The Magazine

A Spooked
White House

The damage that has already been done by the CIA leak investigation.

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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And in one very important sense, the critics are right to assert a connection between the case for war in Iraq and the Fitzgerald inquiry. It is this: For the better part of two years, as the case grew from a routine Justice Department inquiry to an independent investigation conducted by a no-nonsense special prosecutor, the Bush administration gradually ceded the debate over the Iraq war to its harshest critics. These two developments are not coincidental.

The investigations have already had a dramatic effect on the Bush White House and its defense of the war in Iraq.

AS THE SUMMER of 2003 began, Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (MET Alpha), the task force assigned to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was having little success. Back in Washington, skepticism about finding such stockpiles grew and finger-pointing began.

Even before the war, the CIA began leaking stories that raised the prospect that the intelligence about Iraq's WMD programs was less certain than Bush administration policymakers were making it sound. The stories puzzled and annoyed these policymakers since the finished intelligence products--such as the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate--had included strongly worded conclusions about the threat from Iraqi WMD. Many White House officials suspected that the leaks were condoned by Agency leadership and designed as a preemptive "CIA-CYA"--a contingency plan to shift the blame from the Agency in the event some of the intelligence was bad. These suspicions grew when Joseph Wilson began telling his story, first anonymously, then as a would-be whistle-blower. As some Bush administration officials quietly tried to correct Wilson's misrepresentations, others contemplated a bold move that would undercut the leaks from the Agency.

Ironically, this strategy was revealed in a little-noticed passage in what has become one of the most discussed newspaper columns in recent memory. At the end of his July 14, 2003, column that identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, Robert Novak wrote that understanding the claims and counterclaims about Wilson's mission "requires scrutinizing the CIA summary of what their envoy reported." Novak reported: "The Agency never before has declassified that kind of information, but the White House would like it to do just that now--in its and in the public's interest."

Within days, the CIA had declassified significant portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. That document reflected the consensus view of the 15 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade. (See INR alternative view at the end of these Key Judgments.)

We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq's WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad's vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information.

We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs. Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

Iraq's growing ability to sell oil illicitly increases Baghdad's capabilities to finance WMD programs; annual earnings in cash and goods have more than quadrupled, from $580 million in 1998 to about $3 billion this year. Iraq has largely rebuilt missile and biological weapons facilities damaged during Operation Desert Fox and has expanded its chemical and biological infrastructure under the cover of civilian production.

And later, a discussion of Iraq's nuclear capabilities:

Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them. Most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed--December 1998.

The NIE specifically addressed claims of Iraq seeking uranium from Africa:

A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of "pure uranium" (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. We do not know the status of this arrangement.