News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

CIA leak case highlights battle over justifying Iraq war / Bush team exposed as divided; Cheney occupies hot seat

Richard W. Stevenson, Douglas Jehl, New York Times
Sunday, October 23, 2005

Washington -- The legal and political stakes are of the highest order, but the investigation into the disclosure of a covert CIA officer's identity is also just one skirmish in the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

That fight has preoccupied the White House for more than three years, repeatedly threatening President Bush's credibility and political standing, and has now once again put the spotlight on Vice President Dick Cheney, who assumed a critical role in assembling and analyzing the evidence about Iraq's weapons programs.

The dispute over the rationale for the war has led to upheaval in the intelligence agencies, left Democrats divided about how aggressively to break with the White House over Iraq and exposed deep rifts within the administration and among Republicans.

The combatants' intensity was underscored this week in a speech by Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell while he was secretary of state.

Wilkerson complained of a "cabal" between Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that bypassed normal decision-making channels when it came to Iraq and other national security issues.

He described "real dysfunctionality" in the administration's foreign policy team and said Powell's aides had thrown out "whole reams of paper" from the intelligence dossier developed by Cheney's staff for use in Powell's presentation of the case against Iraq to the United Nations in early 2003.

Cheney's focus on the threat from Iraq has put some of his aides, especially Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his chief of staff, in the middle of an investigation by a special prosecutor into the leak of the CIA operative's name.

According to lawyers in the case, Libby remains under scrutiny in the investigation stemming from his effort to rebut criticism by Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat, that the administration had twisted intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program.

Libby has become emblematic of the broader Iraq debate, cast by supporters as a loyal aide working diligently to set the record straight, and by critics as someone working to smear or undermine the credibility of a politically potent opponent.

"The way in which the leak investigation is being pursued is becoming a symbol of who was right and who was wrong about the war," said Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

"The possibility of Libby being indicted, and the whole Cheney angle," Daalder said, "is all about proving in some sense that they were wrong and therefore that we who opposed the war and never thought the intelligence was right have been proven correct."

The administration has acknowledged the failures of pre-war intelligence, though its supporters have pointed out that many Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, and the intelligence services of other countries were also convinced that Saddam Hussein had caches of banned weapons.

But the White House's insistence that there were many other compelling reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein have only inflamed critics of the war.

"There's a daisy chain that stems from the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Iraq was at core a war of choice, and extraordinarily expensive by every measure -- human life, impact on our military, dollars, diplomatically," said Haass, a former senior State Department official under President Bush.

"If this war was widely judged to have been necessary along the lines of Afghanistan after 9/11," Haass said, "I don't believe you would have this controversy. If the war had gone extremely well, you wouldn't have this controversy."

While the leak case has ensnared other officials, most prominently Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, appears to have devoted much effort to understanding the role of Cheney's office and actions taken by Libby, who has twice testified before the grand jury.

Fitzgerald has been examining whether administration officials disclosed to the media that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee.

The investigation led to the jailing for nearly three months of a reporter for the New York Times, Judith Miller, for refusing to discuss her conversations with a confidential source who turned out to be Libby.

In May and June 2003, Wilson began circulating his criticism of the administration's assertions that Iraq had been seeking nuclear material in Africa.

At that point, Libby showed an intense interest in Wilson's public statements and argued to colleagues that Wilson should be rebutted at every turn, a former administration official said, confirming an account Friday in the Los Angeles Times.

Libby also sought to insulate Cheney from Wilson's critique, telling journalists that Wilson's trip to Africa to assess Iraq's intentions was orchestrated by the CIA.

Libby's involvement in assembling the case that Iraq's weapons constituted an urgent threat began well before the invasion. Along with Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, then senior Pentagon officials, Libby was immersed in painting a dark picture of Iraq's weapons capabilities and alleged that it had ties to al Qaeda.

In late 2002 and early 2003, according to former government officials and several published accounts, Libby was the main author of a lengthy document making the administration's case for war to the U.N. Security Council.

But in meetings at the CIA in early February, Powell and George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, rejected virtually all of Libby's draft as exaggerated and not supported by intelligence.

John McLaughlin, the former deputy CIA director, referred to this period in a statement issued in April 2005. "Much of our time in the run-up to the speech was spent taking out material, including much that had been added by the policy community after the draft left the agency, that we and the secretary's staff judged to have been unreliable," McLaughlin said.

In his 2004 book, "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward of the Washington Post wrote that Powell had rejected Libby's draft as "worse than ridiculous," which Wilkerson alluded to in his speech last week.

That episode added to tensions between Cheney's office and senior officials at the CIA, which had also dismissed as unwarranted claims by Cheney and others about close links between Iraq and al Qaeda.

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