with something on the subject that could be shown to the president—something not burdened by caveats regarding source and content from troublesome substantive experts.

Vice President Cheney immediately expressed interest in the report. According to the Senate intelligence committee, he asked his CIA morning briefer for CIA’s analysis of the issue. And this, of course, is what set in motion CIA’s hurried request of Joe Wilson that he go back to Niger to pursue the matter. When you receive a direct request from the vice president you leave no stone unturned.

The Senate intelligence committee report includes this portion of the CIA immediate response to Cheney’s expression of interest:

“Information on the alleged uranium contract between Iraq and Niger comes exclusively from a foreign government service report that lacks crucial details, and we are working to clarify the information and to determine whether it can be corroborated...Some of the information in the report contradicts reporting from the U.S. embassy in Niamey [Niger]. U.S. diplomats say the French government-led consortium that operates Niger’s two uranium mines maintains complete control over uranium mining and yellowcake production.”

When the vice president of the United States expresses interest so keen that that an immediate interim response is deemed necessary, it is certain that the CIA will place considerable priority on reporting back to the vice president the results of its follow-up efforts—the more so, since in its initial response, the it said it was “working to clarify the information and determine whether it can be corroborated.” Thus, the pretense by administration officials that the vice president was never briefed on the results of former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s inquiries in Niamey stretches credulity well beyond the breaking point.

Moreover, according to the Senate report, in bending over backwards to oblige the vice president, the agency sent a separate message to him naming the “foreign government service.” This raises the question as to why Cheney would be interested in such detail, since such is not normally provided absent a specific request. In any case, it is clear that Dick Cheney knows more about the forgery’s provenance than the rest of us do.

Made to Order

The information—dubious or no—that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger was made to order (perhaps literally, as I suggest below). Since Iraq had no other use for uranium, a closely coordinated White House-10 Downing Street spin machine went into high gear, playing up the report as proof that Baghdad was reconstituting its nuclear weapons development program. The intelligence analysts had to hold their noses—not only because of the dubious sourcing but because the substance of the report made little sense in view of the super-strict monitoring of uranium exports from Niger by the French-led consortium. To substantive analysts the report was spurious on its face; only later were they to learn that it was based on a crude forgery.

Provenance and likelihood be damned. The White House now had a “report” that could be used effectively with Congress and our incredibly credulous press. Tenet could be counted on to keep his nose-holding professionals out of sight. And the nature of the source, which, according to the “[foreign] government service,” included the “verbatim text” of the Iraq-Niger agreement on uranium, could be kept from experts like those at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until after the vote in Congress and after the juggernaut for war could not be stopped. The Iraq-seeking-uranium-from-Africa canard assumed such prominent importance in the administration’s case for war that, even when it was forced to admit that a forgery was involved, the story simply could not be dropped altogether—either in Washington or in London. Both governments proceeded to blow still more smoke on the affair, claiming that London had the story from other sources as well.

Thus, none of us in VIPS were in the least surprised to learn recently of the line taken by Karl Rove with Time reporter Matthew Cooper on July 11, 2003. In an email that Cooper sent his bosses at Time, Cooper said Rove insisted that Wilson’s findings on Iraq-Niger were flawed. According to Cooper, Rove “implied strongly there’s still plenty to implicate Iraqi interest in acquiring uranium from Niger.” That was false. Neither British nor U.S. intelligence has come up with anything throwing the slightest doubt on Wilson’s conclusion that the whole thing was bogus.

Who Did It?

Who authored the forgery remains a mystery—but one that the Republican-controlled Congress has avoided trying to solve, even though many legislators expressed outrage at having been snookered into voting for war. Senate intelligence committee chair Pat Roberts, a devout White House loyalist, has demonstrated a curious lack of curiosity. And nothing that ranking minority member Jay Rockefeller did could persuade Roberts to ask the FBI to investigate.

So those searching for answers are reduced to asking the obvious: Cui bono? Who stood to benefit from such a forgery? A no-brainer—those lusting for war on Iraq. And who might they be? Look up the “neo-conservative” writings on the website of the Project for the New American Century. There you will find information on people like Michael Ledeen, “Freedom Analyst” at the American Enterprise Institute and a key strategist among “neoconservative” hawks in and out of the Bush administration. Applauding the invasion of Iraq, Ledeen asserted—with equal enthusiasm—that the war could not be contained, and that “it may turn out to be a war to remake the world.”

Beyond his geopolitical punditry, Ledeen’s curriculum vitae shows he is no stranger to rogue operations. A longtime Washington operative, he was fired as a “consultant” for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan for running fool’s errands for Oliver North during the Iran-Contra subterfuge. One of Ledeen’s Iran-Contra partners in crime, so to speak, was Elliot Abrams, who was convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra. Abrams was pardoned before jail time, however, by George H. W. Bush, and he is now George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. Ledeen is said to enjoy easy entrée to the office of the vice president and the Pentagon, as well as to his friend Abrams.

Made in the U.S.A?

During a radio interview with Ian Masters on April 3, 2005, former CIA operative Vincent Cannistraro charged that the Iraq-Niger documents were forged in the United States. Drawing on earlier speculation regarding who forged the documents, Masters asked, “If I were to say the name Michael Ledeen to you, what would you say?” Cannistraro replied, “You’re very close.”

Ledeen has denied having anything to do with the forgery. Yet the company he keeps with other prominent Iran-Contra convictees/pardonees/intelligence contractors suggests otherwise. Besides, Ledeen has had a longstanding association with the Italian intelligence service, which, according to most accounts, played an important role in disseminating the forged documents. Could Italian intelligence be the “[foreign] government service” mentioned repeatedly in the Senate intelligence committee report?

If Ledeen and associates were involved, this might also help explain the amateurishness of the forged “verbatim texts.” These covert action veterans would have sorely missed the institutional expertise formerly at their beck and call.

The Cover-up: the Best Defense Is.....

It is a safe bet that Joseph Wilson suspected this kind of skullduggery. He nevertheless played it straight. After hearing the bogus Iraq-Niger story repeated in the president’s January 28, 2003 state-of-the-union address and ascertaining that it was based primarily on the original report, Wilson began to approach administration officials suggesting that they retract the story or he would in conscience be compelled to make public what had happened. He was told, in effect, Go ahead; who will believe you? So he did.

Astonishingly, the administration and our domesticated “mainstream” press have succeeded to a large extent in making Wilson’s credibility the issue—witness, for example, last week’s frontal assault by fast-talking, no-holds-barred Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

Joseph Wilson had been around long enough to know what to expect. Moreover, the White House apparently made it very clear that they would make him pay if he went public. Three weeks before The New York Times published Wilson’s op-ed “What I Did Not Find in Africa,” he and I shared keynoting duties at a conference on Iraq. It was the first time I met Wilson. He told me then that he was about to publish. I remember him adding, with considerable emphasis, “They are going to come after me big-time. I don’t know exactly how, but they are going to do it.” Well, now we know how; and why.

Last week it became clear that Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was as active as Karl Rove in doing the job on the Wilsons. Surprise, surprise.

We ended our July 14 Memorandum for the President from VIPS with this reminder:

This was no case of petty corruption of the kind that forced Vice President Spiro Agnew to resign. This was a matter of war and peace. Thousands have died. There is no end in sight.

And that was two years ago.
Ray McGovern
Submitted by davidswanson on Mon, 2005-07-25 13:42. Evidence
Ray McGovern works at Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He had a 27-year career as an analyst at CIA and is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

An earlier version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com


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