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Leopold: 16 Words and the Trial of Scooter Libby

Sixteen Words and the Trial of Scooter Libby

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 23 January 2007

Four years ago this month, President Bush, in his State of the Union address, said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The intelligence those sixteen words were based upon turned out to be crude forgeries. Evidence collected by journalists and various legislative committees over the years suggests that a cabal of White House officials were fully aware that the intelligence was suspect, but allowed its inclusion in the State of the Union address because it would help the administration win support for the war.

Not long after the president's State of the Union address, an unknown former US ambassador named Joseph Wilson began to privately question the veracity of the sixteen words. In doing so, he became a target of the White House officials who were responsible for peddling the phony intelligence and driving the US to war.

This week, one of those officials, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, goes on trial, charged with five felonies related to the unmasking of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer, to a handful of reporters and then lying to a grand jury and the FBI about it. These events - the Plame leak, the attack on Wilson, and the pre-war intelligence (as complicated as it has become to try to unravel and make sense of) - were spearheaded by senior members of the Bush administration in an effort to protect the individuals responsible for planting the 16 words in Bush's speech.

"At the Center of the Storm"

To further demonstrate just how far the White House was willing to go to suppress any new information about the infamous sixteen words from becoming public, look no further than At the Center of the Storm, a book written by former CIA director George Tenet. The book was due to be published in two weeks, but according to an email exchange with a senior editor at Harper Collins, Tenet's publisher, the book has been "postponed indefinitely" at the request of the White House because of details Tenet included in his manuscript about how the sixteen words ended up in Bush's speech. The editor, who requested anonymity, would not divulge details of Tenet's narrative, but he said information about the sixteen words contradicts the White House's official statements and Tenet's own July 2003 mea culpa accepting responsibility for allowing the president to cite the sixteen words as fact when he [Tenet] knew the intelligence was unreliable.

The Harper Collins editor said in the email that it was this description of Tenet's book that gave the White House pause:

In this autobiography, Tenet offers his candid views on the agency's mistakes when it came to gathering intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, as well as previously unreported encounters and meetings with members of the Bush administration ... his warnings to White House officials in the spring and summer of 2001, and the plan for a response laid down just six days after the attack. He explains the land-mine missteps made along the way, and the role of his own statements. While recounting the headline events, Tenet also offers his thoughts on the future of the CIA and its role in international relations and foreign policy decisions.

Tenet provides fresh insights and background, including a privileged account of how the famous "sixteen words" made it into the President's State of the Union speech, the real context of his own now-famous "slam-dunk" comment, and the CIA's views of the rise of an Iraqi insurgency.

If Tenet's book lives up to the publisher's hype, it could certainly change the narrative about the Iraq War, and may even shed additional light on the events that led Libby and other officials to leak Plame's status with the CIA.

Although the war itself is not being tried in US district court in Washington, DC, the invasion is still very much the focal point, at least peripherally, of the Libby trial.

A list of potential witnesses released by Libby's defense attorneys and Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor trying the case, reads like a who's who of pre-war Iraq planning. It not only may offer the first on-the-record account of the details that led to the leak of the CIA officer, but may also provide a window in which to see how the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to make a case for war - a war that has resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 US soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.

The Potential Witnesses

For the average person, the names of these behind-the-scenes policy wonks won't have much meaning. But they are the architects of the Iraq War. And they all had played a role in pushing for the inclusion of those sixteen words in President Bush's State of the Union address on January 28, 2003.

Many of the officials identified as potential witnesses were members of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which came together in August 2002 to publicize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. WHIG was founded by Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card and operated out of the vice president's office. The WHIG was not only responsible for selling the Iraq War, but it took great pains to discredit anyone who openly disagreed with the official Iraq War story.

The group's members included Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush advisor Karen Hughes, Senior Advisor to the Vice President Mary Matalin, Deputy Director of Communications James Wilkinson, Assistant to the President and Legislative Liaison Nicholas Calio, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby - Chief of Staff to the vice president and co-author of the administration's pre-emptive strike policy. Matalin is now a member of the advisory committee of Libby's legal defense fund.

Rice was later appointed secretary of state; her deputy, Hadley, became national security advisor. Wilkinson departed to become a spokesman for the military's central command, and later for the Republican National Convention. Hughes was appointed under secretary of state.

Another member of WHIG, John Hannah, along with former Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, were interviewed by FBI officials in 2004, according to a report in the Washington Post, to determine if they were involved in leaking US security secrets to Israel, former head of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Several members of the group have testified before Fitzgerald's grand jury, and are named as potential witnesses for the prosecution and defense team.

