A clear pattern of deception
April 12, 2006
If we are to believe White House spokesman Scott McClellan, President Bush authorized the disclosure of selected classified intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs to certain reporters because "it was in the public interest."
But when the president made this decision in the summer of 2003, his immediate goals apparently were to punish former ambassador Joseph Wilson for revealing that the White House had ginned up the case for war and to once again misinform the public about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. These two goals were to serve the ultimate objective: concealing how the administration had misused prewar intelligence to sell Americans on an invasion of Iraq.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, said in a court filing last week that there was "a plan to discredit, punish or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson," who had the temerity to say publicly that the administration had misled the nation about Iraq's efforts to obtain weapons-grade uranium.
Part of the plan seems to have involved outing Wilson's wife, who was a CIA agent. But another part entailed what had become a tried-and-true method for this administration: feeding distorted intelligence to gullible reporters so that they would regurgitate it to the public.
Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was the point man for this operation. According to Fitzgerald's court filing, Libby, who faces perjury and obstruction of justice charges in connection with the leak case, was instructed by Cheney to tell at least three reporters that a key finding in a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate was that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium" in Africa. Wilson had disputed this point.
At the time, the reporters could not have known that what Libby was peddling was a distortion of what the NIE said. The uranium claim was not included in the estimate's bulleted list of key judgments, but instead was buried deep inside the report — probably because the CIA director and State Department considered the intelligence on it to be dubious at best.
As The Washington Post noted earlier this week, Libby also misrepresented a CIA report on Wilson's trip to Africa to investigate Iraqi efforts to procure uranium. Libby's inaccurate description of the report to journalists made it appear that Wilson had uncovered a desire by Iraqis to purchase uranium from the African nation of Niger in 1999. However, the former ambassador made no such discovery.
The administration's manipulation of intelligence in the summer of 2003 was part of a larger pattern of deception in which misuse of the 2002 NIE played a key role. In the run-up to the war, the White House released a public version of the NIE that left out most of the dissents and caveats that were contained in the full report, which was kept classified.
It should be no surprise to learn the administration fretted over the possibility that the public might learn about classified summaries of the NIE that contested the president's case for war. According to the National Journal, Karl Rove warned other White House aides in the summer of 2003 that the president's re-election chances would be seriously damaged if Americans knew about the summaries.
What all this points to is a consistent and deliberate misuse of the intelligence on Iraq, as well as a concerted effort to hide that misuse from the public.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has been slow to complete an inquiry into how the administration used prewar Iraq intelligence, but the panel may finally be about to wrap up its work. An honest report from the committee would have to highlight the administration's habit of distorting the intelligence on Iraq.
That conclusion might not fit with Scott McClellan's definition of "the public interest," but perhaps it's time to stop letting the White House define that term for us.