Ray McGovern: CIA v. Cheney
CIA v. Cheney
By Ray McGovern
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 09 November 2005
Allegations keep cropping up in the press that CIA professionals are undermining the administration. In at least one sense, I suppose, this is true. For when an administration embarks on a war justified by little or no intelligence, speaking truth can be regarded as treachery. The country could use more of that kind of "treachery."
Vice President Cheney in Trouble
Cheney's current situation has the makings of a Greek tragedy in the way he is about to self-destruct. The tragic flaw of overweening arrogance - the Greeks called it hubris - did not begin with Euripides. Nor will it end with the inexorably approaching demise of the vice president and other leaders of the current US administration.
Richard Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew, aside from his fulsome rhetoric, was hardly a heroic figure. So when his petty crimes were brought to light, he left the White House quietly by the side door. This is not Dick Cheney's style. And it is probably too late now for that kind of denouement. He is far more likely to press the self-destruct button, and perhaps even bring President George W. Bush down with him. Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. Small wonder that Republican stalwart, and national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who has worked closely with Cheney over the years, now says "I do not know Dick Cheney."
Patriotic truth-tellers are coming out of the woodwork. For example, Larry Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, has made public his conclusion that Cheney was the main author of this administration's policy of torturing detainees "as appropriate and as consistent with military necessity." Leaks in the dike are proliferating. Perhaps worst of all, from the president's point of view, is the fact that Karl Rove has pulled his finger out of the dike - preoccupied as he is in avoiding indictment and jail. Katrina-type flooding is threatening the White House.
For Cheney, the disclosures regarding the network of overseas prisons run by the CIA, together with his dogged opposition to Congressional restraints on interrogation techniques, may prove the last straw. There are signs he might be foolish enough to pull the strings on genuine-investigation-averse Pat Roberts (R, Kan.), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to gather a posse to "bring to justice" the administration sources who gave chapter and verse to the Washington Post's Dana Priest for her detailed article on the prisons last week. If Roberts launches an investigation, he is likely to round up first the usual suspects in the CIA, for which Cheney has such deep distrust. But none of this would help.
Cheney, Wilson, Plame
L'Affaire Cheney-and-the-Wilsons would never sell as a novel. It is nonetheless fascinating as a "now-running" tragic drama in which the main player is once again done in by hubris. The affair is most important, though, as a harbinger of things to come. It provides a case study of how Cheney, in a self-destructive way, lashed out at the CIA when he became convinced that Agency officials were deliberately undermining his attempts to conjure up "intelligence" to justify war on Iraq. It is a telling lesson - and worth a short review, starting with a query that has troubled more than one questioner.
"It just doesn't parse," they complain, "if Vice President Dick Cheney was aware from the start of the very fragile nature, regarding both provenance and substance, of the report on Iraq seeking uranium in Niger, what was he thinking when he asked the CIA to look into it?" The Agency rank and file and Cheney were no friends. He was already having a very hard time muscle-wrestling CIA analysts into seeing "evidence" of a relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq, to enable the administration to provide "evidence" for the campaign to associate Saddam Hussein with the attacks of 9/11.
There is ample evidence that the vice president saw the reluctance of CIA analysts to jump on that bandwagon as recalcitrance - indeed, as sabotage. They continued, for example, to pour cold water on a report that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, even though the Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal" (Wilkerson's word) kept citing that spurious report as evidence of Iraqi ties to 9/11. The CIA ombudsman testified to Congress that, in 32 years of experience in Agency's analytical ranks, he had never before witnessed such "hammering" on intelligence analysts to hold their noses and give their blessing to dubious evidence. On this issue, at least - as opposed to the issue of (non-existent) "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, Agency analysts refused to allow themselves to be corrupted - until their director, George Tenet, caved in for Colin Powell's (in)famous UN speech of February 5, 2003.
It is worth recalling that, before Tenet caved, CIA analysts were receiving outside encouragement from the likes of Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who saw the whole game for what it was and gratuitously told the press that the evidence of Iraq-al-Qaeda ties was "scant," while "cabalist" Rumsfeld was saying the evidence was "bulletproof." Scowcroft was fired almost a year ago from his position as chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Being right does not help.
So, Again, the Question
In the face of such recalcitrance, why would the vice president ask CIA officials, of all people, to investigate other dubious "evidence" of nefarious activity by Iraq?
Answer: He did not anticipate what they would do. Nothing was further from his mind. He set in train something he never intended. Cheney was hoisted on his own petard.
