Five years ago this month, an extraordinary battle was taking shape in the shadows of official Washington: a former U.S. ambassador was preparing to go public to challenge a central deception used by the White House to justify invading Iraq – and the Bush administration was readying a fierce counterattack against him.

Now, after many nasty clashes – which led to the exposure of a covert CIA officer, a criminal White House cover-up, a special prosecutor investigation, the conviction of a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and a subsequent presidential commutation – one key administration insider finally has agreed to testify before Congress.

Ex-White House press secretary Scott McClellan is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on June 20 to answer questions about President George W. Bush’s false claim that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq bought 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger -- and about the later cover-up of this deception.

McClellan will be asked, too, what he knows about the administration’s role in blowing the cover of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson, whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was the one who blew the whistle on the false Niger claim.

The back-drop for the hearings also will include the unrelenting assaults that Bush’s political and media allies have directed against Wilson, an example of what McClellan has called Washington’s slash-and-burn culture of the “permanent campaign.”

Although it’s long been established that Wilson was right about the inaccuracy of Bush’s Niger claim – and indeed the administration has admitted that it never should have been inserted into Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address – the coordinated Republican attacks on Wilson’s credibility have not abated even to this day.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of this long-running saga may be that instead of thanking Wilson for his original investigation into the Niger issue in 2002 and recognizing his courage in exposing the use of false intelligence in 2003, Republicans have continued to recite talking points that disparage Wilson and his wife.

It remains unclear, however, whether McClellan’s testimony will shed significant new light on the “Plame-gate” affair or simply will reiterate what’s already been revealed over the past five years, including what McClellan wrote in his memoir, What Happened: Inside The Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.

Congressional staffers, who requested anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss details of the hearing, say McClellan will be asked about relevant conversations that took place among the White House principals: Vice President Cheney, then-White House political adviser Karl Rove, Cheney’s former Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and President Bush.

Cheney Suspicions

The committee wants McClellan, who was deputy press secretary during the early phase of the Iraq War, to elaborate on the roles of Bush, Cheney, Hadley and Rice in the long-running campaign to discredit Wilson.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent Attorney General Michael Mukasey a letter indicating that Vice President Cheney may have authorized Libby to leak Plame’s identity as part of the anti-Wilson campaign.

"In his interview with the FBI, Mr. Libby stated that it was ‘possible’ that Vice President Cheney instructed him to disseminate information about Ambassador Wilson's wife to the press,” Waxman wrote, urging the Justice Department to release the FBI’s interview with Cheney.

(On Monday, Waxman issued a subpoena to the Justice Department for the transcripts of the FBI interviews with both Bush and Cheney.)

The committee wants to know if McClellan can offer insight into the vice president’s role as well as explain why the administration continued to peddle the Niger story after it was challenged by internal investigations and after the documents asserting the uranium sale were exposed as forgeries.

Despite those internal findings, the bogus uranium deal was referenced in a Jan. 23, 2003, op-ed by then-National Security Adviser Rice, who claimed Iraq was actively trying "to get uranium from abroad."

The Niger claim also showed up in Bush’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2003, as what became known as the “Sixteen Words”: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The White House has never provided a full accounting of how the Niger story, despite warnings from several government agencies that it was unreliable, wound its way from strange-looking documents that surfaced in Italy to become a key element of Bush’s case for war.

By securing McClellan’s testimony (assuming the White House does not assert a last-minute claim of executive privilege), some Democratic lawmakers hope they can fill in some holes in the narrative – and determine what Bush and his inner circle knew and when they knew it.

Wilson Speaks Out

Former Ambassador Wilson’s role in the Niger case began in early 2002 when CIA officials were looking for people with the right connections to check out the claims that Iraq had obtained uranium from Niger.

Wilson, a former senior diplomat in both Iraq and Africa, was selected by the CIA’s counter-proliferation unit where Wilson’s wife worked as a covert officer, who used “non-official cover” to track dangerous weapons in the Middle East. “Non-official cover” assignments are considered some of the CIA’s riskiest.

After agreeing to undertake the unpaid assignment, Wilson traveled to Niger in February 2002, met with a number of high-level contacts and returned with the conclusion that the Niger suspicions were almost surely false. Wilson’s assessment matched with other internal reviews.

On Jan. 12, 2003, a half month before Bush’s State of the Union, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) "expressed concerns to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries," according to a declassified State Department memo.

Those concerns, according to the memo, were the reason that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to cite the Niger deal when he appeared before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, one week after Bush's State of the Union.

"After considerable back and forth between the CIA, the (State) Department, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and the British, Secretary Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council did not mention attempted Iraqi procurement of uranium due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement," the memo said.

In the days after Bush’s State of the Union, Wilson also began questioning why the dubious information was included in the president's address.

Wilson said he tried to contact the White House through various channels to get the administration to correct the public record.

"I had direct discussions with the State Department [and] Senate committees," Wilson told me in a later interview. "I had a civic duty to hold my government to account for what it had said and done."

