Missing the Big Story: The CIA's War with the White House

Did the lead editorial in yesterday's Washington Post that defended the President's authorizing the declassification of a secret NIE report on Iraq WMD misstate the facts surrounding the Administration's handling of pre—war intelligence?

The entire left wing of the blogosphere believes so. Jay Rosen believes so. Even Tom McGuire, still doggedly carrying his lantern in daylight looking for one honest man in the Fitzgerald prosecution, believes so.

Certainly the figure at the center of the firestorms believes so. Three years ago, Joe Wilson was a nobody, an ex—Ambassador just trying to start a new business venture using his extensive contacts in Africa in order to facilitate the usual introductions and business deals, oiling the machinery of international trade as only someone with Mr. Wilson's credentials is able to do.

Then a request from the CIA; we understand from talking to your wife that you're planning a trip to Africa. As long as you're going to be there to establish your business contacts, why not visit some old friends in Niger and look into this cockamamie story about Saddam trying to purchase yellowcake uranium in order to reconstitute his nuclear program?

Wilson denies to this day that his wife had anything to do with his being selected by the CIA for this routine assignment, despite sworn testimony and memos to the contrary. At best, he may be engaging in a little wishful thinking, ashamed in a macho sort of way that his wife was assisting him in furthering his career.

At worst, he's a bald—faced liar.

Regardless of who pushed his name forward or even what he discovered while in Niger (which to this day is a matter of fierce dispute), it is the aftermath of Wilson's trip that has brought us to where we are today. And the fact is that Wilson, the lefty blogs, and especially Jay Rosen have missed the biggest story of the young century in their efforts to uncover the minutia, the nuggets of selected, disjointed information that writers have leapt upon like ravenous beasts, devouring, regurgitating as 'proof' of their conspiracy theories, the evil machinations of evil men who 'fabricated' intelligence on our way to war.

Perhaps the biggest purveyor of these fact flakes that make up the rickety structure of conspiracy is Murray Waas, writing for the National Journal among other publications. Jay Rosen, a godfather of New Media journalism, calls Waas 'our Bob Woodward' as if one more self—important, insufferably arrogant practitioner of 'gotchya' journalism were necessary in Washington. Waas has become a hero to left for his uncanny ability to leap to the most outrageous conclusions when uncovering the tiniest of 'facts' regarding everything from the Fitzgerald investigation to the latest illegal leak from the intelligence community. Waas has built a house of cards about White House conspiracies based on the careful accumulation of 'evidence' which may or may not indicate a pattern of deceit depending just how much one wishes to see when looking into the shadows and fog surrounding most of his information.

But in concentrating on the mote in the other fellow's eye, Waas has missed the knife sticking out of the back of the Bush Administration; a knife planted by a group of leakers — organized or not — at the CIA who, unelected though they were, took it upon themselves to first try and prevent the execution of United States policy they were sworn to carry out, and failing that, trying to destroy in the most blatantly partisan manner an Administration with which they had a policy disagreement.

How can anyone possibly understand the motivations, the actions, or the thinking in the White House during this crucial time without taking into account the war being conducted against them by the CIA?

In truth, those predisposed to believe the worst about Bush chalk up all the maneuvering on the part of the White House to 'covering up' their supposed misrepresentations and exaggerations of pre—war intelligence in the lead up to the war.

But what if there is a different explanation?

What if prior to the invasion, the Bush Administration was roiled in a policy dispute between elements at the CIA and national security hawks in the White House and Department of Defense? What if this policy dispute got so contentious that the White House lost faith in what the intelligence community was telling it about Iraq? And what if, following the revelations about Saddam's lack of WMD, elements at the CIA worked to exact revenge on the Administration by illegally leaking cherry—picked analyses at odds with what the Administration had been telling the American people?

This is the Big Story not being reported by the press, the blogs, or even Jay Rosen's golden boy Murray Waas. It is a familiar story in Washington, a mix of arcanity and idiocy, of the high affairs of state with the lowliest of backstabbing bureaucracies. And it is a story that while not absolving the Bush Administration of some of its actions, certainly gives background and context that is so sorely lacking in this obsession with minutia that passes for serious analysis in both the new and old media.