When the cockamamie story of Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium in Niger first came to the attention of CIA analysts in Washington, they threw it into the circular file for very good substantive reasons. First and foremost, with an international consortium led by the French tightly controlling the export of uranium mined in Niger, the chances were virtually nil that the Iraqis could bring this off. As the Silberman-Robb Commission makes clear, it was the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, not the CIA, that wrote up the analytical report that found its way onto Cheney's desk.
Why did Cheney ask his CIA briefer what he thought of the DIA analysis?
Answer: He was in the habit of "hammering" on CIA analysts - during his "multiple visits" to CIA headquarters, for example - to beat them into submission so they would serve up the politically correct answer on such matters.
In sum, in my opinion, it probably did not occur to the vice president that the CIA would take his query so seriously as to send a highly qualified person down to Niger who, in turn, would be able to give the lie to the report. I can vouch from personal experience that, when the vice president of the United States expresses interest in more information on a specific report, the Agency will hop to and pursue the matter aggressively, as it should. A mite too aggressively, in this case, for Cheney's objectives.
Enter the Nonproliferation Division
The Nonproliferation Division of the Directorate of Operations, in which Valerie Wilson was working, was told of Cheney's query and asked former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who during his earlier service in Africa became intimately familiar with the mining industry in Niger, to travel to Niger to check out the report. Wilson's findings were duly reported and disseminated. (When the vice president asks the bureaucracy a question, you can count on it being answered one way or another.) At the time, Wilson did not know that the Iraq-Niger canard had been woven out of whole cloth by forgerers. Still, his account should have put the last nail in the coffin into which that dead duck should have been thrown.
It is a safe assumption that Cheney was not pleased, to put it mildly, when he learned that the CIA had responded quickly by sending Wilson to Niger.
It was not pure paranoia. In Cheney's mind, Wilson had three main things against him.
Rather than following the customary ex-ambassador routine of grousing privately over cocktails in Georgetown parlors, Wilson had been drawing on his considerable substantive expertise in speaking out strongly - often publicly - against the planning for and execution of the war with Iraq; As the diplomat who faced down Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War (for which former president George H.W. Bush had called him "an American hero"), Wilson enjoyed particularly wide respect and credibility; and Baffled by President George W. Bush's citing of the worn-out and discredited Iraq-Africa-uranium fairytale in his State of the Union address in January 2003, Wilson had been making not-so-discreet inquiries as to why the president chose to repeat the fable. Did he perhaps have better evidence? The answer was no.
Wilson concluded, correctly in my opinion, that the administration had shown itself prepared to twist intelligence to "justify" attacking Iraq and that it had little else upon which to base the conjuring up of the "mushroom cloud" that deceived Congress into voting for war. Several months into the war, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (much less of the "reconstituted" nuclear weapons development program repeatedly advertised by Cheney) had been found. And the "explanation" offered by the Cheney/Rumsfeld "cabal," namely, that patience was needed because Iraq is the size of California, was wearing thin. The Iraq-Niger story was about all they had left.
Then, a Double Whammy
It was bad enough for the administration when Wilson's op-ed, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," appeared in the New York Times on July 6, 2003; and worse still when this consummate ambassador permitted himself to tell Washington Post reporters that the Iraq-Niger affair "begs the question regarding what else they are lying about." But when Cheney learned that the former ambassador's wife, Valerie Wilson née Plame, worked in the Nonproliferation Division that sent Wilson off on the mission to Niger, the vice president would almost certainly have seen deliberate sabotage by the CIA
I believe Cheney smelled a rat, the rat of deliberate defiance - in Cheney's eyes a mutinous attempt to deny him the kind of "intelligence" he knew would be required to deceive Congress. Mrs. Wilson is a veteran CIA operative trained to spot a spurious report a mile away. Cheney could only assume that she would have recognized the Iraq-Niger canard for what it was, and sent her husband to Niger to give the lie to the report. Policymakers immersed in the world of politics often have difficulty distinguishing between honest efforts by intelligence professionals to pursue the truth on the one hand and insubordination/sabotage on the other.
The Iraq-Niger fish story had already begun to stink. Tenet had insisted on deleting it from the president's "mushroom-cloud" speech on October 7, 2002, just three days before Congress voted to approve war. Yet the White House was acutely embarrassed when it had to retract the story after it had found its way into the president's State of the Union address the following January. As for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, although he used a plethora of spurious material in his UN speech of February 5, 2003, the Niger story smelled so bad that it did not meet even that low threshold. And it did not help a bit when Powell was asked why the president had repeated the story in late January, while he (Powell) chose not to use it just a week later; Powell damned the president's words with very faint praise, saying they were "not completely outrageous."
Ray McGovern, co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), was a CIA analyst for 27 years. His responsibilities included daily briefings of the vice president and other senior officials. Ray now works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC.