Is there an innocent explanation for how Valerie Wilson’s name became widely known within the administration and eventually in the bigfoot press corp? Well, I wouldn’t call it innocent exactly, but Woodward’s explanation that “when the story comes out I’m quite confident we’re going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter…” could conceivably bear out.
But, even if it does, it won’t be innocent. To understand how this might have unfolded we have to go back to the lead up to the war. And what is particularly useful is to revisit the columns of William Safire, who was clearly using Dick Cheney’s office as a major source for spreading lies about Saddam Hussein, and trying to tie him to all manner of evil. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Dick Cheney was using Bill Safire (who was quietly retired after no WMD or links to al-Qaeda were found).
What is instructive is how hostile and confrontational Bill Safire’s columns were toward the CIA and George Tenet. His ire didn’t stop there either. He accused Brent Scowcroft of conspiring with George Tenet to “seize total control of all U.S. intelligence”. He accused the State Department of “arguing strenuously for no military action to achieve “regime change” and he accused “mid-level generals, fearful of comparisons with our cakewalk victory of a decade ago, (of) infuriating their Pentagon superiors with leaks downmouthing the whole operation.”
Cheney, through Safire, felt as though the intelligence community was trying to sabotage the case for war with Iraq. That is why they set up the Office of Special Plans and the White House Iraq Group to get around their reluctance to make the case linking Saddam to al-Qaeda and for evidence of a reconstituted WMD program.
So, when Cheney learned that Joe Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, I suspect he became suspicious that the CIA was using him to deflect blame for the pre-war intelligence failures. He may have even suspected that Wilson was chosen for the specific purpose of debunking the Niger claims. In other words, he may have thought that Wilson didn’t go to Niger with an open mind, but an anti-war agenda.
When Wilson went public the administration (through Karl Rove and Stephen Hadley) crafted a message for George Tenet to deliver.
But Tenet’s attempt to take the blame didn’t hold for even a week. People within the CIA began fighting back.
Problem solved, right? Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld had been triangulating on Tenet since Thursday, claiming the CIA had never informed the White House about the dubious nature of the Niger evidence. Tenet, like a good political appointee, fell on his sword and took responsibility for the error. On Saturday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press corps that Bush had “moved on” from this controversy.
Not so fast, said the New York Times editorial board. The paper of record for the Western world published an editorial on Saturday entitled “The Uranium Fiction.” The last time the Times editors used language this strong was when Bush, in a moment of seemingly deranged hubris, tried to nominate master secret-keeper Henry Kissinger to chair the 9/11 investigation:
“It is clear, however, that much more went into this affair than the failure of the C.I.A. to pounce on the offending 16 words in Mr. Bush’s speech. A good deal of information already points to a willful effort by the war camp in the administration to pump up an accusation that seemed shaky from the outset and that was pretty well discredited long before Mr. Bush stepped into the well of the House of Representatives last January. Doubts about the accusation were raised in March 2002 by Joseph Wilson, a former American diplomat, after he was dispatched to Niger by the C.I.A. to look into the issue. Mr. Wilson has said he is confident that his concerns were circulated not only within the agency but also at the State Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Tenet, in his statement yesterday, confirmed that the Wilson findings had been given wide distribution, although he reported that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and other high officials had not been directly informed about them by the C.I.A.”
The administration had been quietly informing the press about Wilson’s wife for weeks before he went public. But no one published the information until their Tenet gambit failed. In fact, it was probably their attempt to shift all the blame onto the CIA that led to the extensive leaking that proved Wilson’s story was largely accurate. It was only at this point that Novak pounced. So, it is entirely possible that the leaking of Valerie Wilson’s occupation began innocently enough. They may not have realized that she maintained a covert status, even though she was stateside. They thought they could push back on Wilson’s claims quietly, never expecting him to go public. And when he did go public and their initial attempt at spin control failed, they made a grievous error and let Novak blow her cover.
It may not have been intended as intimidation or revenge, but merely as an attempt to put a lid on one of the biggest crimes in American history. Below the fold you can revisit Safire’s columns to see how that crime was carried out.
