If Dick Cheney is to be believed, he wasn’t very upset that former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson criticized the Bush administration for having “twisted” intelligence to support its false pre-war claim that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa.
In a May 8, 2004, interview with federal investigators, the then-Vice President said he did raise a few internal questions about Wilson’s 2002 fact-finding mission for the CIA, which checked out – and knocked down – Cheney’s suspicion that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.
But Cheney denied that he unleashed a retaliatory campaign to discredit this early Iraq War critic – nor told anyone to leak the fact that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, worked at the CIA and had a small role in recruiting her husband for the Niger mission.
“The Vice President advised that there was no discussion of ‘pushing back’ on Wilson’s credibility by raising the nepotism issue, and there was no discussion of using Valerie Wilson’s employment with the CIA in countering Joe Wilson’s criticisms and claims about Iraqi efforts to procure yellowcake uranium from Niger,” said the FBI summary of Cheney’s interview.
Cheney also said he didn’t speak with CIA Director George Tenet or Deputy Director John McLaughlin about Wilson between July 6, 2003, when Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed describing how the Niger intelligence was “twisted,” and July 14, eight days later when right-wing columnist Robert Novak exposed Plame’s CIA employment in a column that sought to discredit Wilson.
Cheney depicted one disparaging comment that he made about Wilson as more of an inside joke.
“He [Cheney] does recall at one point ‘gigging’ Tenet and/or McLaughlin about vetting a separate, unrelated intelligence matter by sarcastically suggesting to them that perhaps they ought to send Joe Wilson to check it out,” the FBI summary said.
“The Vice President stated that the issue of Valerie Wilson’s possible involvement in sending her husband to Niger was just not a big deal and did not become one until after the publication of the Novak editorial.”
Cheney also claimed that he had no recollection of an earlier meeting in his vice presidential office during which he told his press aide Cathie Martin and his chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby that Plame was employed by the CIA.
Libby became one of several Bush administration officials to leak news of Plame’s CIA employment to journalists, along with the suggestion that she had arranged her husband’s fact-finding mission to Niger as nepotism, even though Wilson received no pay. (Plame has said her role was limited to conveying a message to her husband that her CIA superiors wanted to speak to him about the trip.)
Though Cheney played down his animosity toward Wilson during the interview, some of the anger came through when Cheney was asked to read aloud comments he scribbled in the margins of Wilson’s op-ed that Cheney had ripped out of the Times.
Cheney acknowledged that his handwritten note included the question, “Did his wife send him on a junket?” He also told the investigators that he “believed it possible that he and Libby discussed the Wilson trip as some kind of a junket or boondoggle.”
Curiously, however, Cheney conceded that as a former U.S. ambassador who served in Africa, Wilson’s “qualifications for the trip were ‘OK.’” Cheney also was aware that Wilson wasn’t paid for the trip, which would seem to undercut Cheney’s suspicion of nepotism.
However, Cheney turned Wilson’s willingness to undertake the mission without pay into a negative. According to the FBI report, “he [Cheney] thought it was strange that Joe Wilson did his investigative work pro bono.” Because of the lack of pay, Cheney complained about the “seriousness” of the CIA’s investigation and ridiculed it as “amateur hour.”
Yet, what is remarkable about Cheney’s interview – beyond his inability to recall key facts – is that all the anti-Wilson complaints that Cheney cited, no matter how minor or contradictory, became the cornerstones of a sustained assault on Wilson by the Bush administration, congressional Republicans, and right-wing and neoconservative pundits.
It was as if Cheney had written the script not only for his Republican defenders but for the Washington Post’s neocon editorial pages, which waged its own war of words against Wilson after he blew the whistle on President George W. Bush’s false claims about Iraq seeking uranium.
Even Cheney’s weakest points were amplified and exaggerated as they moved through the Republican-neocon echo chamber. For instance, a small point of misunderstanding – Wilson’s belief that Cheney had been made aware of the Niger trip since it was Cheney’s concern that prompted the mission – was transformed into an accusation that Wilson was a liar.
Wilson was painted as a liar again after Cheney transformed Wilson’s accurate comment – about taking on the CIA assignment with the understanding that Cheney was interested in the Niger issue – into a suggestion that Wilson was claiming that Cheney personally picked him for the mission.
