The president’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s prison sentence gives us a chance to look at this whole “CIA leak saga” for what it is: an intramural struggle within the U.S. government over the Iraq war.
That struggle pitted the career officers in the CIA, who opposed sending the American army into Iraq against the White House hawks centered in the vice president’s office who had set their hearts on taking out Saddam Hussein.
The first round in this struggle clearly went to Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff Scooter Libby. In the fall of 2002, Cheney made the toughest possible case for war: that the failure to topple Saddam Hussein would lay our country open to a nuclear attack from Iraq. Vice President Cheney made this case repeatedly on national television. President Bush backed up Cheney’s warnings of Saddam’s nuclear potential in his 2003 State of the Union address when he spoke directly of efforts by Saddam to purchase nuclear materials from the African government of Niger.
With those dire warnings of a nuclear attack on us from Iraq, America went to war. The hawks had won; the skeptics in the CIA had lost. Their boss, CIA director George Tenet had backed up Secretary of State Colin Powell’s claims at the United Nations that Iraq did, in fact, pose a strategic threat to the world.
Now came round two: the Blame Game.
When American forces couldn’t find nuclear weapons or other stockpiles of so-called “WMD” in Iraq, both sides in the pre-war debate scrambled for advantage.
First came a fusillade of news articles in the Washington Post, clearly derived from intelligence sources, which showed the Bush White House had vastly oversold the Saddam threat. Among the leaked info was the charge that the Bush people had knowingly pushed an account of a Saddam effort to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger which they knew to be untrue. The most pointed charge was that the vice president’s office had pushed the nuclear case for war knowing it could not be substantiated, knowing that that a CIA inquiry into the supposed Iraq-Niger deal made at Cheney’s own request had come up dry. The envoy who’d been sent to Niger to check out the possible Saddam deal, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, himself wrote a New York Times column saying just that.
Then, in a manner still murky, columnist Robert Novak wrote a column identifying Ambassador Wilson’s wife as a CIA operative, a fact he’d gotten from Richard Armitage, the number-two man at the State Department, then had confirmed by White House political ramrod Karl Rove. Later, it came out that Cheney aide Libby had himself been peddling the story that Wilson was only involved in the matter because his wife Valerie was with the CIA, an agency engaged in a hot struggle with the Bush White House over who deserved the blame for the bad pre-war Iraq intell. In their eyes, she “was” the CIA, in other words, the other side in this intramural blame game.
Looking at this fight before, during and after, the rules of engagement become clear. Both sides decided it was in their interest to leak. The CIA people went out and leaked all they could following the invasion - and the failure to find WMD - about how the hawks in the White House, especially in Cheney’s office, had pushed the intell far beyond its worth in order to sell the war. Watching the CIA people - and Valerie Plame’s husband - pushing the CIA version of events, the Bush people - Rove and Libby - recognized who their enemy was: the careerists at the Central Intelligence Agency who hated the Bush policy of invading Iraq.
But round two went to the CIA. Scooter Libby got convicted and sent to hard time in prison. For kicking dirt in the prosecutor’s face, and preventing him from discovering what really happened in the CIA leak matter, Cheney’s chief of staff was declared a felon, Cheney himself left under what prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald called a “cloud” of suspicion.
Round Three: the president terminates Libby’s sentence and leaves a cloud over himself.