“Tenet’s Palestinian”, by William Safire
And when we walk back this cat, we find the name of Fuad Shubaki, Arafat’s arms buyer, on many documents. He was spotted in Baghdad with Iraqi officials in August of last year, one month before Sept. 11 and four months after Mohamed Atta’s rendezvous with Saddam Hussein’s man in Prague.
The C.I.A. fails to ask: Who benefits most from Arafat’s decisions to reject statehood, launch a terror war on Israeli civilians and refuse a cease-fire? Surely not Palestinians. The answer is Saddam, terror’s foremost supporter, who gains time to build his bombs while world media fixate on Israel’s self-defense.
George Tenet apparently doesn’t grasp that. He is a likable, patriotic bureaucrat who has President Bush’s trust as he works through Brent Scowcroft to seize total control of all U.S. intelligence. The trouble is that our long-bamboozled D.C.I. is in over his head already.
“Mr. Atta Goes to Prague”, by William Safire
A misdirection play is under way in the C.I.A.’s all-out attempt to discredit an account of a suspicious meeting in Prague a year ago. Mohamed Atta, destined to be the leading Sept. 11 suicide hijacker, was reported last fall by Czech intelligence to have met at least once with Saddam Hussein’s espionage chief in the Iraqi Embassy — Ahmed al-Ani, a spymaster whom the Czechs were keeping under tight surveillance.
If the report proves accurate, a connection would exist between Al Qaeda’s murder of 3,000 Americans and Iraq’s Saddam. That would clearly be a casus belli, calling for our immediate military response, separate from the need to stop a demonstrated mass killer from acquiring nuclear and germ weapons. Accordingly, high C.I.A. and Justice officials — worried about exposure of the agency’s inability to conduct covert operations — desperately want Atta’s Saddam connection to be disbelieved.
They are telling favored journalists: Shoot this troublesome story down. In March, a Washington Post columnist obliged with: “hard intelligence to support the Baghdad-bin Laden connection is somewhere between ‘slim’ and ‘none.’ ” In April, Newsweek headlined: “A spy story tying Saddam to 9-11 is looking very flimsy,” and its Michael Isikoff wrote: “the much touted ‘Prague connection’ appears to be an intriguing, but embarrassing, mistake.”
Whom do you believe — a responsible official on the scene speaking on the record, with no ax to grind, or U.S. spooks who may be covering up a missed signal from Prague about Sept. 11 and are also fearful of revealing their weakness in Iraq?
Hard-liners can play this background game, too. A “senior Bush administration official” not in the protect-Saddam cabal tells me: “You cannot say the Czech report about a meeting in 2001 between Atta and the Iraqi is discredited or disproven in any way. The Czechs stand by it and we’re still in the process of pursuing it and sorting out the timing and venue. There’s no doubt Atta was in Prague in 2000, and a subsequent meeting is at least plausible.”
“What Else Are We Missing?”, by William Safire
In May and June of 2002, State Department officials were arguing strenuously for no military action to achieve “regime change” until Turkey was fully a part of a broad anti-Saddam coalition. Mid-level generals, fearful of comparisons with our cakewalk victory of a decade ago, were infuriating their Pentagon superiors with leaks downmouthing the whole operation.
The C.I.A., having failed previously in a Baghdad coup attempt, could not decide on which indigenous Iraqi dissidents to equip and train for an uprising to support our invasion. To restrain Bush’s hawks, C.I.A. doves denied any connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda, despite hard intelligence linking Mohamed Atta, the leading suicide hijacker, with the Iraqi spymaster in Prague — a fact reaffirmed in June to The Prague Post by Hynek Kmonicek, the Czech ambassador to the U.N.
Shocked Americans would be asking: Who knew what and when? Did the C.I.A. inform the president that Rihab Taha, “Dr. Germs,” had provided anthrax and other biological agents to Saddam’s Republican Guard? Did the president know that an untested atomic device could be detonated to punish invaders along with the Iraqi people? If so, should we have saved lives by going in earlier? Or knowing the cost later, should we have sought to appease the dictator?
