The trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is being billed by the Big Media as a case study of a favorite Washington cliché – “it’s not the crime but the coverup” – a smugly delivered line suggesting that Libby committed no real offense beyond trimming a few facts when questioned by overzealous investigators.

But the major U.S. news media is again missing the point. The real significance of the Libby trial is that it could demonstrate how far George W. Bush went in 2003 to shut down legitimate criticism of his Iraq War policies as well as questions about his personal honesty.

In that sense, the trial could be a kind of time machine for transporting America back to that earlier era of not so long ago when Bush and his team felt they controlled reality itself and were justified in tricking the American people into bloody adventures overseas.

It was a time when President Bush swaggered across the political landscape, a modern-day king fawned over by courtiers in the government and the press – and protected by legions of followers who bullied citizens who dared to dissent.

Libby may be going on trial for five felony counts of lying and obstructing justice, but the essence of his criminal behavior was his work as a top enforcer responsible for intimidating Americans who wouldn’t stay in line behind the infallible Bush.

Though many Iraq War skeptics – from the Dixie Chicks to longtime U.S. allies in Europe, such as France – were punished for disagreeing with Bush, Libby’s most notable target was former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Wilson attracted the White House’s wrath in mid-2003 because he was one of the first Washington insiders to question the official consensus about Bush’s wisdom, courage and integrity.

Just months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as Bush basked in stratospheric poll numbers, Wilson went public with first-hand evidence that Bush had “twisted” intelligence to frighten Americans about the prospects of Iraq developing a nuclear bomb.

The former ambassador’s heresy was countered by administration officials who leaked the identity of Wilson’s wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame. They also enlisted Bush’s defenders in both the right-wing and mainstream media to wage an unstinting attack on Wilson’s credibility.

That campaign of vilification continues to this day, even though Wilson’s criticism of Bush’s honesty has long since been vindicated. Everytime I write about Wilson, I get a flurry of e-mails repeating administration-inspired canards about Wilson “the liar.”

Ugly Tale

This ugly back story of the Libby trial dates to early 2002 when Vice President Dick Cheney expressed interest in dubious reports that Iraq had sought to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger, presumably for a revived nuclear weapons program.

Senior CIA officials asked Plame, who was working on WMD issues, to approach her husband about a fact-finding trip to check out the Niger-yellowcake claims. Wilson, who had served as a U.S. diplomat in both Africa and Iraq, accepted the unpaid assignment, traveled to Niger and reported back that the allegations appeared to be false, a conclusion later confirmed by other U.S. investigations.

But the White House kept looking for ways to slip the alarming suspicions into its public statements, most notably when Bush inserted 16 words about the yellowcake accusation into his State of the Union address in January 2003. Gripped by fear of mushroom clouds, many Americans supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

After toppling Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003, however, the U.S. military couldn’t find Iraq’s supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, nor did they find evidence that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program.

As this reality began to sink in, Wilson told his Niger story anonymously to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote an article about the yellowcake inquiry. Figuring out the identity of Kristof’s source, the White House prepared to retaliate.

In his memoir, The Politics of Truth, Wilson cited sources as saying that a meeting in Cheney’s office led to a decision “to produce a workup” to discredit Wilson.

Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, asked Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, a neoconservative ally in the State Department, to prepare a memo on Wilson. Dated June 10, 2003, the memo referred to “Valerie Plame,” a CIA officer, as Wilson’s wife. [NYT, July 16, 2005]

CIA Director George Tenet also divulged to Cheney that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Niger – information that Cheney then passed on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes as described by lawyers in the case. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]

The administration shaped those two facts – Plame’s work for the CIA and her minor role in Wilson’s Niger trip – into key attack points against Wilson. On June 23, 2003, Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller (who was considered close to the administration’s neoconservative wing) about Wilson and may then have passed on the tip that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.

About the same time as the Libby-Miller meeting, conservative columnist Robert Novak received a surprise call from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s office offering an interview, Novak later recalled.

“During his quarter of a century in Washington, I had had no contact with Armitage before our fateful interview,” Novak wrote in a Sept. 14, 2006, column. “I tried to see him in the first 2 ½ years of the Bush administration, but he rebuffed me – summarily and with disdain, I thought.

“Then, without explanation, in June 2003, Armitage’s office said the deputy secretary would see me.”

