The Republicans scored a political victory of sorts by thwarting a non-binding Senate resolution that would have expressed mild disapproval of George W. Bush’s military escalation in Iraq. When the resolution was blocked, White House officials reportedly gave each other high-fives.

The GOP’s use of parliamentary procedures to prevent a floor debate was another sharp elbow in the ribs of the new Democratic congressional majority, which has been trying since November to behave in a bipartisan way on foreign policy, graciously approving Bush’s new war council with nary a tough question.

However, perhaps the humiliation over the Iraq War resolution will finally show the Democrats that it’s time to play the political game the way the Republicans do – to win. It also may be time to start seeking meaningful accountability from senior figures in this administration, not just from low-level has-beens like former Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer.

For instance, there’s the case of Vice President Dick Cheney, who organized a smear campaign against Iraq War critic Joseph Wilson. The public evidence is now overwhelming that Cheney abused his authority to discredit Wilson, a former ambassador who had undertaken an important fact-finding assignment for the CIA.

Currently, Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is on trial, facing five felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly seeking to conceal his role in attacking Wilson, which included disclosing the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer.

After Plame’s identity was exposed, her CIA career was destroyed and her spy network examining nuclear proliferation in the Middle East was compromised.

Since independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has given no indication that he intends to expand his Plame-gate investigation beyond the Libby trial, it perhaps is time for the House Judiciary Committee to formulate plans for hearings on Cheney’s role.

Committee hearings could take the form of oversight for possible changes in the law to protect the identities of CIA officers or the hearings could address a possible censure resolution against Cheney. Arguably, Cheney’s actions deserve consideration for impeachment, but Democratic leaders have ruled that “off the table.”

Still, by having the House Judiciary Committee – the body responsible for initiating impeachment proceedings – hold the hearings, the Democrats would send a message that they are no longer willing to be trifled with, nor will they tolerate continuing innuendos that their opposition to the Iraq War shows they lack patriotism.

Beyond the Trial

Fitzgerald may be exercising prosecutorial discretion in not indicting a sitting Vice President, but that leniency should not spare Cheney from all punishment for harming two American citizens – and endangering U.S. national security by exposing Plame’s spy network.

The evidence that the Libby trial already has put on the public record about Cheney’s role is certainly damning. There also can be little doubt that Cheney’s actions deserve more public scrutiny than is occurring in the Libby trial which is held in a federal courtroom where cameras are not allowed.
.
In June 2003, it is now clear that Cheney initiated an anti-Wilson smear campaign that reached beyond the Vice President’s staff to recruit participants from the President’s office and the State Department as well as journalists who were fed derogatory information.

Cheney’s goal was to disparage Wilson for criticizing Bush’s claims about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger, a high-profile and alarming assertion that Bush made in his State of the Union Address in January 2003.

Wilson, who had undertaken a CIA assignment in 2002 to check out the suspicion, had returned with a conclusion that the allegation was bogus, a finding shared by other officials who examined the charge. After the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Wilson began talking to reporters about how the administration had “twisted” the intelligence.

Furious, Cheney launched the anti-Wilson campaign. He got Bush to declassify selected portions of a National Intelligence Estimate that lent some support to the Niger claim; he learned that Wilson’s wife worked in the CIA’s counter-proliferation office; he passed that sensitive information on to his subordinates; they gave the information to reporters so they could depict Wilson’s pro bono mission to Africa as a junket based on nepotism.

In July 2003, about a week after Wilson went public with his criticism of the “twisted” intelligence on the African uranium, Cheney’s machinations paid off. Right-wing columnist Robert Novak published Plame’s identity and gave it just the negative spin the White House wanted.

Yet, as Cheney – a former member of the House Intelligence Committee and ex-Defense Secretary – surely understood, there was a high probability that since Plame was working in the CIA’s counter-proliferation office, she was a covert CIA officer and that her position was classified.

Indeed, the identities of covert CIA officers are among the capital’s most closely guarded secrets. Despite subsequent claims by the right-wing news media that these identities are routinely bandied about Washington, the opposite is true.

To protect the safety of covert officers and their spy networks, these CIA identities are shared only on a strict need-to-know basis. On the rare occasion such information reaches a journalist, most reporters voluntarily protect the secrets unless there is a compelling journalistic reason to do otherwise.

Even in the vengeful climate of George W. Bush’s Washington, the idea that senior government officials would willfully leak this sort of sensitive information was almost unthinkable to many.

But Cheney and Bush went even further. Faced with a criminal investigation, they orchestrated a cover-up of the leak.

The Cover-up

After the CIA protested the disclosure of Plame’s covert identity, a criminal investigation began in September 2003. However, instead of offering up the information they possessed, Bush and Cheney allowed the presidential press office to issue misleading assurances about the innocence of White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove.

When Libby wasn’t included in the first batch of officials to get a clean bill of health, Cheney complained. He wrote a note to presidential spokesman Scott McClellan which read, “not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres. that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others.”

The original wording of the note, which was introduced as evidence in the Libby trial, suggests that “the Pres.” was responsible for sending Libby out to meet with the reporters to undermine Wilson. Cheney, however, crossed out “the Pres.” and inserted a passive tense, “that was asked.”

Nevertheless, the note is evidence that Cheney was pressuring McClellan to issue a statement absolving Libby when Cheney knew that Libby was deeply involved in the anti-Wilson media campaign.

Bush himself offered a deceptive comment when asked about the Plame-gate affair. On Sept. 30, 2003, he announced that he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter but apparently didn't mean it.

“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said. “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 alleged Iraqi nuclear program and that he had authorized Cheney to disseminate those secrets to reporters to undermine Wilson.

In other words, Bush knew a great deal about the circumstances of the anti-Wilson leaks because he had authorized some of them.

Indeed, Bush’s comments could be viewed as a signal to his co-conspirators to lie. Since Libby and others knew that Bush himself was withholding evidence, they could read his comment as a sign that they should join him in the cover-up, even as he was giving the public the false impression that he wanted the full story told.

Co-conspirators

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

“Defendant’s [Libby’s] participation in a critical conversation with [Time reporter] 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 filing said.

But the Libby case is unlikely to flesh out the roles of Bush and Cheney. The purpose of a criminal trial is to prove the guilt of the defendant, not to compile a complete historical record or to put the facts in the fullest possible context.

In this case, however, since two of Libby’s defacto un-indicted co-conspirators are the President and Vice President of the United States, the American people have a legitimate right to know exactly how Bush and Cheney fit into the larger picture.

That responsibility would legitimately fall to Congress – and reasonably to the House Judiciary Committee.

Hearings on the applicability of the law protecting CIA officers or on a censure motion against the Vice President also would send a powerful message to the White House – that the Democratic majority is not averse to going head to head with the administration.

Despite the Republican defeat in November, the Bush administration has left no doubt it intends to continue playing political hardball. The question before the congressional Democrats is whether they will play that way, too.

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.'

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page