“The Way We Live Now”, by William Safire
[NOTE: This if from Safire’s “On Language” column and NOT an Op-Ed piece.]
In my Op-Ed incarnation, I’ve been in a running battle with our intelligence agencies about their all-out campaign to discredit evidence of a visit to Saddam Hussein’s spymaster in Prague by the suicide hijacker Mohamed Atta. I called the torrent of self-protective leaks by C.I.A. and F.B.I. sotto voce spokesmen “a misdirection play,” and defined this as a move by an adept offensive lineman: “He blocks his man toward the center; as the defender pushes back hard, the misdirecting lineman gives way, seemingly overcome by the countercharge — as his running back scoots through the hole near the center left by the defender.”
“Saddam and Terror”, by William Safire
Such verification of data obtained from the captured terrorists awakened C.I.A. bureaucrats who for nearly a year waved reporters away from evidence of Qaeda-Iraqi links lest it justify U.S. action. Belatedly, a C.I.A. team interrogated some of the terrorists held in northern Iraq — comparing what they found with information gleaned from Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere.
Even religiously motivated terrorists crack in dismay at how much the interrogator already knows. When added to prisoners’ family details provided by Kurdish sources, the scope of our knowledge led captives in Kurdistan to talk about poison production and Iraqi links because they figured there was little left to hide.
The new information has changed much intelligence analysis. The C.I.A. has even stopped discrediting reports from Czech intelligence about a different point of Qaeda-Saddam contact: the meeting between the Sept. 11 hijackers’ leader, Mohamed Atta, and a top Saddam spymaster in Prague.
Let’s not pretend we must “make the case” that Saddam personally directed 9/11. The need to strike at an aggressive despot before he gains the power to blackmail us with the horrific weapons he is building and hiding is apparent to most Americans, including those who will bear the brunt of the fight.
“On Playing Hunches”, by William Safire
. . .A hunch is not news and should not be reported as such, but informed speculation can open minds and even lead to news. A columnist should play a hunch now and then, taking readers beyond the published news, using logic and experience to figure out what may be happening now or to predict what will happen soon. . . .
Another example of risk-taking columny: Czech intelligence agents reported that Mohamed Atta, the lead suicide hijacker, met only months before Sept. 11 with a Saddam Hussein spymaster in Prague. C.I.A. analysts covering their posteriors rejected any data establishing connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and went to great lengths to discredit the report in the U.S. press.
Because the C.I.A. had refused to interrogate Al Qaeda assassins captured by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, I had a hunch that our spooks’ overly eager “discreditation” of the Czech report was misleading. After checking with sources in the Bush administration and overseas, I stuck with the original story made known by the Czech prime minister and his cabinet colleagues.
But lo and behold, The New York Times last week reported from Prague that President Vaclav Havel “quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm” the Atta-Iraqi meeting. Havel had “discreetly called Washington” to tell senior Bush officials to ignore the reports.
Wow — Havel personally intervened, calling the Bush White House himself to “quietly, discreetly” contradict his intelligence service and fellow officials? That was a news story deserving its front-page play and subsequent editorial. My e-mail screen sparkled with gleeful nyah-nyahs from readers certain this proved Saddam had no terrorist connections and should be left alone. I brooded about my hunch.
But lo and re-behold, two days later The New York Times reported this denial from Havel’s spokesman: “The president did not call the White House about this. The president never spoke with any American government official about Atta, not with Bush, not with anyone else.”
“The Mourning After”, by William Safire
3. When the postwar books are written, a former Iraqi spymaster with knowledge of the suicide attacker Mohamed Atta’s perhaps unwitting connection to Saddam will eagerly come forth to spill all he knows to save his neck or sell his memoirs. Suspected followers of Osama bin Laden like Musaab Zarqawi and Mullah Krekar, if alive, will further link Al Qaeda to Saddam’s mukhabarat police.