Bush Family Tradition: Ducking
By Robert Parry
July 15, 2005
there is one trait that has followed the Bush family through generations
of privilege, it is the ability to escape scandal – a skill that will be
put to the test again over the leaking of the identity of an undercover
CIA officer, apparently to get back at her husband for criticizing
George W. Bush’s case for invading Iraq.
The criminal investigation into who revealed
Valerie Plame’s identity – and endangered clandestine operatives working
with her – has been building for two years. But it is finally reaching
critical mass with the disclosure that Bush’s political guru Karl Rove
discussed Plame’s CIA work with Time correspondent Matthew Cooper in
Rove appears to have been part of a P.R. campaign
to punish Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for writing
an article on July 6, 2003, that the administration had reason to doubt
claims about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium when Bush cited that
dramatic allegation in his State of the Union address in January 2003.
A United Nations agency debunked the yellowcake
claim in March 2003 – finding that it was based on forged documents –
but Rove and other Bush allies still went on the offensive against
Wilson in July 2003. Their primary line of attack was to assert that his
CIA wife had authorized his trip to Niger in 2002 to check out the
It was never clear why this trip-authorization
argument was relevant. Presumably it was meant to discredit Wilson by
suggesting that the guy was untrustworthy or needed his wife’s help to
get a job. (Incidentally, Wilson and Plame denied that Plame authorized
the trip, which was ordered by her CIA superiors.)
Yet, even today, Republicans and the powerful
conservative news media are continuing this denigration of Joe Wilson.
Since the disclosures about Rove tipping Time magazine about Mrs.
Wilson’s CIA work, Bush’s defenders have resumed the debate about who
authorized Wilson’s Niger trip.
On July 12, the Republican National Committee
points” asserting that Rove’s comments to Cooper were simply to save
the reporter from publishing a “false story based on a false premise” –
which the RNC defined as “Joe Wilson’s allegation that the vice
president sent him to Niger.”
But this assertion in the RNC’s talking-point memo
is false, even according to the Republicans’ own citation.
Here is how the Republicans lay out their case in
the memo: “Wilson falsely claimed that it was Vice President Cheney who
sent him to Niger, but the vice president has said he never met him and
didn’t know who sent him.”
However, the talking-point memo then details what
Wilson actually said:
“Wilson says he traveled to Niger at CIA request to
help provide response to vice president’s office. ‘In February 2002, I
was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice
President Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence
report. … The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check
out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president’s
So, Wilson is not claiming that Dick Cheney “sent
him” to Niger. Indeed, there is no contradiction between Wilson’s
explanation about the CIA asking him to check out a report that had
interested Cheney and Cheney’s statement that he didn’t know Wilson.
The RNC’s accusation that Wilson lied is another
example of the continuing GOP campaign against Wilson. It’s a case of
the RNC lying, not Wilson lying.
The “talking point” memo also is a classic example
of how the neoconservatives have used rhetorical games since the early
1980s when they rose to power under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
When people have come up with information that can
cause the neocons trouble, the neocons have applied an approach called
“controversializing” the accuser.
The process works whether that person is a federal
prosecutor (as in the case of Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence
Walsh), a member of Congress (as with Rep. Henry Gonzalez and his probe
of George H.W. Bush’s secret aid to Iraq); a journalist (as with New
York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, who wrote about Central
American death squads in the early 1980s); or a private citizen (like
Wilson was when he questioned Bush’s use of the yellowcake allegations).
In 1991-92, for
instance, Walsh – a lifelong Republican – closed in on the obstruction
of justice that had surrounded the Iran-Contra scandal for five years.
Walsh’s investigation broke through the White
House cover-up when his staff discovered hidden notes belonging to
former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
The notes made clear that there was widespread
knowledge of the 1985 illegal arms shipments to Iran and that George
Bush Sr. had been lying when he claimed that he was “not in the loop” on
the covert Iranian shipments.
The belated discovery led
to indictments against senior CIA officials and Weinberger. In
retaliation, the conservative Washington Times and the Wall Street
Journal’s editorial page fired near-daily barrages at Walsh often over
trivial matters, such as his first-class air fare or room-service meals.
also denounced Walsh and called for an end to his investigation. Key
mainstream columnists and editorial writers for the Washington Post and
the New York Times – along with many TV pundits – joined in the Walsh
bashings. Walsh was mocked as a modern-day Captain Ahab, the character
from Moby Dick.
