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In the Wheelbarrow With Libby

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 9, 2007

The White House would like to strip the guilty verdicts against Lewis "Scooter" Libby of any larger meaning. The White House also would like to change the subject.

"I think there has been an attempt to try to use this as a great big wheelbarrow in which to dump a whole series of unrelated issues and say, 'Aha,' " press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday. "And it is what it is; it's a case involving Scooter Libby and his recollections, and we're just not going to comment further on it."

All right, then, dump everything out of the wheelbarrow except one rather weighty question: Did George W. Bush and his Cabinet lead the nation into war on false pretenses? Specifically, did Bush and the others know full well -- or, at a bare minimum, should they have known -- that the rhetoric they used to convince Americans of imminent peril from Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction was based on sketchy, disputed and even fraudulent evidence?

That historical question was the context for Libby's trial. Maybe it's unfair that Libby faces possible prison time as the "fall guy" for others, as one juror called him -- although I would ask those who are calling for a presidential pardon to remind us how they stood on impeaching Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton's lies had to do with sex. Libby's were about the selling of a war.

The back story is that an insider source (former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for those following the dramatis personae) was claiming he had told the administration that one of its most vivid pieces of evidence showing that Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program -- an alleged attempt to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger -- was bogus. Yet the president cited the supposed Niger connection anyway in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

Before we head off down the convoluted path that led to Libby's conviction -- before we get distracted by Valerie Plame, Judy Miller, Tim Russert, Bob Novak, Bob Woodward and the rest of the boldfaced names-- we should note that all the supposed evidence that Iraq had an active nuclear program, or that it had any weapons of mass destruction at all, turned out to be wrong.

The usual retort is that, at the time, "everyone" believed Iraq had WMD -- even Clinton, even the perfidious French. It's true that most observers overestimated Iraq's weapons programs. But accepting some of the WMD intelligence, or even all of it, was not the same as believing that Iraq posed a threat urgent enough to justify an invasion. Iraq was already under the thumb of punishing sanctions and restrictive no-fly zones. No link with al-Qaeda and Sept. 11 existed, except perhaps in Dick Cheney's mind. In terms of any threat to the United States, Saddam Hussein was quite adequately contained.

It's possible that Bush, Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and the others let the shock of the 2001 attacks cloud their judgment -- that they were hypersensitive to any possible menace, that they read more into shaky intelligence reports than was really there. If this is what happened, they committed a grievous error.

It's also possible that Bush and the others saw the facts clearly but recognized an opportunity to do something they had been itching to do all along -- reshape the Middle East, the whole looks-good-on-paper masterstroke that Paul Wolfowitz and the neocons had been trying to sell for years. The administration couldn't persuade Americans to support an elective war by saying, in effect, "Hey, look at this neat article in the Weekly Standard, this is what we want to send your sons and daughters to do." But raising the specter of a nuclear attack would scare everyone into acquiescence, and besides, the whole thing was going to be a cakewalk. Start painting the "Mission Accomplished" signs.

If this indeed happened, what George W. Bush and his aides did should be a crime.

So, back to Libby: He lied about who said what to whom as part of a campaign of leaks and whispers to discredit Wilson -- and thus refute Wilson's contention that the administration had made claims about Iraq that it knew to be false.

Someday we'll know the full story of Iraq -- and also the full story of the kidnappings, the secret CIA-run prisons, the domestic surveillance. Someday we'll know all the secrets of the so-called war on terrorism. History is patient, and it is relentless.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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