Plamegate: Dick Cheney's Role

by Ray McGovern

In yesterday's essay, "Why Plame Matters," we suggested that the White House assault on the reputations of former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife had much to do with "the particular lie that Wilson exposed," and we discussed the unusual role Vice President Dick Cheney played regarding the bogus "intelligence" about Iraq seeking to acquire uranium from Niger. Our Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) files provide contemporaneous insight into Cheney's unusual involvement and throw light on continuing attempts to disguise it.

Continuing attempts? Investigative journalist Robert Parry, writing Tuesday for, notes that atop the Republican National Committee's list of "Joe Wilson's Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements" sits "Wilson insisted that the vice president's office sent him to Niger." That's not exactly what Wilson said, but let's leave that point aside for the moment. What strikes me is the rather transparent 2-year-old campaign to dissociate Cheney from L'Affaire Iraq-Niger.

On July 14, 2003, the day of Robert Novak's opening salvo against the Wilsons, VIPs wrote a memorandum for the president with two main sections: "The Forgery Flap," and "The Vice President's Role." In that memo, we also made an important recommendation that appeared a bit extreme at the time, but it was already possible to discern what was going on:

"We recommend that you call an abrupt halt to attempts to prove Vice President Cheney 'not guilty.' His role has been so transparent that such attempts will only erode further your own credibility. Equally pernicious, from our perspective, is the likelihood that intelligence analysts will conclude that the way to success is to acquiesce in the cooking of their judgments, since those above them will not be held accountable. We strongly recommend that you ask for Cheney's immediate resignation."

Protesting (or Protecting) Too Much
We were all children once. Remember how, when you and your peers got caught in some mischief, the ringleader had to be protected? "Who decided to do this terrible thing?" was often the question. "Not Dick (or Tom or Harry)" was often the instinctive, immediate answer. Remember how, as a parent, that made you really wonder about Dick (or Tom or Harry)?

In our memo of July 14, 2003, we warned President George W. Bush that the Iraq-seeking-uranium-in-Niger forgery was "a microcosm of a mischievous nexus of overarching problems" in his White House. We cited the remarks of then-presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer earlier that week, which (as noted above) set the tone for what has followed – right up to today. When asked about the forgery Fleischer noted – as if drawing on well-memorized talking points – that the vice president was not guilty of anything. (The denial was gratuitous; the question asked did not even mention the vice president's possible role.) And the liturgy of absolution continued on July 11, 2003, when then-director of the CIA George Tenet did his awkward best to absolve the vice president of responsibility.

The "Particular Lie" and Forgery
We noted yesterday that the main motivation of the White House campaign to discredit the Wilsons had to do with "the particular lie that Joseph Wilson exposed and the essential role it played in the administration's plans." The lie was that Iraq was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons and that, despite Iraq's inability to deliver such weapons on the U.S., this somehow posed a "grave and gathering" threat. The plans were to use that ominous specter to deceive Congress into approving war on Iraq. The problem was that not even the obsequious George Tenet could come up with evidence that could withstand close scrutiny.

This was a problem, especially since UN inspectors and U.S. intelligence knew that Iraq's nuclear program had been destroyed after the Gulf War and there was no persuasive evidence that Baghdad was moving to reconstitute it. Even the intelligence imagery analysts, whom former CIA director John Deutch gave away to the Pentagon in 1996, could not come up with the evidence needed, despite very strong incentive to please their boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

What a welcome windfall, then, when a deus ex machina appeared in early 2002, in the form of a report alleging that Iraq was seeking uranium in the African country of Niger. Since Iraq had no other use for uranium, the White House spin machine went into high gear, playing up the report as proof that Baghdad was reconstituting its nuclear weapons development program. The intelligence analysts had to hold their noses – not only because of the dubious sourcing but because the substance of the report made little sense. They knew (and Wilson confirmed) that all the uranium mined in Niger is controlled by a French-led international consortium that exercises super-strict control over exports from Niger. It just couldn't happen.