Wilson said he was rebuffed at every instance and that he received word, through National Security Adviser Rice, that he could state his case in writing in a public forum.

By early March 2003, as Bush was putting the finishing touches on his plans for invading Iraq, IAEA’s director-general Mohamed ElBaradei also weighed in, dismissing the Niger yellowcake documents as forgeries.

In that context, Wilson began going public, though not yet disclosing his personal role in traveling to Niger to investigate the issue.

”We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for something like this to go unchallenged by the U.S. - the U.S. government - is just simply stupid,” Wilson told CNN on March 8, 2003. “It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an embassy there since the early 1960s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted market of buyers and sellers.”

Angering Cheney

ElBaradei’s finding and Wilson's comment enraged Cheney who had personally pushed for using the Niger claims.

Cheney appeared on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on March 16, 2003, to respond to ElBaradei's assertion that the Niger documents were forgeries.

“I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said. “[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."

The White House also reacted against the challenges to the Niger story by distributing an op-ed written by deputy national security adviser Hadley entitled "Two Potent Iraqi Weapons: Denial and Deception," which reiterated the claim that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger.

After the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Wilson continued speaking with journalists about the bogus Niger claim, leading to an article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that cited Wilson’s fact-finding trip to Africa without mentioning Wilson’s name.

Kristof accused Cheney of allowing the truth about the Niger uranium to go "missing in action."

A phone call to the White House from another reporter, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, set off more alarm bells and prompted Libby to ask about Wilson’s February 2002 trip to Niger.

Carl Ford Jr., head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, responded to Libby in a memo dated June 10, 2003, saying Wilson did undertake a mission to Niger to investigate the yellowcake suspicions.

“This was the very first time there was written evidence - not notes, but a request for a report - from the State Department that documented why the Niger intel was bullshit," Ford told me in an interview.

"It scared the heck out of a lot of people [in the administration] because it proved that this guy, Wilson's story was credible. I don't think anybody wanted the media to know that the State Department disagreed with the intelligence used by the White House."

The War on Wilson

McClellan wrote in his book that the White House’s behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit Wilson heated up in June 2003.

“The vice president and Libby were quietly stepping up their efforts to counter the allegations of the anonymous envoy to Niger, and Pincus's story was one opportunity for them to do just that,” McClellan wrote.

Internal White House discussions, involving Bush and Cheney, led to a decision to disseminate parts of a secret October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to selected reporters to counter Wilson, according to testimony from White House officials during Libby’s criminal trial in 2007.

David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel, testified that Libby asked him in late June or early July 2003 about whether the president had the authority to declassify documents on his own.

"The answer I gave was, 'Of course, yes. It's clear the president has the authority to determine what constitutes a national security secret and who can have access to it,'" Addington testified.

Addington also recalled that Libby was curious about what paperwork might exist at the CIA about a spouse having a role in an official trip, an obvious reference to the White House’s planned attack line against Wilson.

"If somebody worked out at the CIA and the CIA sent the person's spouse on a trip to do something for the CIA, would there be a record out at the CIA of that," Libby wanted to know, according to Addington.

Addington said he told Libby "the kind of paperwork would depend on whether you were on the operational side of the CIA, the folks who run spies overseas, if you will, or on the analytical side, the folks at CIA who write reports for policymakers and so forth about what is going on in the world."

In June 2003, with Bush agreeing to selectively declassify portions of the secret NIE on Iraq, Libby chose New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as the recipients of the information.

The journalists were urged by Libby to report that Iraq had, in fact, attempted to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Hearing About Plame

A week before he met with Libby, around June 16, 2003, Woodward met with two other government officials, one of whom was later revealed to be Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

According to a subsequent account by Woodward, Armitage told him in a "casual" and off-handed manner that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Woodward said he also met with Libby on June 27, 2003, and was told that "the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned ‘yellowcake’ and said there was an effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa. It goes back to February '02. This was the time of Wilson's trip to Niger."

Judy Miller’s notes of her meeting with Libby also indicated that Libby mentioned that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. However, neither Miller nor Woodward wrote stories for their newspapers in 2003 about the segments of the intelligence report that Libby leaked to them or about Wilson’s wife.

The sub-rosa battle, pitting the White House against former Ambassador Wilson, finally came to the surface on July 6, 2003, when Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed revealing his February 2002 trip to Niger and directly challenging Bush’s use of the bogus yellowcake story.

In the following days, even as the administration was forced to backtrack on the Niger claims by acknowledging that the information should not have been included in Bush’s State of the Union, Bush’s aides and allies stepped up the campaign to discredit Wilson.

On one front, Libby and Cheney continued to peddle the Niger intelligence as real. On another front, administration officials disparaged Wilson by suggesting that his Niger trip had been a junket arranged by his CIA wife.

That was the angle that right-wing columnist Robert Novak took in an article on July 14, 2003, that relied on information from Armitage and White House political adviser Karl Rove to report that Valerie Plame Wilson worked at the CIA and had a hand in arranging her husband’s trip to Africa.