The White House Iraq Group operated virtually unknown until January 2004, when Fitzgerald subpoenaed for notes, email and attendance records. Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. created the group in August 2002.

"A senior official who participated in its work called it "an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities," according to an August 10, 2003, Washington Post investigative report on the group's inner workings.

Karl Rove, senior Bush adviser, chaired meetings of the group.

In October 2005, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that the Iraq group was under scrutiny by Fitzgerald's grand jury.

"Formed in August 2002, the group, which included Messrs. [Karl] Rove and [Lewis] Libby, worked on setting strategy for selling the war in Iraq to the public in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion," the Journal reported. "The group likely would have played a significant role in responding to [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson's claims" that the Bush administration twisted intelligence when it said Iraq tried to acquire yellowcake uranium from Africa.

Rove's "strategic communications" task force, operating inside the group, was instrumental in writing and coordinating speeches by senior Bush administration officials, highlighting in September 2002 that Iraq was a nuclear threat, the Journal reported.

During its very first meetings, Card's Iraq group ordered a series of white papers showing Iraq's arms violations. The first paper, "A Grave and Gathering Danger: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Nuclear Weapons," was never published. However, the paper was drafted with the assistance of experts from the National Security Council and Cheney's office.

"In its later stages, the draft white paper coincided with production of a National Intelligence Estimate and its unclassified summary. "But the WHIG, according to three officials who followed the white paper's progress, wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence," according to the Washington Post.

Judith Miller, Aluminum Tubes, and the Mushroom Cloud

The group relied heavily on New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who, after meeting with several of the organization's members in August 2002, wrote an explosive story that many critics of the war believe laid the groundwork for military action against Iraq. Miller - who spent 85 days in federal prison for refusing to testify that Libby had told her Plame worked for the CIA and had recommended Wilson for the Niger trip, suggesting that his work was the result of nepotism - is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.

On Sunday, September 8, 2002, Miller wrote a story for the Times, quoting anonymous officials who said aluminum tubes found in Iraq were to be used as centrifuges. Her report said the "diameter, thickness and other technical specifications" of the tubes - precisely the grounds for skepticism among nuclear enrichment experts - showed that they were "intended as components of centrifuges."

She closed her piece by quoting then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who said the United States would not sit by and wait to find a smoking gun to prove its case, possibly in the form of a "a mushroom cloud." After Miller's piece was published, administration officials pursued their case on Sunday talk shows, using Miller's piece as evidence that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear bomb, even though those officials were the ones who supplied Miller with the story and were quoted anonymously.

Rice's comments on CNN's "Late Edition" reaffirmed Miller's story. Rice said that Saddam Hussein was "actively pursuing a nuclear weapon" and that the tubes - described repeatedly in US intelligence reports as "dual-use" items - were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs ... centrifuge programs."

Cheney, on NBC's "Meet the Press," also mentioned the aluminum tubes story in the Times and said "increasingly, we believe the United States will become the target" of an Iraqi atomic bomb. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on CBS's "Face the Nation," asked viewers to "imagine a September 11th with weapons of mass destruction."

President Bush reiterated the image of Rice's mushroom cloud comment in his October 7, 2002, speech.

The International Atomic Energy Agency later revealed that Iraq's aluminum tubes were never designed to enrich uranium.

How the Sixteen Words Ended Up in the SOTU

The WHIG pushed the envelope when Robert Joseph, one of its high-level behind-the-scenes members, who has also been identified as a potential witness in the Libby trial, suggested that the sixteen words about Iraq's supposed attempts to acquire uranium from Niger be included in the State of the Union address. Joseph, formerly the director of nonproliferation at the National Security Council, is now the under secretary of state for arms control - a position once held by John Bolton. Bolton is the former United States ambassador to the United Nations. Joseph testified before Fitzgerald's grand jury that he played no part in the leak and that he was not involved in attempts by the administration to discredit Wilson.

Moreover, Joseph testified about the sixteen words. He told Fitzgerald's grand jury that he did not recall receiving a warning in the form of a phone call from Alan Foley, director of the CIA's nonproliferation, intelligence and arms control center, saying that the sixteen words should not be included in Bush's speech, the sources said.

Foley had revealed this element during a closed-door hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence back in July 2003 - just two weeks after Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times documenting his role investigating whether Iraq tried to acquire uranium from Niger.

The Senate committee held hearings during this time to try to find out how the administration came to rely on the Niger intelligence at a time when numerous intelligence agencies had warned top officials in the Bush administration that it was unreliable.

