Forged documents, war contracts and the push for war
[ politics - november 05 ]
Back on July 14, 2003 Robert Novak identified Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative, something which I wasn’t aware of until a few weeks later. I happened to have written an editorial on that same day in which I said a Congressional inquiry into the Niger documents as well as the resulting push for invading Iraq based largely on rhetoric derived from the Niger-Iraq connection was essential toward “clearing the air” about what actually went down in those months leading up to the Iraq invasion.
Now, here we are, over two years later, with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby under indictment following a two-year independent council investigation into the revealing of Mrs Wilson’s name to the press, “blowing her cover,” as independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has referred to it. We also now have a mysterious ‘Official A’ not under indictment, most likely Karl Rove, but who perhaps had a heavy involvement in the campaign against Mrs Wilson and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Rove has been named as ‘Official A’ by three people involved in the Fitzgerald investigation, though this hasn’t been officially verified. If Libby plays the “good soldier” as he is often being referred to, we’ll likely not know for certain if this person is Rove or not.
There are a number of questions that go to the heart of this case that must be addressed in a Congressional inquiry. Namely, what was the central connection between the forged documents and the Bush Administration push for war? When, exactly, did the Bush Administration know the documents were forged? Who, exactly, forged the documents, and what was the motive?
It’s uncertain whether we’ll find out much of this through Libby’s public trial. Although it is known that Fitzgerald did begin to explore some of these matters during his investigation and had requested and reviewed the Italian parliamentary inquiry into the forgeries, these facts were beyond the scope of his investigation, which was specifically regarding the criminality of leaking the name of a CIA operative to the press and “blowing her cover.” Thus the five-count indictment of Libby.
Again, this is why it is essential why there must be a Congressional inquiry into the forged documents, what relation this had to the decisions to invade Iraq, and who knew what at the time they were elevated to such a public and prominent role in the argument posed by the Bush Administration for the invasion of Iraq. Fitzgerald’s investigation is over, and since it was secret, there will not be a report issued like previous grand jury investigations such as the Kenneth Starr investigations into Clinton in the 90s. The laws surrounding grand juries have changed since that intensely invasive investigation, and probably rightly so. This, however, doesn’t let the Congress off. The Congressional hearing on the Niger documents, back in 2004, did bring a number of items to light. But since that time we’ve moved further down the line, and a number of other revelations have been uncovered, mainly about the timeline surrounding the Niger documents.
We will likely not get this Congressional inquiry, at least in the short term. The Republican majority in the House and the Senate has no interest in this, nor do they seem to have the guts to pull their own administration through the wringer so publicly.
What do we know now about the Niger documents? In February 2002, Italian intelligence gave the CIA a “verbatim text” about Iraq seeking to buy weapons in Niger. Joseph Wilson was then dispatched to Niger to investigate and came back believing the case of Iraq trying to buy the uranium “highly unlikely.” Supposedly, from what I’ve read, he’d not seen the Italian intelligence documents, nor did he know they were forgeries at the time.
In late October, the Italian left-wing newspaper La Repubblica reported that a month before the Niger forgeries surfaced, then Deputy National Security Advisor, and now National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley met secretly with Italy’s intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari on September 9, 2002. Pollari had repeatedly been trying to warn the CIA about Iraq seeking “yellow-cake” from Niger in the two years before this. We also know that Pollari met at least once with former CIA chief George Tenet. President Bush’s State of the Union address, in which he explicitly linked Iraq’s attempt to purchase Niger uranium was four months after the Hadley-Pollari meeting.
We also know that the forgeries had been printed on official stationary stolen from Niger’s Rome embassy, and were delivered to Italian journalists by operatives from Italian intelligence. It is still is not certain why they forged the documents, if they actually forged them, and if anyone else had been involved or ordered the forgeries. We also know from the La Repubblica story that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s magazine Panorama had published a story three days after the Hadley-Pollari meeting in September 2002 alleging Iraq had bought 500 tons of uranium Nigeria, and that Elisabetta Burba, a reporter for Panorama, delivered the forged documents (leaked from Italian intelligence to her) to the US Embassy in Rome about a month after the Hadley-Pollari meeting. This document had been sent both to the CIA and directly to officials in the White House via Rome. So the CIA had a “verbatim text” of this all the way back in February 2002, and now had the actual forged documents in October 2002 to compare. The CIA, White House and State Department all seem to have known about each of these instances, and also knew of Wilson’s supposed non-findings in Niger. Now we’re three months before the State of the Union address in the timeline. What was actually discussed in that Hadley-Pollari meeting? Did Hadley at that time know these documents were fake? How long did it take the State Department to figure out they were forgeries, and when did they know?
Here are Tenet’s remarks in a press release about the Niger forgeries and the use of the information in the State of the Union address, from July 11, 2003. Mrs Wilson was outed three days later in Novak’s column:
“Portions of the State of the Union speech draft came to the CIA for comment shortly before the speech was given. Various parts were shared with cognizant elements of the Agency for review. Although the documents related to the alleged Niger-Iraqi uranium deal had not yet been determined to be forgeries, officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct - i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a Presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for Presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.”