Another point made by Cheney – and picked up as an anti-Wilson attack line – was Wilson’s remark to CIA debriefers that Niger’s prime minister initially suspected that an Iraqi feeler about improved commercial relations might have related to uranium, though it turned out the Iraqis expressed no such interest.
According to the FBI summary, Cheney said he underlined this portion of a March 8, 2002, CIA report on Wilson’s debriefing because “he believed it raised a ‘red flag,’ seeming to show that the former Niger Prime Minister [Ibrahim] Mayaki had been approached about commercial relations with Iraq which the former Prime Minister believed meant yellowcake uranium sales.”
Even though it turned out that Mayaki’s suspicion was baseless – and thus inconsequential – Cheney’s “red flag” was raised repeatedly by Republicans and neocons in their attacks on Wilson, including by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee which cited this irrelevant point to suggest that Wilson’s report had actually supported the Bush/Cheney case for war.
Cheney also quibbled with Wilson’s comment in his New York Times op-ed that “it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq.” Cheney countered that “such a transfer had already happened once before. Therefore, ... it did not mean that it could not occur.”
But there is no real difference between saying something is “exceedingly difficult” and that it possibly could “occur.” Both indicate that something is feasible, even if unlikely.
Despite the pettiness and contradictions of Cheney’s anti-Wilson attack lines, they reverberated for several years. They were given credence not only in right-wing circles but in Establishment (pro-Iraq War) places like the Washington Post.
More smears of Wilson and Plame were added as the ugly process moved forward. For instance, Bush-Cheney backers began insisting that Plame did not qualify as a covert officer deserving of special protection because she hadn’t “resided” or been “stationed” overseas in the five years before her CIA identity was exposed.
But the actual language of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was that a covert officer must have “served” abroad in the previous five years, which Plame had in undertaking intelligence missions outside the United States (although she was based at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia). The Bush-Cheney backers, especially right-wing lawyer Victoria Toensing, had engaged in word substitutions.
Overall, the 28-page FBI report on the Cheney interview recalled the anything-goes hostility that the Bush administration and its media acolytes directed at anyone who dared criticize the Iraq War in its early days. Besides Wilson, others on the White House enemies list included former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter and even the Dixie Chicks whose lead singer had spoken out against the war.
If Washington circa 2002-2004 had been a normal place, Wilson would have been praised for his service to the United States. Not only did he take on a difficult government assignment pro bono, he reached the accurate conclusion that Iraq was not seeking uranium from Niger and so informed the CIA.
Then, after Bush included that false claim in his 2003 State of the Union Address, Wilson began briefing a few journalists on the deception. Ultimately, he went public despite his awareness that he would anger the White House and damage his career prospects.
But praise was not what Wilson got. Even as Wilson’s disclosure forced the Bush administration to retract the uranium claim – a sentence in the State of the Union that became known as “the sixteen words” – Wilson became the target of a nasty counterattack.
Novak exposed Plame’s identity as a CIA officer, destroying her intelligence career and putting her network of foreign operatives in danger. The right-wing echo chamber rumbled with denunciations of Wilson and his wife.
But the Bush administration’s leaking of Plame’s identity had a surprise consequence. The CIA filed a complaint about the outing of Plame, prompting a Justice Department investigation.
Initially, the inquiry hit a stonewall as Bush and other senior officials denied any White House role in the leak or in the efforts to undermine Wilson. Eventually, however, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald determined that the leak had involved several senior officials, including Libby, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Novak had gotten his information from Armitage and Rove. Libby had told New York Times reporter Judy Miller about Plame and then had lied about his role.
In 2007, Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. No one else was charged in the case, although prosecutor Fitzgerald told Libby’s jury that a “cloud” remained over Vice President Cheney.
To spare Libby jail time, President Bush commuted Libby’s sentence. Fitzgerald wrapped up his investigation without explaining why he took no action against Cheney, Rove and other individuals implicated in the case.
As for Fitzgerald’s interviews with Bush and Cheney, the Justice Department – under both Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Eric Holder – resisted releasing the FBI’s reports. However, the Cheney report was finally made public Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act suit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
[To read more about the Plame-gate scandal, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Zeroing In on Bush-Cheney” and “Plame-gate: Time to Fire WPost’s Hiatt.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on November 2, 2009.