Novak dated the call from Armitage’s office at about two weeks before Wilson went public with his Niger story via a New York Times Op-Ed on July 6, 2003, entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” In other words, Armitage's outreach to Novak and Libby's briefing of Miller came at virtually the same time.

Cheney’s Notes

As Cheney read Wilson’s article, a perturbed Vice President scribbled down questions he wanted pursued.

“Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing before?” Cheney wrote. “Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?”

Though Cheney did not write down Plame’s name, his questions indicated that he was aware that she worked for the CIA and was in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husband’s assignment to check out the Niger reports.

“Those annotations support the proposition that publication of the Wilson Op-Ed acutely focused the attention of the Vice President and the defendant – his chief of staff [Libby] – on Mr. Wilson, on the assertions made in his article, and on responding to these assertions,” special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald later wrote in a court filing.

That same eventful day – July 6, 2003 – Armitage called Carl W. Ford Jr., the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, at home and asked him to send a copy of Grossman’s memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to a former department official interviewed by the New York Times.

Since Powell was preparing to leave with Bush on a state visit to Africa, Ford forwarded Grossman’s memo to the White House for delivery to Powell, the former official told the Times. [NYT, July 16, 2005]

The next day, July 7, 2003, Bush left for Africa with Powell and other senior officials. But administration officials who stayed behind in Washington stepped up their efforts to counteract Wilson's Op-Ed.

On July 8, 2003, Libby gave Judith Miller more details about the Wilsons. Libby said Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation. Miller wrote down the words “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

That same day, Novak had his interview with Armitage. Novak later recalled that Armitage divulged Plame’s identity toward the end of an hour-long interview.

Armitage “told me unequivocally that Mrs. Wilson worked in the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division and that she had suggested her husband’s mission,” Novak wrote, adding that Armitage seemed to want the information published.

Armitage “noted that the story of Mrs. Wilson’s role fit the style of the old Evans-Novak column – implying to me that it [the column] continued reporting Washington inside information,” Novak wrote. [Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2006]

Feeling encouraged by Armitage to disclose the Plame connection to Wilson’s trip, Novak contacted Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove, who confirmed the story as Novak’s second source.

“I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” Novak later told Newsday, adding that Bush administration officials “thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.” [Newsday, July 22, 2003]

Out of Africa

Meanwhile, senior officials in Bush’s traveling party to Africa were trying to plant the same anti-Wilson stories.

To the administration’s dismay, the Niger-yellowcake deceit was dogging Bush’s Africa trip. At every stop, questions were asked about how the infamous “16 words” on Niger’s yellowcake ended up in the State of the Union speech.

Bush’s spokesman Ari Fleischer was finally forced to concede that the yellowcake allegation was “incorrect” and should not have been included in the speech. On July 11, 2003, CIA Director Tenet took the fall for the State of the Union screw-up, apologizing for not better vetting the speech.

“This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches,” Tenet said.

The admission was one of the first times the Bush team had retreated on any national security issue. Administration officials were embarrassed, incensed and determined to punish Wilson.

Time magazine correspondent John Dickerson, who was on the Africa trip, said administration officials urged him to pursue the seemingly insignificant question of who had been involved in arranging Wilson’s trip.

While Bush was meeting with the president of Uganda, one “senior administration official” pulled Dickerson aside and told him that “some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission” and Dickerson “should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.”

Later, Dickerson discussed Wilson with a second “senior administration official” and got the same advice. “This official also pointed out a few times that Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee and encouraged me to follow that angle,” Dickerson recalled.

“At the end of the two conversations I wrote down in my notebook: ‘look who sent.’ … What struck me was how hard both officials were working to knock down Wilson.

“Discrediting your opposition is a standard tactic in Washington, but the Bush team usually played the game differently. At that stage in the first term, Bush aides usually blew off their critics. Or, they continued to assert their set of facts in the hope of overcoming criticism by force of repetition.” ” [See Dickerson’s article, “Where’s My Subpoena?” for Slate, Feb. 7, 2006]

Back in Washington on July 11, 2003, Dickerson’s Time colleague, Matthew Cooper, was getting a similar earful from Rove, who tried to steer Cooper away from Wilson’s information on the Niger deception and toward the notion that the Niger trip was authorized by “Wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency [CIA] on WMD issues,” according to Cooper’s interview notes. [See Newsweek, July 18, 2005, issue]

Cooper later got the information about Wilson’s wife confirmed by Cheney’s chief of staff Libby, who was peddling the same information to Judith Miller.

