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Bush Family Tradition: Ducking Scandal

By Robert Parry
July 15, 2005

If 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 July 2003.

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 allegations.

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.

False Memo

On July 12, the Republican National Committee distributed “talking 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 office.’”

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.

Neocon Strategy

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.

Walsh Bashing

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.

Congressional Republicans 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.

Nazi Investments

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 director.

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 Parry’s 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.

Parallel Universe

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 said.

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.”

'White Paper'

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.

Novak Column

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 memoir.

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 asked.”

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 Bush’s 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 election campaign.”

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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