In his memoir, Firewall, Walsh compared his trying experience to
another maritime classic, Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.
In that story, an aging fisherman hooks a giant marlin and, after a long
battle, secures the fish to side of his boat. On the way back to port,
the marlin is attacked by sharks that devour its flesh and deny the
fisherman his prize.
“As the independent
counsel, I sometimes felt like the old man,” Walsh wrote, “more often, I
felt like the marlin.”
The congressional and
media attacks limited Walsh's ability to pursue other false statements
by senior Reagan-Bush officials. Those perjury inquiries could have
unraveled a variety of national-security mysteries of the 1980s and
helped correct the history of the era. But Walsh could not overcome the
pack-like hostility of official Washington.
Rep. Gonzalez, D-Texas, encountered similar
ridicule in 1991-92 when he revealed that George H.W. Bush and other
senior Republicans had followed an ill-fated covert policy of coddling
Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
The Bush family’s success in brushing aside
scandals dates back even further to when Prescott Bush, George W. Bush’s
grandfather, escaped disgrace despite his role in helping to finance the
Nazi war machine in the years before World War II.
By the mid-1930s, Prescott Bush was a managing
partner of Brown Brothers Harriman, which handled a variety of sensitive
investments in Germany. When Germany and Japan went to war against the
United States in 1941, these holdings became political liabilities.
The U.S. government seized the property of the
Hamburg-Amerika line under the Trading with the Enemy Act in August
1942. The government also moved against affiliates of the Union Banking
Corporation where Nazi financial backer Fritz Thyssen had placed money.
UBC was run by Brown Brothers Harriman, and Prescott Bush was a UBC
For many public figures, allegations of trading
with the enemy would have been a political kiss of death, but the
disclosures barely left a lipstick smudge on Prescott Bush, Averell
Harriman and others implicated in the Nazi business dealings.
“Politically, the significance of these dealings –
the great surprise – is that none of it seemed to matter much over the
next decade or so,” wrote Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty. “A
few questions would be raised, but Democrat Averell Harriman would not
be stopped from becoming federal mutual security administrator in 1951
or winning election as governor of New York in 1954. …
“Nor would Republican Prescott Bush (who was
elected senator from Connecticut in 1952) and his presidential
descendants be hurt in any of their future elections. It is almost as if
these various German embroilments, despite their potential for scandal,
were regarded as unfortunate but in essence business as usual.”
But the quick dissipation of the Nazi financial
scandal was only a portent of the Bush family’s future. Unlike
politicians of lower classes, the Bushes seemed to operate in a bubble
impervious to accusations of impropriety. [For details, see Robert
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
That protective bubble has grown thicker over the
decades with the emergence of a strong conservative news media that can
be counted on to defend George W. Bush’s interests regardless of the
merits of his position.
Yet, in the continuing assault on former Ambassador
Wilson, Bush’s political allies seem to be testing the limits of how far
they can lure Americans into a parallel universe where Bush and his
White House team are always beyond reproach.
Rather than finally accept that some senior
officials in the White House may have acted improperly two years ago in
divulging the identity of Wilson’s wife as a covert CIA officer, the
Republican attack machine has stayed on the offensive.
“The angry Left is trying to smear” Rove, declared Republican
National Chairman Ken Mehlman, even as White House officials refused to
answer questions by citing an “ongoing investigation.” [Washington Post,
July 13, 2005]
So Rove – famous for his smear campaigns against George W. Bush’s
opponents from Texas Gov. Ann Richards to Arizona Sen. John McCain – is
being reinvented as a blameless victim.
Recent history also is being turned on its
head. What should be clear by this point is that the Bush administration
was determined in 2002 to construct a case for invading Iraq regardless
of the evidence and was using weapons of mass destruction as the hot
button that was sure to terrify the American people.
According to the infamous
Downing Street Memo on July 23, 2002, Richard Dearlove, chief of
the British intelligence agency MI6, described his discussions with
Bush’s National Security Council officials.
“Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military
action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the
intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Dearlove
The memo added, “It seemed clear that Bush had made
up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet
decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his
neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North
Korea or Iran.”
Though the British knew how flimsy the case was,
Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to throw in his lot with Bush for the
sake of the Anglo-American alliance.
On Sept. 24, 2002, Blair’s government published a
“white paper” on Iraq’s WMD stating, “there is intelligence that Iraq
has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
While this statement was technically true, the reality was that the
so-called “intelligence” resulted from an apparent forgery.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003,
Bush then cited the British “white paper” in what became known as the
“sixteen words.” In making his case for war with Iraq, Bush said, “The
British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought
significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Little more than a month later, on March 7, 2003,
the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the Niger documents as
“not authentic.” The next day, a State Department spokesman acknowledged
that the U.S. government “fell for it.”
Wilson then appeared on CNN, saying that the U.S. government had more
information about the Niger fabrication. After that appearance, Wilson
wrote in his memoir, The Politics of Truth, that sources told him
that a meeting in the vice president’s office led to a decision “to
produce a workup” to discredit Wilson.
Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19,
2003. Though U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s government three weeks
later, no caches of WMD were discovered, nor was there any evidence of
an active nuclear-weapons program.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed article for
the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” and appeared
on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to elaborate on his conclusion that Iraq had
not tried to buy uranium from Niger. Two days later, Wilson wrote in his
memoir, right-wing columnist Robert Novak told one of Wilson’s friends
that he (Novak) knew about Plame’s work for the CIA.
On July 11, 2003, Time magazine correspondent
Cooper wrote an internal e-mail saying that he “spoke to Rove on double
super secret background” and had gotten a “big warning” not to “get too
far out on Wilson.” Rove was pushing the theme that Wilson’s trip had
not been authorized by Cheney or CIA Director George Tenet, but rather
“wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd issues.”
The timing of Cooper’s e-mail was significant
because it preceded Novak’s public disclosure of Plame’s name three days
later on July 14. That meant Rove, a political operative, had been given
a discrete intelligence secret – the identity of a covert CIA officer –
prior to its appearance in the public domain.
In the July 14 column, Novak also stressed the
supposed relevance of Wilson’s wife allegedly intervening to get Wilson
the assignment. “Two senior administration
officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to
investigate” the yellowcake report.
After Novak’s column, the Bush administration
appears to have intensified its campaign to discredit Wilson. On July
20, 2003, NBC’s correspondent Andrea Mitchell told Wilson that “senior
White House sources” had called her to stress “the real story here is
not the 16 words … but Wilson and his wife,” according to Wilson’s
The next day, Wilson said he was told by MSNBC’s
Chris Matthews that “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says
and I quote, ‘Wilson’s wife is fair game.’ I will confirm that if
In that time frame, Novak told Newsday that he was
approached by the his sources with the information about Plame. “I
didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” Novak said. “They thought it was
significant, they gave me the name and I used it.” [Newsday,
July 22, 2003]
On July 30, 2003, the CIA requested a
Justice Department investigation into the disclosure of a covert CIA
officer, leading to the appointment of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald
as a special prosecutor five months later.
So far the Bush administration has been
able to contain the damage from the scandal. Rove personally oversaw
re-election campaign in 2004, when the Plame case was barely mentioned.
After Bush’s victory, Bush promoted
Rove to deputy White House chief of staff.
Since the scandal has resurfaced in the
past few weeks – as New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail
rather than divulge her sources and Time magazine agreed to cooperate
with Fitzgerald – the White House has refused to comment while letting
the RNC and the conservative news media carry the fight.
On July 13, 2005, the Wall Street Journal
editorial depicted Rove as not just a victim, but a hero. “Mr. Rove is
turning out to be the real ‘whistleblower’ in this whole sorry
pseudo-scandal,” the editorial said. “Mr. Rove provided important
background so Americans could understand that Mr. Wilson wasn’t a
whistleblower but a partisan trying to discredit the Iraq War in an
The pundits on Fox News and on right-wing
talk radio have pounded out similar messages to their audiences.
Still, whether George W.
Bush can match his father and grandfather in turning aside scandal is
yet to be decided.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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