On July 12, 2003, in a telephone conversation, Libby and Miller returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” apparently another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife, Valerie. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

The Novak Column

Two days later, on July 14, 2003, Novak – having gotten confirmation about Plame’s identity from Rove – published a column, citing two administration sources outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilson’s Niger trip as a case of nepotism.

The disclosure of Plame’s identity effectively meant the end of her CIA career and put the lives of her overseas contacts in jeopardy. But the White House counterattack against Wilson had only just begun.

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 [from Bush’s State of the Union speech] but Wilson and his wife.”

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.’”

However, CIA officials, angered by the damage done to Plame’s spy network, lodged a complaint with the Justice Department about whether the leaks amounted to an illegal exposure of a CIA officer.

But the initial investigation was under the direct control of Attorney General John Ashcroft. So, Bush and other White House officials confidently denied any knowledge of the leak.

Bush even vowed to fire anyone who leaked classified material.

“The President has set high standards, the highest of standards, for people in his administration,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said on Sept. 29, 2003. “If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.”

Bush personally announced he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.

“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.”

Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters.

Bush’s legal danger came into clearer focus later with the release of a court document citing testimony from Libby, who claimed that Bush approved the selective release of intelligence in July 2003 to counter growing complaints that Bush had hyped evidence on Iraq’s pursuit of uranium.

Libby testified that he was told by Cheney that Bush had approved a plan in which Libby would tell a specific New York Times reporter about the CIA’s secret analysis, according to a court filing by special prosecutor Fitzgerald.

“Defendant’s [Libby’s] participation in a critical conversation with Judith Miller on July 8 [2003] occurred only after the Vice President advised defendant that the President specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE,” the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the filing said.

In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role and possibly to signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.

Retaliation

Privately, some administration officials acknowledged that the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge Bush on the WMD intelligence.

In September 2003, a White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column. The official said the disclosure was “purely and simply out of revenge.”

Bush’s cover-up might have worked, except in late 2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as the special prosecutor. Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively, even demanding that journalists testify about the White House leaks.

Yet, from 2003 to 2005, as the Plame case grew into a political embarrassment for Bush, Republican operatives and their right-wing media allies stepped up efforts to transform Wilson – a private citizen – into a national bete noire.

The Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made misleading and derogatory claims about Wilson’s honesty in a WMD report.

The Republican National Committee posted an article entitled “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which itself used glaring inaccuracies and misstatements to discredit Wilson. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Novak Recycles Gannon on ‘Plame-gate.’”]

Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay – and for reporting accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims – the Bush administration sought to smear the former ambassador.

But Bush’s strategy did not entirely succeed. In October 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Libby on five counts of perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. Libby resigned from Cheney’s staff.

In a court filing on April 5, 2006, Fitzgerald added that his investigation had uncovered a “concerted” effort by the White House to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” Wilson because of his criticism of the administration’s handling of the Niger evidence.

Still, the cost to the Wilsons was high. Sidelined by the notoriety from the scandal and faced with the destruction of her spy network, Plame eventually quit the CIA. (It was later revealed that Plame’s operation was focused on obtaining intelligence about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, another flash point that could boil over into a new war.)

Even then, the public punishment of Wilson wasn’t over.

In late summer 2006, authors Michael Isikoff and David Corn promoted an angle in their book, Hubris, that identified the State Department’s Armitage as Novak’s original source on the CIA identity of Valerie Plame.

The Isikoff-Corn disclosure was quickly cited by the mainstream Washington press corps as vindication for the Bush administration and yet another reason to dump on Joe Wilson.

The Armitage Mistake

Since the “conventional wisdom” held that Armitage wasn’t part of the administration’s neocon inner circle and was a skeptic about the Iraq War, the major news media jumped on the story as evidence that there never had been a White House conspiracy to punish Wilson by outing his wife.

“It follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House – that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity – is untrue,” a Washington Post editorial declared on Sept. 1, 2006.

While acknowledging that Libby and other White House officials were not “blameless,” since they allegedly released Plame’s identity while “trying to discredit Mr. Wilson,” the Post still reserved its harshest condemnation for Wilson, blaming his criticism of Bush’s false State of the Union claim for Plame’s exposure.

“It now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson,” the Post editorial said. “Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming – falsely, as it turned out – that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials.

