Patching Things Up

The press gets a second chance on the CIA leak case

The foundations of the Bush White House, now revealed as never before by the desperation and foolishness of the CIA leak and its cover-up, had always been built and regularly shored up with the shaky materials of imagery and carnival barker salesmanship. Now, as its mirrors and magic tricks are exposed one by one, its flailing propaganda machine tries to sell the press and public the line that the criminal charges are piddling and should not be taken seriously. The charges are very serious—because they grow out of a bloody war we are suffering through that was not necessary.

The core of the CIA leak case is the Iraq war. As the press goes about unraveling it, none of us should lose sight of whence it sprung. The war is why the case is important.

The special prosecutor must proceed, appropriately, to deal with the crimes he has cited so far in the case—perjury, obstruction, false witness. But the press has a different job ahead: to probe deeper into and explain how these charged felonies were the direct offspring of the Bush administration's attempt to cover up falsehoods and distortions it told the American public and Congress to scare them into supporting the war. The press's obligation to the public now is to aggressively revisit and brush the cobwebs from those lies, while people are paying better attention than they did during President Bush's selling of the war.

Some in the press didn't confront the lies the first time around. Some were—let's be honest—afraid to take on the White House, unwilling to assume the adversary position. But others did their jobs. When one goes back for a dig into the original coverage, yes, there are too many weed fields of reportorial stenography, but there are also strong examples of solid journalism bearing ample, detailed evidence that the White House was hoodwinking the public.

Take the particular falsehood that I. Lewis Libby, the first to be indicted by the special prosecutor, was trying to keep alive: that Iraq had recently signed a deal with Niger for 500 tons of uranium yellowcake, a crude form of the ore that must go through a long series of scientifically complex reductions and conversions before a small amount of bomb material can be extracted.

Actually, the "deal" yarn had been exposed as flimsy many months before Libby and others began propping it up with more lies in the summer of 2003. All the evidence was on the record—but I don't recall any significant coverage at the time. The fact is, Iraq already had a huge stockpile of yellowcake, 500 tons—which it couldn't use because it didn't have the needed tools and machines to carry out the intricate extraction process. Further, this yellowcake had been put under seal and stored away by U.N. inspectors after the 1991 Gulf war. It was still there, under seal, when the U.N. teams made their last pre-war visit to Iraq—from November 27, 2002, to March 17, 2003—before clearing out just prior to the American invasion. And it is reportedly still there, intact, under the U.S. occupation.

So why would Iraq have been pursuing more of the same material that it had no way of turning into a bomb? And even if the pursuit were true, why would this additional yellowcake be a serious enough reason to go to war? And why, knowing all this and knowing of other doubts in the intelligence community about the authenticity of the Niger tale, did the Bush administration send its cabinet ministers into closed-door committee rooms in the fall of 2002 to feed Congress the uranium story and other exaggerated scenarios about Iraqi chemical and biological weaponry? And why, in the summer of 2003, were they telling more lies and starting a whisper campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson, whom the CIA had sent to Niger to investigate and who found no evidence for the Niger tale and its accompanying questionable documents and who ended up that summer writing an op-ed piece in The New York Times to contradict the phony uranium story that the White House was still peddling?

The answer to the last question, I would think, is that the White House was worried that if the public were to hear and accept a candid account of this so-called "grave and gathering threat" to America's national security, popular support for the war would vanish—and the moment would then be lost for carrying out the neoconservatives' vision of U.S. hegemony across the globe, via military strength.

Back to the evidence record: In October 2002, five months before the war would begin, the CIA was asked to vet a speech that the president was about to deliver in Cincinnati. The speech contained the line, "and the [Saddam Hussein] regime has been caught attempting to purchase up to 500 metric tons of uranium oxide from Africa—an essential ingredient in the enrichment process." The CIA asked the White House to "remove the sentence because the amount is in dispute and it is debatable whether it can be acquired from the source. We told Congress that the Brits have exaggerated this issue. Finally, the Iraqis already have 550 metric tons of uranium oxide [yellowcake] in their inventory."

The White House tweaked the speech and sent it back. The sentence was still there. The only thing removed was the uranium's tonnage. So the CIA pressed its case again, and the sentence was dropped from the draft of the speech. But just to make sure it would stay dropped, the agency sent yet another message to the White House. This one repeated the earlier points, stressing that "the Africa story is overblown" and adding: "The evidence is weak. One of the two mines cited . . . as the location of the uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine . . . is under the control of the French authorities." The president delivered the speech on October 7—minus the uranium sentence.

Yet nearly four months later, on January 28, 2003, Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address, and to defend his war plans, he told the uranium story again, in what are now his infamous "16 words": "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Another five months passed before the issue rose to the surface again, when Wilson's Times op-ed piece ran on July 6, 2003, challenging the White House assertions about Iraq's seeking uranium in Africa. The press soon pointed back to Bush's State of the Union speech. The White House tried to defend the 16 words, but the differing stories from Bush officials wobbled and swerved all over the place. Bush himself said that the CIA hadn't made its doubts known about the yellowcake story until after his speech—which obviously wasn't true, given the earlier ruckus over the speech in Cincinnati.

And the record also shows that the U.N.'s nuclear inspection arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, had reported in March 2003 that the documents involved in the Niger story had been unmasked as forgeries. That story didn't draw much attention, nor did an IAEA official report a month later that said: "Based on its analysis, the IAEA concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents were in fact forged documents. The IAEA therefore concluded that these specific allegations were unfounded."

This was the evidence the White House gang brushed aside as they waged their smear campaign against Wilson and outed his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, as a CIA undercover agent.

And this was the evidence that Libby, a key Bush-Cheney insider, sought to turn reporters away from as he joined in the smear campaign. Eventually he also apparently spun yarns to the prosecutor's grand jury investigating the leak of Plame's identity, for he now faces trial for obstructing justice and other felonies. Others in the gang may follow.

Their worst act, not listed in the penal code, was to betray the public. At his press conference last week, the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, said: "You're asking, do these charges vindicate a serious breach of the public trust? Absolutely."

And as for those reporters back in 2003 who took stenography from the storytellers and failed to examine the contrary evidence that was on the record, they too betrayed the public trust.

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