By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2005 11:59 AM
Did administration officials willfully ignore and circumvent the established intelligence apparatus and embrace only what they wanted to hear to make the case for war in Iraq? And, if so, how far up the chain does responsibility go? And did those officials seek to punish--not just refute--those who challenged them, as Joe Wilson, the husband of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, has suggested?
New reporting and the recent condemnation of the vice president's and defense secretary's handling of the pre-war intelligence raise questions about how the administration may have manipulated information to convince the American public of the need to go to war. While it remains unclear whether the administration deliberately misled the nation, the slow drip of reports demands a congressional inquiry.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has blamed the U.S. intelligence community for assembling "deeply flawed" evidence about Hussein's weapons capabilities and threat. Democrats allege the committee has done nothing to pursue the second phase of the report, which was to be an examination of the administration's role in making the case for war.
Invoking a rare parliamentary procedure this week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) forced the Senate into a closed session to pressure Senate Republicans to follow through on that promise. Republicans agreed to form a six-senator, bipartisan task force that will report by Nov. 14 on "the intelligence committee's progress of the phase two review of the prewar intelligence and its schedule for completion."
Much of the media coverage in Washington this week centered on whether Senate Democrats are motivated by a search for the truth or are just grandstanding. The opposition certainly sees an opportunity to exploit a weakening of the majority. But whatever the case, the need to fully understand how the case for war came to be made on a legion of inaccurate claims is the main issue -- not who makes the most long-term political gains.
In this month's edition of Pat Buchanan's "American Conservative" magazine , Philip Giraldi , a former CIA officer, suggests that the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name is part of a much larger scandal involving how the administration pitched the war and punished its critics.
"From the beginning, there has been little doubt in the intelligence community that the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame was part of a bigger story," Giraldi wrote. "That she was exposed in an attempt to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, is clear, but the drive to demonize Wilson cannot reasonably be attributed only to revenge. Rather, her identification likely grew out of an attempt to cover up the forging of documents alleging that Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger."
Giraldi's article follows a startling series of reports from the left-leaning Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The newspaper has asserted that Italian intelligence officials loyal to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi conspired to take advantage of the White House's eagerness to make the case of for war in Iraq.
According to La Repubblica, Italian intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari met with then deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley on Sept. 9, 2002, and passed along documents--that turned out to have been forged--about Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium in Niger.
In their eagerness to make the case for war, administration critics say that top White House officials circumvented the normal intelligence checks and balances and funneled the information through the Defense Department's Office of Special Plans, which had been set up by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to develop alternative sources of intelligence.
In his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union speech, Bush referenced the British government as the source of the Niger uranium claim. The reference was included in the speech, despite the fact that U.S. intelligence had warned administration officials that the information was unreliable. It turns out the British received the same flawed documents that the Italian had peddled to the White House.
The United Nations's International Atomic Energy Agency later declared the Niger documents to be crude and obvious fakes.
The Office of Special Plans was run by Douglas Feith, a long-time Cheney ally and confidante. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, who was indicted last week on perjury and obstruction of justice charges for his role in the Plame leak case, all played prominent roles in the Project for a New American Century, which was advocating war with Iraq back as early as 1998, when several members of the group signed a letter to President Clinton urging him to attack Iraq.
Later, the PNAC neoconservatives played a central role in advocating the use of ground troops to attack Iraq, either through the Office of Special Plans or the White House Iraq Group, a secretive internal group established to help sell the war.
The American Conservative article also raises questions about the role played by another prominent neoconservative, Michael Ledeen, who was "the Office of Special Plans' man in Rome," and served as a liasion between Hadley and Italian intelligence, according to Giraldi.
[Read The Christian Science Monitor's special project on the neocons here.]
So, while the Libby indictment provides for sexy headlines, what many view as equally troubling is the questions that are still emerging about the facts used in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech.
Bush asserted in that speech, "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The famous 16 words and the address overall, more than anything else, built domestic support for the war. But that assertion and the larger impression that it meant to create--that some American city could go up in a mushroom cloud at the hands of Hussein--was false, as the administration later acknowledged.
A number of factors--from the continued violence in Iraq to the indictment Libby--have combined to keep the subject alive. And Senate leaders are now tasked with completing Phase 2 of the investigation.
This week, the Italian government categorically denied La Repubblica's report that it was responsible for the Niger uranium claim. And U.S. administration officials this week downplayed the Pollari-Hadley meeting, characterizing it as nothing more than an 11-minute courtesy call.
U.S. officials who attended that September 2002 meeting don't recall the issue coming up, Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told the Associated Press this week. "No one who was present at the meeting remembers yellow cake (uranium) being discussed nor any documents being passed."
Questions remain and recollections vary. Still unanswered is whether administration officials deliberately misled the nation to war. Congress should try to answer that question, regardless of which party ultimately benefits.