“He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”

The Post’s editorial, however, is at best an argumentative smear and most likely a willful lie. Along with other government investigators, Wilson did debunk the reports of Iraq acquiring yellowcake in Niger and those findings did circulate to senior levels, explaining why CIA Director Tenet struck the yellowcake claims from other Bush speeches.

(The Post’s accusation about Wilson “falsely” claiming to have debunked the yellowcake reports apparently is based on Wilson’s inclusion in his report of speculation from one Niger official who suspected that Iraq might be interested in buying yellowcake, although the Iraqi officials never mentioned yellowcake and made no effort to buy any. This irrelevant point has been a centerpiece of Republican attacks on Wilson.)

In shifting the blame for exposing Plame’s identity away from the White House and Novak and onto Wilson, Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt also absolved himself since he published Novak’s column revealing Plame’s identity in the first place.

Contrary to the Post’s assertion that Wilson “ought to have expected” that the White House and Novak would zero in on Wilson’s wife, a reasonable expectation in a normal world would have been just the opposite.

Even amid the ugly partisanship of today’s Washington, it was shocking to many longtime observers of government that any administration official or even an experienced journalist would disclose the name of a covert CIA officer for such a flimsy reason as trying to discredit her husband.

And only in this upside-down world would a major newspaper be so irresponsible and so dishonest as to lay off the blame for exposing a CIA officer on her husband because he dared criticize lies told by the President of the United States, deceptions that have led the nation into a military debacle and to the deaths of more than 3,000 American soldiers.

The day after the Post’s editorial, the New York Times took a slightly different tack in defending the White House. The Times article suggested that special prosecutor Fitzgerald was the real villain for having pursued the Plame investigation for more than two years after Armitage had admitted in secret grand jury testimony that he was Novak’s firstl source. [NYT, Sept. 2, 2006]

Armitage-Rove Connection

But these major news outlets had missed another key fact. They assumed that Armitage – as Colin Powell’s well-liked deputy – had no significant connection to the White House political machinations.

That was not the reality, according to a well-placed conservative source who spoke with me. An early supporter of George W. Bush who knew both Armitage and Rove, the source told me that Armitage and Rove were much closer than many Washington insiders knew.

Armitage and Rove developed a friendship and a close working relationship when Bush was lining up Powell to be his Secretary of State, the source said. In those negotiations, Armitage stood in for Powell and Rove represented Bush – and after that, the two men provided a back channel for sensitive information to pass between the White House and the State Department, the source said.

The significance of this detail is that it undermines the current “conventional wisdom” among Washington pundits that Armitage acted alone – and innocently – in July 2003 when he disclosed Plame’s covert identity to Novak, who then turned to Rove as a secondary source confirming the information from Armitage.

The revelation from the conservative source as well as Novak’s version of how he got the story – “I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me” – suggest that Armitage and Rove were collaborating on the anti-Wilson operation, not simply operating on parallel tracks without knowing what the other was doing.

The mainstream media’s assumption that Armitage “inadvertently” let Plame’s identity slip out almost as gossip also was challenged by my conservative source. When I asked him about that scenario, he laughed and said, “Armitage isn’t a gossip, but he is a leaker. There’s a difference.”

Also forgotten in the mainstream news coverage was the fact that in 1998, Armitage was one of the 18 signatories to a seminal letter from the neoconservative Project for the New American Century urging President Bill Clinton to oust Saddam Hussein by military force if necessary.

Armitage joined a host of neoconservative icons, such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, William Kristol, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. Many of the signers, including Donald Rumsfeld, would become architects of Bush’s Iraq War policy five years later.

Nevertheless, the Armitage-as-innocent-gossip version of events was embraced by leading Washington pundits as the final proof that Rove and the White House had gotten a bum rap on the Plame affair.

In a Sept. 7, 2006, article, entitled “One Leak and a Flood of Silliness,” veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that publications which had made allegations about White House wrongdoing “owe Karl Rove an apology. And all of journalism needs to relearn the lesson: Can the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts.”

But David Broder, Fred Hiatt and the other see-no-evil pundits appear to be the ones ignoring facts in favor of a more pleasant “conventional wisdom” about well-meaning Bush aides who would never think about smearing some Iraq War critic.

As the Libby case finally gets underway, the trial will offer another opportunity for the major news media to climb back into that time machine and travel back to the happier era when everyone who mattered in Washington just knew that George W. Bush was always right and anyone who thought otherwise must be a “conspiracy theorist.”

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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