What is central here is that though the CIA thought these documents were suspect, officials in the White House either took them to be fact, as backed up by British intelligence, and enough to base a main pillar of their invasion rhetoric upon, or knew they were suspect and went ahead with promoting the idea of the Iraq-Niger connection anyway, due to political expedience, the fear factor produced for the State of the Union Address, and thus intentionally misled the American people about the threat Iraq posed and the reasons for going to war. We need to find out for certain if this was intentional at the time of the State of the Union address, or a mistaken basis that the documents were simply “technically accurate” as various Bush Administration officials referred to the documents at the time Novak (July 2003) revealed Mrs Wilson’s identity and after Tenet had issued his statement. Here’s part of Tenet’s statement again, and we now appear to know who the official he was referring to at the time was:
“In an effort to inquire about certain reports involving Niger, CIA’s counter-proliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region to make a visit to see what he could learn. He reported back to us that one of the former Nigerien officials he met stated that he was unaware of any contract being signed between Niger and rogue states for the sale of uranium during his tenure in office. The same former official also said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales. The former officials also offered details regarding Niger’s processes for monitoring and transporting uranium that suggested it would be very unlikely that material could be illicitly diverted. There was no mention in the report of forged documents - or any suggestion of the existence of documents at all.”
That statement is obviously referring to Wilson’s 2002 trip to Niger. Some reports say the State Department knew the documents were fake as far back as October 2002, a month after the Hadley-Pollari meeting, and three months before the State of the Union address. Are these the National Security Council officials Tenet referred to in the first selection above? What is becoming increasingly clear is that the CIA and possibly the State Department, had it right about the forgeries before the State of the Union address, but that the White House either didn’t want to believe this information and instead pushed forward with the idea of a Niger-Iraq connection as a central pillar for its Iraq invasion rhetoric.
So between the State of the Union speech’s infamous “sixteen words” and around the time of Tenet’s statement about the Niger documents, along comes Mr. Wilson, who had been to Niger to check into the validity of the allegations, and finding no validity to the reports, and taking umbrage to President Bush using the Niger documents as central to his State of the Union address and push against Iraq, writes a New York Times editorial refuting the Niger-Iraq connection. But the real circling of wagons started a month before Wilson’s op-ed after Wilson had discussed his findings about Niger with two reporters, one from the New York Times and another with the Washington Post, who used Wilson as an anonymous source. The IAEA knew, and publicly stated, the Niger documents were forgeries back in March 2003, the same month the invasion began and two months after the State of the Union address. When the story began to unravel, it seems some in the White House went as far as publicly outing one of the CIA’s own agents, via Libby, possibly ‘Official A’ and perhaps others in the Administration. Where it gets interesting is that it seems much of this push came from Vice President Cheney’s office.
The period between the February of 2002 initial contact with Italian intelligence, and July 2003,  with the outing of Mrs. Wilson, is what needs to be investigated by a Congressional inquiry, if it ever happens. From the evidence now available it seems some in the White House were nervous enough by Wilson’s public statements that Mrs. Wilson’s name was floated around to various journalists and then revealed by Novak. 
This from Prospect: “...if anyone knew who was actually responsible for the White House's trumpeting of the Niger claims, it would seem from the Repubblica report that Hadley did. He also knew that the CIA, which had initially rejected the Italian claims, was not to blame. Hadley's meeting with Pollari, at precisely the time when the Niger forgeries came into the possession of the US government, may explain the seemingly hysterical White House overreaction to Wilson's article almost a year later.”
So what did Hadley know? Why were they so hysterical? What happened in the VP’s office to get them so riled up?
It is worth looking back further to the build-up for war, and possibly what that entails. Looking beyond conspiracy and cover-up, there needs to be a motive to why, other than pushing the rhetoric of the day, conspiracy and cover-up might have been needed. In September, 2003, Vice President Cheney claimed on “Meet the Press”: “I have absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of in any way, shape, or form of contracts led by the Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the federal government.”
Yet a year before that, in September 2002, at around the same time as the Hadley-Pollari meetings, a secret Bush Administration task force had been “authorized at the highest levels” to look after the reconstruction of Iraq’s oil industry. That task force gave Halliburton a noncompetitive contract amounting to several billion dollars and assigned them the charge of rebuilding Iraq’s oil infrastructure when war broke out. Between that meeting and the end of the year a number of other contacts were awarded to Halliburton and its subsidiaries. Billions more in contracts would soon follow.
Is it possible that the war plans had already gained so much momentum, that so many troops had already been placed in the theatre, that the contracts had been handed out and signed - a month before getting the Iraq War Resolution from Congress - that this inertia made the Administration ignore the facts about Iraq’s WMD capability and instead push for war?
This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this whole adventure. That inertia itself pushed this war forward, and that officials helped that inertia along by fixing a narrative around it that was swiftly falling apart. What we won’t know, unless there is a Congressional inquiry into this inertia surrounding the Iraq War, is how much of this was fixed by the players within the administration, and how much was known.
1 It is worth noting that there were about 600 bombs dropped on nearly 400 locations in the south of Iraq ‘No-Fly-Zone’ air strikes by US/British forces between June 2002 and March 2003, and a total of 21,736 sorties were flown at the time. This was a huge escalation in the number of sorties as well as strikes from previous years. [Back]
2 It’s also interesting why information was being floated to Judith Miller about Mrs. Wilson, and also, in a larger worldwide media context, how journalists such as Miller and the Panorama reporter were actively befriended by power and used by that power to achieve its ends. Was this intended to keep her on same the WMD page the White House was trying to put out and discredit the Joseph and Valerie Wilson in her eyes? How does Miller’s relationship with Ahmad Chalabi, former head of the Iraqi National Congress, prime lobbyist for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, now Iraq’s acting oil minister, play into this? [Back]