THE NEWS that Vice President Dick Cheneys chief of staff was the second possible source in the leaking of the identity of a CIA agent to Time magazine elevates the scandal to a whole new level. It is bad enough for Karl Rove to be accused of being a leaker, since he is President Bushs chief political strategist.
But if Times story holds, I. Lewis Libbys involvement represents an even more insidious abuse of power. The Bush administration is being accused of leaking the name of Valerie Plame in retribution for a New York Times op-ed article written by her husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson. Wilson wrote that he never found any evidence in a 2002 trip to Africa, contrary to claims made by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address, that Saddam Hussein was procuring uranium from Niger for nuclear weapons.
Bush would invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that were never found. But Libby, Cheney, and the other influential right-wing hard-liners, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, saw their dreams come true. Back in the administration of the senior President Bush, Cheney was defense secretary and Libby and Wolfowitz were two of his aides who, after the first Gulf War left Saddam in power, drafted a document advocating preemptive war against possible threats.
They said the United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated.
Such provocation was kept at bay when President Clinton beat Bush in 1992 and took office for eight years. But when the junior Bush became president in 2000, the hard right on foreign policy took the helm. They used the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 as an excuse for invading Iraq, even though President Bushs own 9/11 Commission found no tie between Saddam and 9/11.
Libby was in the thick of whipping up fear over the thinnest of evidence. The level to which Libby and Cheney stooped to get their war was highlighted by the momentous presentation of Saddams threat before the United Nations Security Council by then Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell gave a presentation six weeks before the war where he said, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. Those assertions resulted in grudging acceptance of the war from many Democrats.
Virtually all of Powells solid sources fell apart when the United States turned Iraq upside down, killing thousands of Iraqi civilians in the process. He would have looked much worse had he listened to everything Libby and Cheney tried to feed him. It was Cheneys staff who wrote the first draft of Powells UN speech. It was Libby who suggested, in strategy meetings at the White House, playing up every possible, conceivable threat of Saddam with the emphasis on the word conceive.
A US News and World Report story in the summer of 2003 quoted a senior administration official as saying Libbys presentation was over the top and ran the gamut from Al Qaeda to human rights to weapons of mass destruction. They were unsubstantiated assertions, in my view.
Powell, according to both US News and Vanity Fair, was so irritated by Libbys hodgepodge of unsubstantiated facts that he threw documents into the air and said, Im not reading this. This is bull ...
Libby, whose nickname is Scooter, was particularly unhappy that Powell had thrown out sections of the presentation that would have attempted to link Al Qaeda to Saddam, including a discredited report that top 9/11 Al Qaeda airline hijacker Mohamed Atta had a meeting with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. According to Vanity Fair, Cheneys office made one last ditch effort to persuade Powell to link Saddam and Al Qaeda and to slip the Prague story back into the speech. Only moments before Powell began speaking, Scooter Libby tried unsuccessfully to reach [Larry] Wilkerson by phone. Powells staff chief, by then inside the Security Council chamber, declined to take the call. Scooter, said one State Department aide, wasnt happy.
According to Vanity Fair, Cheney himself urged Powell to go ahead and stake his national popularity on the nonexistent evidence by saying to Powell, Your poll numbers are in the 70s. You can afford to lose a few points.
America and Iraq would go on to lose more than a few points. Libby may end up as a symbol of a government so driven to ignore the truth it was willing to resort to dirty tricks to stop anyone from telling it.
Derrick Z. Jacksons e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.