Senate Intelligence Chairman Quietly 'Fixed' Intelligence, and Diverted Blame from White House over Iraq
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush issued an order to the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, and his cabinet members that severely curtailed intelligence oversight by restricting classified information to just eight members of Congress.
"The only Members of Congress whom you or your expressly designated officers may brief regarding classified or sensitive law enforcement information," he writes, "are the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, and the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate."
The order is aimed at protecting "military security" and "sensitive law enforcement."But what was said to be an effort to protect the United States became a tool by which the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Pat Roberts (R-KS) ensured there was no serious investigation into how the administration fixed the intelligence that took the United States to war in Iraq or the fabricated documents used as evidence to do so.
Coupled with limited access to intelligence documents, RAW STORY has found that Roberts and a handful of other strategically-placed Washington players stymied all questions into pre-war intelligence on Iraq and post-invasion cover-ups, including the outing of a CIA covert agent, by using targeted leaks and artfully deflecting blame from the White House.
The Senate and House intelligence committees were created in the 1970s after a series of congressional investigations found that the CIA had acted like a "rogue elephant" carrying out illegal covert action abroad.
By the late 1990s, members of the committees and their staffs were seeing more than 2,200 CIA reports and receiving more than 1,200 substantive briefings from agency officials each year to assist them in their role of providing proper oversight.
But the little-reported 2001 Bush directive changed that, ensuring that only two members of each committee received full briefings on intelligence operations, and preventing committee staffs from carrying out meaningful research.
Tom Reynolds, spokesman for the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Jane Harman (D-CA), downplayed the significance of the order, saying members continued to have access. He acknowledged, however, that the "gang of eight" had higher-level clearances.
The spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee deferred comment to the White House; the White House did not return requests for comment.
At the time of the order, Rep. Porter Goss (R-FL) chaired the House Intelligence Committee. His counterpart in the Senate was Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), whom Sen. Roberts replaced in 2003.
Chairman Pat Roberts
In a sense, the pre-invasion of Iraq and the post-invasion intelligence blame game can be seen through the lens of a chess game, with the pieces in place well before any troops set foot on the ground.
Roberts appears to become an extension of the White House in selling the war beginning in January 2003. That month, he is appointed to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, picking up one of the eight coveted clearances.
By the end of the month, Roberts is convinced that Saddam is harboring both al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. Much of what convinces Roberts is a series of briefings organized by then-Deputy National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley. Hadley led a White House team to help sift through CIA intelligence, filtering information for Congressional briefings.
Roberts embraces a larger pro-war role. His voice is joined by Vice President Dick Cheney and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Their calls align with President Bush in his State of the Union address, in which he declares, "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Shortly thereafter, the Administration hits a snag: Documents alleging Iraq’s intention to reconstitute its nuclear program by purchasing uranium from Niger are publicly acknowledged to be forgeries.
Background on the Niger forgeries
The Administration asserts that they didn't hear the documents were forgeries until after the speech.
But the U.S Embassy in Rome has already had the Niger forgeries for three months.
British intelligence say they passed the documents to Vice President Dick Cheney's office in early 2002. The Vice President subsequently makes several visits to the CIA with "questions" about recent Niger to Iraq uranium sales.
The International Atomic Energy Agency questions the Niger claim in December after the National Security Agency issues a fact sheet on Iraq's weapons omissions to the UN Security Council. As NSA deputy, Hadley may have already had the documents as well.
The IAEA, however, is not given the documents until the end of February 2003, a year after the U.S. first acquires them. Once acquired, they determine the documents are fakes within several hours.
John Pike, director of the Washington military watchdog GlobalSecurity.org, says the Administration's line on the Niger documents raises questions.
"The thing that was so embarrassing about the episode was not simply that the documents were forgeries, but that they were clumsy forgeries, as was so quickly determined by the IAEA," he told RAW STORY. "It is one thing to be taken in, but to be so easily taken in, suggested either bewildering incompetence or intentional deception, or possibly both."
Roberts blocks Niger questions
Whether Roberts actually saw the Niger forgeries during Hadley’s briefings is unclear. What is clear is that by March of 2003, the Intelligence chairman was in a position to head off any serious investigation into concerns raised by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the committee's ranking Democrat and vice-chair.
Rockefeller has grave concerns about deceptive intelligence, so serious that he pens a formal letter to FBI director Robert Mueller.
Rockefeller urges Mueller to investigate the Niger forgeries as part of what he feared to be "…a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq," writes the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh.
Roberts declines to sign the Rockefeller letter, seeing the involvement of the FBI as inappropriate. As a result, Rockefeller's letter falls on deaf ears.
On July 11, 2003, faced with public pressure to investigate the Niger forgeries, Roberts blames the CIA and defends the White House.
"Sen. Rockefeller and I are committed to continue our close examination of all of the issues surrounding the Niger documents," the Kansas senator declares. "So far, I am very disturbed by what appears to be extremely sloppy handling of the issue from the outset by the CIA."
More astonishing is that CIA spokesman William Harlow stated that the agency had not obtained the Niger documents until "after the President's State of the Union speech and after the congressional briefings, and therefore had been unable to evaluate them."
Roberts blocks WMD questions
Roberts also figures prominently in warding off bipartisan efforts to investigate WMD in Iraq - the reason given by the Bush administration for going to war.
As pressure heats up, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John Warner (R-VA) says he would support joint hearings with Roberts on "the issue" and that Roberts "had been receptive to the idea."
That sentiment changes, however, after Roberts meets with Senate GOP leadership and Vice President Dick Cheney. The Kansas senator then says talk of hearings is "premature."
Roberts soon announces he will hold a closed-door review of intelligence documentation and the lead-up to war. He begins to spin questions and skeptics of the war as politically motivated.
