Six weeks ago, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said publicly that the pre-war speech he gave to the United Nations in early 2003 claiming vast evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be nonexistent was a “painful” and lasting “blot” on his career.
Though his language of regret was bitterly potent, and it was Powell’s first in-depth interview since leaving office in January, the nation’s press gave it subdued play, far from the front page, and let it die after one day’s run.
“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he told ABC’s Barbara Walters, “and it will always be part of my record. It was painful. It is painful now.”
Powell blamed the detailed misinformation he spread before the U.N.—about stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear weapons program—on “some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me.”
His U.N. speech, delivered on February 5, 2003, less than two months before the U.S. invasion, did not sway the U.N. to support the war, but it did raise support for it with the American public.
I’m not pointing at this story to berate the press for underplaying it. Lots of newsworthy events don’t get their due on a regular basis. Column space and airtime are not infinite, and choices have to be made. Important as journalism is, it’s hardly infallible. Also, in assessing the weight of this story, Powell’s remarks could be seen as self-serving.
No, I brought it up because it seemed to link directly to another story—the Plamegate investigation—that definitely is getting a lot of attention. On that story’s surface, a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, is trying to establish whether senior White House officials, and maybe others, broke the law in leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, who worked in the field of weapons of mass destruction. The apparent purpose of the leak was to punish and discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa. In 2002, the CIA was pressed by Dick Cheney’s office for information on a story that Iraq had bought from Niger, or sought to buy, a large amount of uranium yellowcake, used in making nuclear bombs. Wilson’s wife recommended her husband for the assignment because of his Africa contacts, and the CIA sent him.
Wilson came back and reported he had found nothing to bear out the story. The documents supporting it seemed inauthentic. (Later it was established that they were actually forgeries. It was a hoax.) But the Bush administration brushed aside Wilson’s findings and began presenting the story as authentic to Congress’s key intelligence committees to rally votes for the war. Colin Powell, apparently not told the Niger intelligence was bogus, was one of the presenters. Bush got his congressional war vote in early March. The invasion began on March 20, 2003, with a softening-up bombing campaign named “Shock and Awe.”
Joseph Wilson, frustrated that his findings had been trashed, finally went public with an op-ed piece for The New York Times on July 6, 2003, laying out his information and accusing the administration of “twisting” intelligence to justify the war. With this, the White House’s Plamegate smear campaign—which seems to have begun months earlier out of the office of Cheney, the administration’s leading hawk—apparently revved into high gear.
The day after Wilson’s Times piece appeared, the White House retracted its Niger story. It was the first admission of falsehood or distortion in its case for the war. Actually, Cheney, in public appearances, still insists occasionally that the administration’s original claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were based on solid intelligence and will eventually turn out to be true. The war is more than two-and-a-half years old, and still no WMDs have been discovered.
The president has yet to admit he told massive untruths about WMDs and the Iraqi threat in his State of the Union address in late January 2003, just before U.S. forces went into battle. He even included the bogus Niger uranium story. Powell, in his U.N. speech some days later, excised the Niger story but left in all the other claims about WMDs.
How does all this dovetail with Patrick Fitzgerald’s Plamegate investigation? Let us count the ways. All the participants and the subject matter connect to the false claims about WMDs.
Karl Rove, the president’s chief aide, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff—both of whom were key packagers and sellers of the war—have been called in several times to testify before the prosecutor’s grand jury. Journalists with whom those two men discussed Joseph and Valerie Wilson have also been called in. Columnist Robert Novak, a political conservative and hawk who was the first to reveal the name and CIA-operative status of Valerie Plame, has also had contact with the prosecutor, but to date, he refuses to reveal anything about his case. Judith Miller of the Times refused to cooperate and spent 85 days in jail for civil contempt, which was vacated when she worked out a deal with Fitzgerald to testify and turn over notes. Her source was Cheney’s man, Libby. (Both before and during the war, Miller wrote stories about WMDs that generally supported the White House case for war.) Bush and Cheney were questioned by Fitzgerald himself, in their offices.
Although the grand jury’s term expires on October 28, Fitzgerald could extend it if he needs more time to finish up and possibly prepare indictments. The current speculation—and that’s all there is, since the prosecutor has been extraordinarily tight-lipped—is that he will finish on time.
Under the surface of this case, there has been a good deal of debate by commentators and columnists over whether the investigation has made a proverbial mountain out of a molehill.
Those who subscribe to the molehill theory contend that the press and senior Washington officials exchange tittle-tattle and trash talk all the time as mutual users of each other, pursuing their very different jobs. This molehill crowd points out that classified information is also frequently discussed, since much that is marked secret in Washington is merely embarrassing and has nothing to do with intelligence or national security.
But the mountain crowd says that since the leaked information is a direct outgrowth of all the untruths the Bush administration told to scare and con the public into supporting the war, then, at heart if not legally, the case is really about abuse of power by the executive branch.
This debate is for coffee shops. What I find fascinating is that we’re about to learn what happens when you bamboozle the public with empty words and false image—instead of trusting them with the truth, or something close to it. So then it becomes a game wrapped in a hoax—and the only goal is to get elected, not do what’s good for the country.
And with a war, lots of people die. There’s got to be some penalty for “leaders” who play that game—perhaps something more than a permanent blot on their record.