Provenance and likelihood be damned. The White House now had a "report" that could be used effectively with Congress, and Tenet could be counted on to keep his nose-holding professionals out of sight. The Iraq-seeking-uranium-from-Africa canard has assumed such prominent importance to the administration's case that it simply could not be dropped – either in Washington or in London. Accordingly, none of us in VIPs were in the least surprised to learn recently of the line taken by Karl Rove with Time reporter Matthew Cooper on July 11, 2003. In an e-mail that Cooper sent his bosses at Time, Rove insisted that Wilson's findings on Niger-Iraq were flawed. According to Cooper, Rove "implied strongly there's still plenty to implicate Iraqi interest in acquiring uranium from Niger." That was false. Neither British nor U.S. intelligence has come up with anything to throw the slightest doubt on Wilson's conclusions.

Who Did It?
Who authored the forgery remains a mystery, but one that Congress has avoided trying to solve, even though many have expressed outrage at having been snookered into voting for war. Senate intelligence committee chair Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has demonstrated a curious lack of curiosity. Nothing that ranking minority member Jay Rockefeller could do would persuade Roberts to ask the FBI to investigate.

Those searching for answers are reduced to asking the obvious: Cui bono? Who stood to benefit from such a forgery? A no-brainer – those lusting for war on Iraq. And who might that be? Look up the "neocon" writings on the Web site of the Project for the New American Century. There you will information on people like Michael Ledeen, "Freedom Analyst" at the American Enterprise Institute and a key strategist among "neoconservative" hawks in and out of the Bush administration. Applauding the invasion of Iraq, Ledeen asserted at the very start that the war could not be contained, and that "it may turn out to be a war to remake the world."

Beyond his geopolitical punditry, Ledeen's career shows he is well-accustomed to rogue operations. A longtime Washington operative, he was fired as a "consultant" for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan for running fool's errands for Oliver North during the Iran-Contra subterfuge. One of Ledeen's Iran-Contra partners in crime, so to speak, was Elliot Abrams. Abrams was convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra. He was pardoned before jail time, however, by George H. W. Bush and is now George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser. Ledeen continues to enjoy entree into the office of the vice president, as well as to his friend Abrams.

During a radio interview with Ian Masters on April 3, 2005, former CIA operative Vincent Cannistraro charged that the Iraq-Niger documents were forged in the United States. Drawing on earlier speculation regarding who forged the documents, Masters asked, "If I were to say the name Michael Ledeen to you, what would you say?" Cannistraro replied, "You're very close."

Ledeen has denied having anything to do with the forgery. Yet the company he keeps with other prominent Iran-Contra convicts/pardonees/intelligence contractors suggests otherwise. Another intriguing straw in the wind is Ledeen's long association with Italian intelligence, which, according to most accounts, played a role in disseminating the forged documents. If Ledeen and his associates were involved, this might also help explain the amateurishness of the forged documents. They would have sorely missed the institutional expertise formerly at their beck and call.

The Cover-Up
It is a safe bet that Joseph Wilson suspected this kind of skullduggery. He nevertheless played it straight. After hearing the bogus Iraq story repeated in the Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union speech and ascertaining that it was based on little more than the original report, Wilson began to approach administration officials suggesting that they retract the story or he would in conscience be compelled to make public what had happened. He was told, in effect, Go public; who will believe you? So he did. Astonishingly, the administration and the domesticated press have partially succeeded in making Wilson's credibility the issue – witness, for example, the frontal assault last weekend by fast-talking, no-holds-barred Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

Joseph Wilson had been around long enough to know what to expect. Moreover, the White House apparently made it very clear that they would make him pay if he went public. Just three weeks before The New York Times published Wilson's op-ed "What I Did Not Find in Africa," he and I shared keynoting duties at a conference on Iraq. Wilson told me then that he was about to publish, adding "They are going to come after me big-time. I don't know exactly how, but they are going to do it."

It has now become clear that Cheney's chief, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was as active as Rove in spreading the word about the Wilsons when the story broke in July 2003. Surprise, surprise.

Reprinted courtesy of