"I will not allow the committee to be politicized or to be used as an unwitting tool for any political strategist," he says.
Through Leaks and Smears, Senate Chairman Protects White House to Blame CIA, Democrats
Niger forgeries and WMDS- Roberts fingers CIA
As more questions surface on the Administration's lies about WMD and forged Niger documents, Roberts becomes a staunch Bush defender, deflecting pre-war "failures" away from the White House and pinning all blame on the CIA.
On July 11, 2003 - five days after former ambassador Joseph Wilson writes an article for the New York Times challenging the White House claim of Niger uranium sales to Iraq, Roberts issues a statement: "What now concerns me most," he remarks, "is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the President."
Ironically, on the same day that Roberts issues his statement, CIA chief George Tenet takes full responsibility for the uranium claim and its insertion in the State of the Union.
What follows is a bizarre war of departments as the CIA and the White House duke it out. The latter's campaign is abetted by Roberts in the Senate, Goss in the House and Hadley and John Bolton at State.
Three days after the Roberts volley at the CIA and Tenet's apology for the uranium claim in the President's State of the Union, CIA covert asset Valerie Plame Wilson -- wife of Joseph Wilson -- is outed by conservative columnist Robert Novak. The leak seems aimed at both Wilson and his wife, as a part of carefully orchestrated strategy on the part of senior White House officials.
In late September 2003, now-CIA director Porter Goss, acting in his capacity as then chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, concludes that the CIA is to blame for Iraq pre-war intelligence failures.
Like Roberts, Goss is said to be "...under the spell of Vice-President Dick Cheney and that his presence on the joint 9/11 inquiry gave the administration a deal of protection."
The following day, the CIA asks the Department of Justice to investigate the Plame outing.
Fixing the fix: Leaks and blame games
In July 2003, two astonishing political strategies merge: Hadley takes responsibility for the Niger statements -- though CIA Director Tenet has already done so -- and on the same day, Roberts calls Hadley to testify in pre-war intelligence failures.
"We have made an inquiry with the National Security Council, with [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice and asked to meet with Mr. Hadley and any other person that might be of particular interest to us," Roberts says. "So we will be in the business of taking a hard look at that."
Roberts' claims of taking "a hard look" seem to dismiss the working relationship he had with Hadley earlier in the year, when the latter acted as liaison between the CIA and Roberts. Hadley had delivered documents that the CIA allegedly never saw and the NSA had acquired at least a year in advance -- used as evidence of Iraq's WMD program.
What follows is a series of White House salvos, aimed at Senate Democrats, the CIA and policy skeptics, aiming to shift blame away from the Administration. Classified documents and smears become White House tools of choice.
First, blame the CIA
In late October, 2003, Roberts puts together a report evaluating U.S. intelligence failures in the build-up to war. Even though Roberts was aware of the Niger forgeries earlier in the year and knew of the issues surrounding the White House false WMD claims and refused to investigate, the report exonerates the White House and the Senate and again places intelligence failures at the door of the CIA.
Someone then leaks the draft of the report to the Washington Post and Roberts begins to issue statements, at the encouragement of Dick Cheney, calling CIA pre-war intelligence "sloppy."
Rockefeller publicly questions Roberts efforts' in clearing the Administration of wrongdoing.
[Roberts was trying to] "lay all of this out on the intelligence community and never get to any other branches of government; in particular the White House and associated high and visible government agencies," Rockefeller told Knight Ridder.
In January of 2004, after Chief Weapons Inspector David Kay reports that no WMDs were found in Iraq, Democrats and some Republicans begin calling for investigations, again.
Second, blame the Democrats
In the wake of Kay's report Roberts responds to bipartisan calls for an investigation by once again deflecting criticism towards Senate Democrats, who he claims are "politicizing" the Intelligence Committee.
Several months prior, as the questions surrounding the Wilson outing and Iraq pre-war intelligence begin to spill into public discourse, another leak occurs in which Democrats are set up for criticizing the administration..
"Fox News has obtained a document believed to have been written by the Democratic staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee that outlines a strategy for exposing what it calls "the administration's dubious motives" in the lead-up to the war in Iraq."
Roberts expresses his dismay
"I'm pretty despondent right now," he tells Reuters, Â?it's sort of like a personal slap in the face after you have worked over time to come up with what we think is going to be a very good report on how to improve our intelligence capabilities."
The question of who leaked the document remains unanswered.
Finally, blame Wilson and close the books
In July 2004, Roberts and the Senate Intelligence Committee release their long-awaited WMD report which unsurprisingly places all blame on the CIA.. Roberts uses the report as an additional platform on which to further attempt to discredit both Joseph and Valerie Wilson.
Republicans embed Roberts' false assertion that Valerie Wilson sent her husband to Niger in talking points and media fodder. Although both Wilson and the CIA correct the record, Roberts, White House staff and others continue to make the charge.
Roberts pitches the case for closing the book on the lead-up to war.
"I don't think there should be any doubt that we have now heard it all regarding prewar intelligence," he quips. "I think that it would be a monumental waste of time to replow this ground any further."
Now, blame Fitzgerald
With the pre-war intelligence failures firmly put to rest, Roberts shifts his focus to Valerie Wilson's outing, which has been percolating for over a year.
In July of this year, Roberts frames the Plame outing as not really the outing of a covert agent.
"I must say from a common sense standpoint, driving back and forth to work to the CIA headquarters, I don't know if that really qualifies as being, you know, covert," he tells CNN.
But that approach does not poll well. Roberts instead shifts the focus to the investigation and the Republican special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald himself.
According to the Boston Globe, Roberts intends to investigate what "covert protections for CIA agents" are really needed.
All eyes are now on Fitzgerald's probe.
Muriel Kane contributed research to this article.