Foley said he had spoken to Joseph a day or two before President Bush's January 28, 2003, State of the Union address and told Joseph that detailed references to Iraq and Niger should be excluded from the final draft. Foley told committee members that Joseph had agreed to water down the language and would instead, he told Foley, attribute the intelligence to the British, which is exactly how Bush's speech was worded.

The Ambassador Emerges

A day after Bush's speech, former ambassador Joseph Wilson said he reminded a friend at the State Department that he had traveled to Niger in February 2002 to investigate whether Iraq attempted to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger. Wilson wrote in a July 6, 2003, op-ed in the New York Times that the White House's belief that Iraq was shopping for uranium was "not borne out by the facts as I understood them."

Wilson's friend at the State Department replied that "perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I accepted the explanation. I didn't know that in December, a month before the president's address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that mentioned the Niger case."

Despite his friend's response, Wilson still believed the administration was trying to sell a war that was based on phony intelligence. In March 2003, Wilson began to publicly question the administration's use of the Niger claims without disclosing his role in traveling to Niger in February 2002 to investigate it. Wilson's criticism of the administration's pre-war Iraq intelligence caught the attention of Cheney, Libby and Hadley.

In an interview that took place two and a half weeks before the start of the Iraq War, Wilson said the administration was more interested in redrawing the map of the Middle East to pursue its own foreign policy objectives than in dealing with the so-called terrorist threat.

"The underlying objective, as I see it - the more I look at this - is less and less disarmament, and it really has little to do with terrorism, because everybody knows that a war to invade and conquer and occupy Iraq is going to spawn a new generation of terrorists," Wilson said in a March 2, 2003, interview with CNN.

"So you look at what's underpinning this, and you go back and you take a look at who's been influencing the process. And it's been those who really believe that our objective must be far grander, and that is to redraw the political map of the Middle East," Wilson added.

During the same CNN segment in which Wilson was interviewed, former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright made similar comments about the rationale for the Iraq War and added that he believed UN weapons inspectors should be given more time to search the country for weapons of mass destruction.

National Security Council and CIA officials said Cheney had visited CIA headquarters and asked several CIA officials to dig up dirt on Albright, and to put together a dossier that would discredit his work that could be distributed to the media.

"Vice President Cheney was more concerned with Mr. Albright," the CIA official said. "The international community had been saying that inspectors should have more time ... that the US should not set a deadline. The vice president felt Mr. Albright's remarks would fuel the debate."

A week later, Wilson was interviewed on CNN again. This was the first time Wilson ridiculed the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. "Well, this particular case is outrageous. We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for something like this to go unchallenged by the US - the US government - is just simply stupid. It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an embassy there since the early 1960s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted market of buyers and sellers," Wilson said in the March 8, 2003, CNN interview. "For this to have gotten to the IAEA is on the face of it dumb, but more to the point, it taints the whole rest of the case that the government is trying to build against Iraq."

Cheney and Hadley

Wilson's comments enraged Cheney because it was seen as a personal attack against the vice president, who was instrumental in getting his underlings to cite the Niger claims in government reports to build a case for war against Iraq.

The former ambassador's stinging rebuke also caught the attention of Stephen Hadley, who had played an even bigger role in the Niger controversy by allowing President Bush to cite the allegations in his State of the Union address.

At this time, the international community, various media outlets, and the International Atomic Energy Agency had called into question the veracity of the Niger documents. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of IAEA, told the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003, that the Niger documents were forgeries and could not be used to prove Iraq was a nuclear threat.

Wilson's comments, in addition to ElBaradei's UN report, were seen as a threat to the administration's planned attack against Iraq, which took place eleven days later.

Hadley had avoided making public comments about the veracity of the Niger documents, going as far as ignoring a written request by IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei to share the intelligence with his agency so his inspectors could verify the claims. Hadley is said to have known the Niger documents were crude forgeries, but, along with Joseph, pushed the administration to cite them as evidence that Iraq was a nuclear threat, according to the State Department officials, who said they personally told Hadley in a written report that the documents were bogus.

Hadley responded to Wilson's comments by writing an editorial about the Iraqi threat, which it was hoped would be a first step in overshadowing Wilson's CNN appearance.

A column written by Hadley that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 16, 2003, was redistributed to newspaper editors by the State Department on March 10, 2003, two days after Wilson was interviewed on CNN. The column, "Two Potent Iraqi Weapons: Denial and Deception" once again raised the issue that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger.

Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press" on March 16, 2003, to respond to ElBaradei's assertion that the Niger documents were forgeries.

"I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said during the interview. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."

