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Archive for Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Libby trial raises critical U.S. policy issues

February 14, 2007

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Too bad the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is getting only a fraction of the media fuss stirred up by the death of Anna Nicole Smith.

No question, Smith's passing is more titillating. But Libby's perjury trial is crucial to U.S. security. It has laid bare how the White House skewed the intel on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and sold these distortions to the media. What makes the tale even more unnerving is the possibility that the process is being repeated - with Iran.

The trial revolves around a 2003 White House campaign to defame a retired diplomat and Africa expert, Joseph Wilson. Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA in 2002 to check reports that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. The White House was promoting the Niger story to strengthen its case that Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear program.

But Wilson found no evidence of such a sale, nor did the U.S. embassy in Niger. And from the beginning, CIA analysts doubted the story. The State Department's intelligence arm, which saw the foreign documents that had provoked the story, considered them to be blatant fakes.

And yet the story wouldn't die. Despite the fact that CIA director George Tenet personally got President Bush to remove a reference to Niger uranium in a 2002 speech, the tale lived on. The reason: relentless White House efforts to promote the story and relentless White House pressure on the CIA to confirm it. Dissenters in the intelligence community were brushed aside.

Bush made the Niger claim a centerpiece of his 2003 State of the Union speech to justify the coming war, citing British intelligence as the source. (The British intel was apparently based on the same set of fake foreign documents.)

By early 2003, White House claims about Iraq's WMD had crumbled. The U.S. National Intelligence Agency said the Niger story was baseless. The Niger forgeries had been unmasked.

As White House claims about Iraq's WMD crumbled, Wilson finally went public in July 2003 with the story of his mission to Niger. In retaliation, Cheney organized a smear campaign against Wilson.

A number of White House officials, including Libby, were dispatched to tell reporters (inaccurately) that Wilson had been sent to Niger by his wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA agent. The implication was that the trip was nothing but a nepotistic junket.

To further deflect any focus on flawed intelligence, reporters were told that any false info was the fault of the CIA. Bush even declassified a top-secret, pre-war national intelligence estimate on Iraq's WMD so Libby could quote it to selected reporters. But Libby misrepresented the contents of the brief - falsely claiming it supported the Niger charge.

In the end, Libby was indicted not for leaking Plame's name - a potential felony - but for lying about who told him about her existence. He claims he learned it from NBC's Tim Russert. But Russert denies this, and Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who investigated and is prosecuting the case, says Libby got the information from Cheney.

Why would Libby lie about this? According to Fitzgerald, Cheney and his aides saw Wilson as a threat to "the credibility of the vice president (and the president) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq."

This brings us up to the present. In a build-up of tension that resembles a replay of the Iraq war run-up, the White House is claiming that Iran is America's chief problem in Iraq.

Bush has authorized the U.S. military to "kill or capture" Iranian agents who are plotting attacks on U.S. troops, and U.S. special forces have raided Iraqi government offices and arrested visiting Iranians. We have moved more ships to the Persian Gulf and armed Iran's Arab neighbors with Patriot missiles.

"Last Sunday, U.S. military briefers in Baghdad made a long-delayed presentation of evidence that Iran provides weapons to Iraq's Shiite militias, weapons they claimed have killed 170 coalition troops since 2004. But even if that figure were correct, the fact that more than 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq since March 2003 underlines that Iran is not the main problem facing the U.S. military there."

Iran does present serious security problems in the region. But the drumbeat of new U.S. charges against Iran is disturbingly similar to the hype about Iraq in 2002 and early 2003.

The difference this time is that the intelligence community is holding firm against promoting claims that aren't fully backed up with reliable data. A new intelligence estimate on Iraq downplays the overall significance of Iranian interference there.

The Libby trial is a salutary reminder that the same officials who cherry-picked Iraq intelligence are still in the White House. The Niger charge was patently false, yet Bush, Cheney - and Libby - promoted it. Perhaps they auto-hypnotized themselves into believing it. Hopefully, they can't hypnotize the country again.

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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