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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Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.

And finally, the NIE offered these conclusions with "high confidence":

Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.

We are not detecting portions of these weapons programs.

Iraq possesses proscribed chemical and biological weapons and missiles.

Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons grade fissile material.

There were, to be sure, dissenting opinions included in the NIE. Most notably, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research found the available evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear programs "inadequate." But these judgments were footnotes, figuratively and in some cases literally. Larry Wilkerson, former State Department chief of staff and now an outspoken Bush administration critic, put it this way in a recent speech in which he described the intelligence Colin Powell used for his presentation to the U.N. Security Council. "People say, well, INR dissented. That's a bunch of bull. INR dissented that the nuclear program was up and running. That's all INR dissented on. They were right there with the chems and the bios. . . . The consensus of the intelligence community was overwhelming."

Bush administration officials reasonably believed that releasing the NIE would stanch the flow of leaks coming from the CIA and would weaken the claims that "Bush lied" to take the country to war. They were mistaken.

On September 26, 2003, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell and MSNBC's Alex Johnson reported on the MSNBC website the following: "The CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the White House broke federal laws by revealing the identity of one of its undercover employees in retaliation against the woman's husband, a former ambassador who publicly criticized President Bush's since-discredited claim that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium from Africa, NBC News has learned." The referral from the CIA to the Justice Department was classified and, according to officials with knowledge of the process, was almost certainly leaked by the CIA to put public pressure on the Justice Department to launch an investigation. It worked.

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales ordered White House officials to provide the FBI any documents related to the compromising of Valerie Plame. Almost immediately, Democratic politicians and left-leaning editorial boards began a campaign to call for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the case, and on December 30, 2003, Deputy Attorney General James Comey appointed Patrick Fitzgerald.

For much of the next year, the Bush administration was willing to defend the Iraq war because it was the main issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, repeatedly accused the administration of misleading the country into war. But Kerry had been a vocal supporter of regime change in Iraq throughout the Clinton presidency and had voted to authorize the Iraq war. His running mate, North Carolina senator John Edwards, voted the same way and had gone even further than the Bush administration, warning before the war that Saddam Hussein presented an "imminent threat" to the national security of the United States.

On the stump, President Bush continued to make the case that Saddam Hussein had been a threat. On July 12, 2004, nearly a year after the NIE was released, Bush spoke at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee:

Three years ago, the ruler of Iraq was a sworn enemy of America, who provided safe haven for terrorists, used weapons of mass destruction, and turned his nation into a prison. Saddam Hussein was not just a dictator; he was a proven mass murderer who refused to account for weapons of mass murder. Every responsible nation recognized this threat, and knew it could not go on forever.

America must remember the lessons of September the 11th. We must confront serious dangers before they fully materialize. And so my administration looked at the intelligence on Iraq, and we saw a threat. Members of the United States Congress from both political parties looked at the same intelligence, and they saw a threat. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence, and it saw a threat. The previous administration and the Congress looked at the intelligence and made regime change in Iraq the policy of our country.

This argument would end up being the administration's strongest defense of the case for war in Iraq to this day.

FITZGERALD'S INVESTIGATION continued largely out of public view. More than two dozen White House officials were interviewed by the FBI. Many of them later testified before the grand jury. An already cautious White House closed in on itself. Emails on issues of any importance were a thing of the past. Written memos about sensitive subjects--even those wholly unrelated to the investigation--were considered unwise.

Months earlier, after the public debate over the "16 words" about uranium from Africa in the president's 2003 State of the Union address, White House chief of staff Andrew Card had ordered an overhaul of the speechwriting process. The changes were mainly bureaucratic and did not dramatically alter the way presidential speeches were written.

The experience of the "16 words" controversy, however, led the president's aides to purge any fact or piece of evidence that could possibly be challenged--whether by vetters in the speechwriting process itself or in the media. "We didn't want to have a pissing match with the [Central Intelligence] Agency on the front page of the New York Times every time we put something out," says one former Bush administration official.

The default position was to refrain from publicly asserting anything that could possibly provoke a public debate, and the result has been that each new Iraq speech the president gives--however well written--ends up sounding a lot like the last speech the president gave. For the most part, the speeches have been heavy on assertions and light on arguments. So for most of his second term the president would claim that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror without stopping to explain why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

This reluctance comes not from a lack of arguments to make but from a fear that if the administration aggressively makes its case, the CIA will promptly seek to undermine it through leaks that wind up on the front pages. But this self-censorship is keeping the administration from making full use of the information at its disposal. Here are three examples.

When the president mentions Abu Musab al Zarqawi, current head of al Qaeda in Iraq, he rarely points out that Zarqawi was in Iraq before the war, and he never points out that Zarqawi's operatives were working closely with senior Iraqi Baathists even as U.S. troops were engaged in "major combat" in Iraq.

When the president notes the former Iraqi regime's support for terrorism--a rare occurrence these days--he never mentions Abdul Rahman Yasin, the lone fugitive from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who was provided assistance by the Iraqi regime in his flight from the United States. (That fact is not even controversial: It is cited in the July 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on prewar intelligence on Iraq.) The FBI is in possession of documents that indicate Yasin was given financial support by the regime of Saddam Hussein for a decade after his return to Iraq.

There are other documents from Iraq that would help the American public understand the nature of the former Iraqi regime and why a serious war on terror required its removal. Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) documents currently stored in a warehouse in Doha, Qatar, as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency's document exploitation project are a case in point. Many of these documents, listed in a database known as HARMONY, have rather provocative titles:

Money Transfers from Iraq to Afghanistan

Secret Meeting with Taliban Group Member and Iraqi Government (Nov. 2000)

Iraqi Effort to Cooperate with Saudi Opposition Groups and Individuals

Order from Saddam to present $25,000 to Palestinian Suicide Bombers' Families

IIS Reports from Embassy in Paris: Plan to Influence French Stance in UN Security Council

IIS Report on How French Campaigns are Financed

Improvised Explosive Devices Plan

Ricin research and improvement

There are thousands of similar documents. Many have already been authenticated and most are unclassified. That's worth repeating: Most are unclassified.

Of course, nothing is more important than winning on the ground in Iraq. Demonstrating that we are killing terrorists and making steady progress on the political front will do much to blunt the criticism of the war. But if the White House refuses to challenge its critics, and refuses to explain in detail why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, and refuses to discuss the flawed intelligence on Iraqi WMD, and refuses to use its tremendous power to remind Americans that Saddam Hussein was, in fact, a threat, then it risks losing the support of those Americans who continue to believe that the Iraq war, despite all of its many costs in blood and money, was worth it.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.