Behind the scenes, one of the State Department officials who had a conversation with Wilson said that Wilson had been speaking to various members of Congress about the administration's use of the Niger documents and had said the intelligence the White House relied upon was flawed. Wilson's criticism of the administration's intelligence eventually leaked out to reporters, but with the Iraq War just a week away, the story was never covered.

Wilson said he had attempted to contact the White House through various channels after the State of the Union address to get the administration to correct the public record.

"I had direct discussions with the State Department [and] Senate committees," Wilson said in April 2006 in a speech to college students and faculty at California State University Northridge. "I had numerous conversations to change what they were saying publicly. I had a civic duty to hold my government to account for what it had said and done."

Wilson said he was rebuffed at every instance and that he received word, through then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, that he could state his case in writing in a public forum. That's exactly what he did. Wilson decided to write an op-ed in the New York Times and expose the administration for knowingly "twisting" the intelligence on the Iraqi nuclear threat to make a case for war. Wilson wrote that he had personally traveled to Niger to check out the Niger intelligence and had determined it was bogus.

"Nothing more, nothing less than challenging the government to come clean on this matter," Wilson said. "That's all I did."

With no sign of weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, news accounts started to call into question the credibility of the administration's pre-war intelligence. In May 2003, Wilson re-emerged at a political conference in Washington sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

There he told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff that he was the special envoy who had traveled to Niger in February 2002 to check out allegations that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from the country. He told Kristoff he had briefed a CIA analyst that the claims were untrue. Wilson said he believed the administration had ignored his report and had been dishonest with Congress and the American people.

When Kristoff's column was published in the Times, the CIA official said, "a request came in from Cheney that was passed to me that said 'the vice president wants to know whether Joe Wilson went to Niger.' I'm paraphrasing. But that's more or less what I was asked to find out."

In his column, Kristoff had accused Cheney of allowing the truth about the Niger documents the administration used to build a case for war to go "missing in action." The failure of US armed forces to find any WMDs in Iraq in two months following the start of the war had been blamed on Cheney.

What in the previous months had been a request to gather information that could be used to discredit Wilson turned into a full-scale effort involving the Office of the Vice President, the National Security Council, and the State Department to find out how Wilson came to be chosen to investigate the uranium allegations involving Iraq and Niger.

Cheney was personally involved in this aspect of the information-gathering process as well, visiting CIA headquarters to inquire about Wilson. Hadley also raised questions about Wilson during this month with the State Department officials; he asked that information regarding Wilson's trip to Niger be sent to his attention at the National Security Council.

Witnesses testified before Fitzgerald's grand jury that Joseph and Hadley had worked directly with senior officials from vice president Cheney's office - including Libby, Hannah and Rove - during June 2003 to coordinate a response to reporters who had phoned the vice president's office and the NSC about the administration's use of the Niger documents.

Wilson Goes Public

The June 2003 time frame was chosen because there were already Beltway rumors swirling that Wilson was going to go public and reveal that he had checked out the Niger claims on behalf of the CIA and that there was no truth to them. At the same time that Valerie Plame Wilson's CIA status was leaked to reporters, Libby, Rove and Hadley had been exchanging emails that included draft statements explaining how the "sixteen words" ended up in President Bush's State of the Union address.

It was during the course of their attempts to attack Wilson's credibility and rebut his charges that officials in the State Department, the CIA, Cheney's office, and the National Security Council - many of whom were responsible for pushing the administration to cite the Niger claims - learned that Wilson's wife was a covert CIA agent and, upon learning that she may have been responsible for sending Wilson to Niger, leaked her name to a handful of reporters.

Five days after Wilson's explosive column was published, CIA Director George Tenet accepted responsibility for allowing the infamous "sixteen words" to be included in Bush's January 28, 2003, State of the Union address. Many people interpreted this as Tenet falling on his sword to protect the president.

Two weeks later, the CIA revealed that other administration officials were culpable as well. CIA officials sent Hadley two memos in October 2002, warning him not to continue peddling the Niger claims to the White House because the intelligence was not accurate.

Hadley, who didn't heed the CIA's warnings at the time, said during a press conference on July 23, 2003, that he had forgotten about the memos.

On September 14, 2003, during an interview with Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney maintained that he didn't know Wilson or have any knowledge about his Niger trip or who was responsible for leaking his wife's name to the media. But Cheney knew Wilson well. He had spent months obsessing about him, according to court filings.

"I don't know Joe Wilson," Cheney said, in response to Russert, who had quoted Wilson as saying there was no truth to the Niger uranium claims. "I've never met Joe Wilson. And Joe Wilson - I don't know who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back ... I don't know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn't judge him. I have no idea who hired him."


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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