Nearly five months after President Bush declared the end of “major combat operations in Iraq,” and still without a shred of evidence of nuclear and biological weapons, the administration is now confronting an internecine blame game for the dubious intelligence on WMD. Marking a significant departure from the acquiescent image that the CIA has held in the Bush administration, the CIA has filed a complaint with the Justice Department against senior Bush officials who, by leaking the identity of an agent engaged in covert operations, broke federal laws that protect individuals working for the government in secret. Remarkably, the identified agent, Valerie Plame, is wife to Joseph Wilson, a chief critic of the Bush administration’s irresponsible use of evidence of WMD. Is it merely a coincidence that the administration decided to leak the name of an outspoken critic’s wife?
No chance. The terrorizing tactic was intended to undermine Wilson’s criticism while simultaneously intimidating others who knew about Iraqi intelligence to remain silent — in short, an act more appropriate in Hussein’s Iraq, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, or Khomeini’s Iran (ironically, the very nations targeted by the Bush administration as “evil” for their support of terrorism).
In January’s State of the Union address, President Bush claimed that British intelligence had uncovered an attempt by Iraq to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. A year before the speech was drafted, Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador to Iraq and African National Security policy director under Clinton, was sent to Niger in early 2002 to investigate intelligence reports of Iraq buying enriched uranium from Niger. Wilson found a tightly controlled uranium operation run by a consortium of European, Japanese and African interests, from which it would be impossible for a country like Iraq to buy the materials necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Wilson reported his findings to the CIA and a year later was appalled to hear in Bush’s State of the Union speech the very intelligence he had proved wrong.
Wilson was correct that the charges of an Iraqi purchase of nuclear material were patently false, and in a New York Times editorial, he openly criticized the administration: “We spend billions of dollars on intelligence. But we end up putting something in the State of the Union address, something we got from another intelligence agency, something we cannot independently verify, in an area of Africa where the British have no on-the-ground presence.”
A week after Wilson’s piece was published, two anonymous “senior White House officials” suggested to a reporter that CIA agent Valerie Plame, who had been investigating WMD as an undercover operative prior to her husband’s trip to Niger, had asked her superiors to appoint him to conduct the investigation.
The “senior White House officials” accused the CIA of nepotism in choosing Wilson to investigate the possible Nigerian-Iraqi connection. By exposing Plame’s identity and thus ruining her career, the White House attempted to undermine Wilson’s criticism and to send the message to those who knew (and still know) about the nonexistence of Iraq’s WMD not to speak out — a smart tactic for an administration bent on covering up its ignorance.
Yet those who leaked Plame’s identity failed to take into account federal laws that prohibit the divulging of a covert agent’s identity. In an interview this Monday on MSNBC, Wilson went as far as to suggest that, “at a minimum, [White House Chief of Staff] Karl Rove condoned it.” If those under the president approved a morally questionable and unequivocally illegal information leak, then justice must be served and the guilty punished. And while President Bush may not have been complicit in the leak, the fact that his administration has engaged itself in a blame game will reflect poorly upon him. After all, he is the one who will be on the 2004 ballot, not Karl Rove or the anonymous “senior White House officials.”
What is most remarkable about all of this is that the CIA has shed its submissive lap-dog image and is now turning on the Bush administration to take shelter from the unavoidable political fallout from the war in Iraq. Whatever happened to the repentant George Tenet who, in front of Congress, took the fall for the State of the Union debacle? The same issue has resurfaced and Tenet doesn’t appear to be taking the blame now. Had the CIA director not wanted his agency to file a complaint against the press leak, he undoubtedly could have stopped it. Only time will tell if it was a blunder that will cost Tenet his job or a shrewd tactical move to distance the CIA from an administration fast losing credit with the public.
It is to be expected that Bush’s political opponents would criticize the administration’s policies, but the CIA? President Bush’s current approval ratings show that he has already suffered from his opponents’ sharp criticism, but now that blame is surfacing internally, Bush will have an even longer, more difficult road ahead of him in convincing the American people that invading Iraq to destroy Saddam’s nuclear and biological arsenal was a valid justification for going to war.
Dissonant voices within the Bush administration are seeking to blame anybody but themselves, and as the presidential campaign begins, the mudslinging and denial of responsibility will grow even more acute as election time approaches and the opinion of the American people is rendered. The war in Iraq was successful in removing a murderous tyrant from power, and may even prove to be a victory for democracy and lead the way for a stable Middle East in the future, but ultimately Bush’s reason for war rested on the case for WMD. Both Congress and the vast majority of Americans like myself approved the war in Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a direct threat to national security — a case which has yet to be proven, and likely one that never will. The Bush administration’s inability to explain the missing WMD and its tactics of intimidating and silencing critics are evidence of only one thing: the Bush administration has never been truthful to the American public.
Keith Urbahn is a sophomore in Saybrook College.