After Novak’s column, Libby contacted then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and asked him to contact the editorial department at the Wall Street Journal to leak the NIE to the paper as a way of further undermining Wilson. Libby later testified that Cheney approved the leak to the Journal.

"The Vice President thought we should still try and get the [NIE] out. And so he asked me to talk to the Wall Street Journal. I don't have as good a relationship with the Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did, and so we talked to Secretary Wolfowitz about trying to get that point across [to the Journal], and he undertook to do so," Libby told a federal grand jury.

Wolfowitz faxed the Wall Street Journal a set of "talking points" about Wilson that the newspaper's editors could use to discredit Wilson in print, according to Libby's testimony. Wolfowitz also gave the newspaper a portion of the NIE.

The Journal printed Wolfowitz's talking points verbatim in a July 17, 2003, editorial, which misled its readers about the source of the information.

According to the editorial, "Yellowcake Remix," the Journal said the data the newspaper received about Iraq's interest in uranium "does not come from the White House" (although that is where it originated, albeit laundered through Wolfowitz at the Pentagon).

Unintended Consequences

The administration did grudgingly acknowledge that Wilson was right about the substantive point regarding the bogus Niger claims – CIA Director George Tenet stepped forward to take the fall for not better vetting Bush’s State of the Union. But the war against Wilson never abated.

Indeed, attacking Wilson as a liar and a blowhard became a favorite pastime of Republican loyalists, the right-wing press corps and even more mainstream pro-war outlets, such as the Washington Post’s editorial pages.

However, the White House whispering about Wilson’s CIA wife had unintended consequences. Believing that the leak of Plame’s identity violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, the CIA referred the case to the Justice Department, which began a criminal probe.

Initially, the probe didn’t seem likely to go very far because it was under the control of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was considered a staunch Bush ally. Plus, leak investigations rarely nail the culprits.

So, in early fall 2003, President Bush may have felt safe in announcing his determination to get to the bottom of the Plame leak.

“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.

In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the scheme to discredit Wilson got started – since he helped start it – the president uttered misleading public statements that obscured the White House role.

Also, since the leakers knew that Bush already was in the know, they might well have read his comments as a signal to lie, which is what they did. In early October, McClellan said he had been assured by Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams that they were not involved in the Plame leak.

That comment riled Libby, who feared that he was being hung out to dry. Libby went to his boss, Vice President Cheney, complaining that “they want me to be the sacrificial lamb,” Libby’s lawyer Theodore Wells said later.

Cheney scribbled down his feelings in a note to press secretary McClellan: “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.”

In the note, Cheney initially ascribed Libby’s role in going after Wilson to Bush’s orders, but the vice president apparently thought better of it, crossing out “the Pres” and putting the clause in a passive tense.

Cheney has never explained the meaning of his note publicly, but it suggests that it was Bush who sent Libby out on the get-Wilson mission to limit damage from Wilson’s criticism of Bush’s false Niger-yellowcake claim.

Another Turn

The case took another unexpected turn in December 2003 when Ashcroft recused himself and Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was named as a special prosecutor.

Fitzgerald pursued the investigation with greater vigor, including compelling testimony from journalists including Judith Miller (who spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to talk).

In October 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Libby on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. The court proceedings eventually put onto the public record evidence that Bush had authorized the selective leaking of the NIE to undermine Wilson in 2003.

In his book, McClellan said in early 2006 a reporter asked a question about the allegation that Bush cleared Libby to leak the NIE.

Aboard Air Force One, McClellan wrote that he repeated the question to the president and was stunned by the response.

A reporter “asserted you authorized the leak of part of the NIE,” McClellan wrote about the conversation with Bush.

“Yeah, I did,” Bush responded.

McClellan wrote: “The look on his face said he didn’t want to discuss the matter any further. Nor did I expect him to, since he had already been advised by his personal attorney Jim Sharp not to discuss any details related to the Libby trial.

“I was shocked to hear the president casually acknowledging its accuracy, as if discussing something no more important than a baseball score or the latest tidbit of inside-the-Beltway gossip.”

McClellan wondered whether allowing the NIE leak had somehow caused the same officials to divulge Plame’s CIA status.

“Questions were also raised about whether the president's action had set in motion the unauthorized disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity,” McClellan wrote.

Consequences

The blowing of Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert identity led to the end of her CIA career in late 2005 as well as the apparent destruction of her spy network that had been tracking dangerous weapons in the Middle East.

When Libby went on trial in early 2007, the Republican campaign against Wilson and his wife reached a crescendo, including false claims by Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing and others that Plame had never been covert in the first place. [For details on this and other misrepresentations, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Time to Apologize to Plame/Wilson” or Neck Deep.]

On March 6, 2007, Libby was convicted on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 30 months in jail, but his sentence was commuted by President Bush to spare him jail time.

Now, five years after the Plame-gate affair began, the House Judiciary Committee finally has secured an agreement from a White House insider, former press secretary McClellan, to give congressional testimony about how and why it all happened.

Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org

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