Why Dick Cheney Cracked Up
IN the days since Dick Cheney lost it on CNN, our nation’s armchair shrinks have had a blast. The vice president who boasted of “enormous successes” in Iraq and barked “hogwash” at the congenitally mild Wolf Blitzer has been roundly judged delusional, pathologically dishonest or just plain nuts. But what else is new? We identified those diagnoses long ago. The more intriguing question is what ignited this particularly violent public flare-up.
The answer can be found in the timing of the CNN interview, which was conducted the day after the start of the perjury trial of Mr. Cheney’s former top aide, Scooter Libby. The vice president’s on-camera crackup reflected his understandable fear that a White House cover-up was crumbling. He knew that sworn testimony in a Washington courtroom would reveal still more sordid details about how the administration lied to take the country into war in Iraq. He knew that those revelations could cripple the White House’s current campaign to escalate that war and foment apocalyptic scenarios about Iran. Scariest of all, he knew that he might yet have to testify under oath himself.
Mr. Cheney, in other words, understands the danger this trial poses to the White House even as some of Washington remains oblivious. From the start, the capital has belittled the Joseph and Valerie Wilson affair as “a tempest in a teapot,” as David Broder of The Washington Post reiterated just five months ago. When “all of the facts come out in this case, it’s going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great,” Bob Woodward said in 2005. Or, as Robert Novak suggested in 2003 before he revealed Ms. Wilson’s identity as a C.I.A. officer in his column, “weapons of mass destruction or uranium from Niger” are “little elitist issues that don’t bother most of the people.” Those issues may not trouble Mr. Novak, but they do loom large to other people, especially those who sent their kids off to war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent uranium.
In terms of the big issues, the question of who first leaked Ms. Wilson’s identity (whether Mr. Libby, Richard Armitage, Ari Fleischer or Karl Rove) to which journalist (whether Mr. Woodward, Mr. Novak, Judith Miller or Matt Cooper) has always been a red herring. It’s entirely possible that the White House has always been telling the truth when it says that no one intended to unmask a secret agent. (No one has been charged with that crime.) The White House is also telling the truth when it repeatedly says that Mr. Cheney did not send Mr. Wilson on his C.I.A.-sponsored African trip to check out a supposed Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. (Another red herring, since Mr. Wilson didn’t make that accusation in the first place.)
But if the administration is telling the truth on these narrow questions and had little to hide about the Wilson trip per se, its wild overreaction to the episode was an incriminating sign it was hiding something else. According to testimony in the Libby case, the White House went berserk when Mr. Wilson published his Op-Ed article in The Times in July 2003 about what he didn’t find in Africa. Top officials gossiped incessantly about both Wilsons to anyone who would listen, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby conferred about them several times a day, and finally Mr. Libby, known as an exceptionally discreet White House courtier, became so sloppy that his alleged lying landed him with five felony counts.
The explanation for the hysteria has long been obvious. The White House was terrified about being found guilty of a far greater crime than outing a C.I.A. officer: lying to the nation to hype its case for war. When Mr. Wilson, an obscure retired diplomat, touched that raw nerve, all the president’s men panicked because they knew Mr. Wilson’s modest finding in Africa was the tip of a far larger iceberg. They knew that there was still far more damning evidence of the administration’s W.M.D. lies lurking in the bowels of the bureaucracy.
Thanks to the commotion caused by the leak case, that damning evidence has slowly dribbled out. By my count we now know of at least a half-dozen instances before the start of the Iraq war when various intelligence agencies and others signaled that evidence of Iraq’s purchase of uranium in Africa might be dubious or fabricated. (These are detailed in the timelines at frankrich.com/timeline.htm.) The culmination of these warnings arrived in January 2003, the same month as the president’s State of the Union address, when the White House received a memo from the National Intelligence Council, the coordinating body for all American spy agencies, stating unequivocally that the claim was baseless. Nonetheless President Bush brandished that fearful “uranium from Africa” in his speech to Congress as he hustled the country into war in Iraq.
If the war had been a cakewalk, few would have cared to investigate the administration’s deceit at its inception. But by the time Mr. Wilson’s Op-Ed article appeared — some five months after the State of the Union and two months after “Mission Accomplished” — there was something terribly wrong with the White House’s triumphal picture. More than 60 American troops had been killed since Mr. Bush celebrated the end of “major combat operations” by prancing about an aircraft carrier. No W.M.D. had been found, and we weren’t even able to turn on the lights in Baghdad. For the first time, more than half of Americans told a Washington Post-ABC News poll that the level of casualties was “unacceptable.”
It was urgent, therefore, that the awkward questions raised by Mr. Wilson’s revelation of his Africa trip be squelched as quickly as possible. He had to be smeared as an inconsequential has-been whose mission was merely a trivial boondoggle arranged by his wife. The C.I.A., which had actually resisted the uranium fictions, had to be strong-armed into taking the blame for the 16 errant words in the State of the Union speech.
What we are learning from Mr. Libby’s trial is just what a herculean effort it took to execute this two-pronged cover-up after Mr. Wilson’s article appeared. Mr. Cheney was the hands-on manager of the 24/7 campaign of press manipulation and high-stakes character assassination, with Mr. Libby as his chief hatchet man. Though Mr. Libby’s lawyers are now arguing that their client was a sacrificial lamb thrown to the feds to shield Mr. Rove, Mr. Libby actually was — and still is — a stooge for the vice president.
Whether he will go to jail for his misplaced loyalty is the human drama of his trial. But for the country there are bigger issues at stake, and they are not, as the White House would have us believe, ancient history. The administration propaganda flimflams that sold us the war are now being retrofitted to expand and extend it.
In a replay of the run-up to the original invasion, a new National Intelligence Estimate, requested by Congress in August to summarize all intelligence assessments on Iraq, was mysteriously delayed until last week, well after the president had set his surge. Even the declassified passages released on Friday — the grim takes on the weak Iraqi security forces and the spiraling sectarian violence — foretell that the latest plan for victory is doomed. (As a White House communications aide testified at the Libby trial, this administration habitually releases bad news on Fridays because “fewer people pay attention when it’s reported on Saturday.”)
A Pentagon inspector general’s report, uncovered by Business Week last week, was also kept on the q.t.: it shows that even as more American troops are being thrown into the grinder in Iraq, existing troops lack the guns and ammunition to “effectively complete their missions.” Army and Marine Corps commanders told The Washington Post that both armor and trucks were in such short supply that their best hope is that “five brigades of up-armored Humvees fall out of the sky.”
Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of Colin Powell’s notorious W.M.D. pantomime before the United Nations Security Council, a fair amount of it a Cheney-Libby production. To mark this milestone, the White House is reviving the same script to rev up the war’s escalation, this time hyping Iran-Iraq connections instead of Al Qaeda-Iraq connections. In his Jan. 10 prime-time speech on Iraq, Mr. Bush said that Iran was supplying “advanced weaponry and training to our enemies,” even though the evidence suggests that Iran is actually in bed with our “friends” in Iraq, the Maliki government. The administration promised a dossier to back up its claims, but that too has been delayed twice amid reports of what The Times calls “a continuing debate about how well the information proved the Bush administration’s case.”
Call it a coincidence — though there are no coincidences — but it’s only fitting that the Libby trial began as news arrived of the death of E. Howard Hunt, the former C.I.A. agent whose bungling of the Watergate break-in sent him to jail and led to the unraveling of the Nixon presidency two years later. Still, we can’t push the parallels too far. No one died in Watergate. This time around our country can’t wait two more years for the White House to be stopped from playing its games with American blood.