Prior to the Iraq War, there were two schools of thought about Saddam; a realpolitik view which held that Saddam was a monster but was a useful counterweight to Islamic radicalism. Opposing this view is what has become known as the neo—conservative view: that Saddam was a sponsor of terror and that regime change could transform the Middle East. The 'we can use Saddam' clique at the CIA had opposed the toppling of the monster since the 1991 Gulf War when a similar debate roiled the Administration of George H.W. Bush. Amazingly, the players back then were some of the same names that are at odds today.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek lays out some of this history:

The 'we—can—use Saddam' faction held the upper hand right up to the moment he invaded Kuwait a decade ago. Until then, the administration of Bush One (with its close CIA ties) had been hoping to talk sense with Saddam. Indeed, the last American to speak to Saddam before the war was none other than Joe Wilson, who was the State Department charge' d'affaires in Baghdad. Fluent in French, with years of experience in Africa, he remained behind in Iraq after the United States withdrew its ambassador, and won high marks for bravery and steadfastness, supervising the protection of Americans there at the start of the first Gulf War. But, as a diplomat, he didn't want the Americans to 'march all the way to Baghdad.' Cheney, always a careful bureaucrat, publicly supported the decision. Wilson was for repelling a tyrant who grabbed land, but not for regime change by force.

That history is one reason why, in the eyes of the anti—Saddam crowd, Wilson was a bad choice to investigate the question of whether Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in Africa. (emphasis mine)

Do you think it would have been helpful if in all the millions of words written about the Wilson/Plame affair, a few paragraphs had been devoted to this singular, important fact? Does this color Mr. Wilson's motivations in any way? At the very least, the consumer of news should be given the opportunity to assess this information for themselves and make their own judgment about whether there was any ax to grind on Mr. Wilson's or Mr. Cheney's part when push came to shove over Wilson's self—aggrandizing editorial in the New York Times.

Then there was the anger and resentment at the CIA over the Bush Administration's efforts to make the agency more accountable for the pre—war intelligence it was sending its way. In the best of times, the process of gathering, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence is fraught with uncertainty. But these were not the best of times. The realpolitik clique at the CIA was suspected — rightly or wrongly — of doing a little intelligence twisting of its own especially with regard to Saddam's links to al Qaeda. A secret group at the Pentagon called the Office of Special Plans was set up specifically to examine (or re—examine) Iraq intelligence relating to its WMD programs and possible links to terror groups. The reason for the formation of this group according to the CIA was to shape and manipulate intelligence to give the Administration a false justification for going to war against Saddam.

Is that the real story? Or had the Administration become so frustrated and distrustful of the Iraq group at CIA who was feeding policymakers intelligence reports at odds with what they were hearing elsewhere? The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq which, it was revealed this past weekend, was declassified by the President and disseminated to reporters in the aftermath of the war indicated that Saddam did indeed have weapons of mass destruction, may have been trying to re—initialize his nuclear program, had possible links to al Qaeda, and was a threat to his neighbors.

Other documents recently translated from the millions of captured archives of the Saddam regime are beginning to paint a picture also at odds with the CIA assessment that Iraq had no ties to al Qaeda. This is a developing story and certainly bears watching — not that this information is being reported on or given much shrift by many in the media.

This was after all, not some arcane debate over trifles. What the Administration was dealing with in the aftermath of 9/11 was nothing less than the safety and security of the United States. The Office of Special Plans may have been bitterly opposed by the CIA, seeing as they apparently did an intrusion on their bureaucratic turf. But the elected leaders of the country, charged with defending the United States against threats (not to mention radically altering policy to include preventive war as a measure to insure that defense) at the very least thought itself in a bind on Iraq largely because they believed the CIA was not doing its job.

Right or wrong, isn't this part of the story too? When talking about 'twisting' and even 'fabricating' intelligence (a term that is used willy nilly by Bush critics despite the fact that there is not one shred of proof that any such thing occurred), don't you think it important to give that story a little context by informing people about the extraordinary level of mistrust and resentment between both the White House and the CIA?

One can argue who was at fault. But when the big picture is being subsumed by trivial revelations about the tiniest of details regarding what the White House was doing with Iraq War intel, a distorted view of what really happened is bound to emerge.

And this is especially true when, during the months leading up to the 2004 election, we witnessed what can only be termed an attempted coup by the very same faction at the CIA who had been fighting the Administration in the lead up to the war. This partisan campaign by unelected bureaucrats to defeat a sitting president was called 'unprecedented' and characterized as having a 'viciousness and vindictiveness' not witnessed on the Washington scene in many years. The Daily Telegraph commented on the CIA campaign to unseat the President in October of 2004:

A powerful 'old guard' faction in the Central Intelligence Agency has launched an unprecedented campaign to undermine the Bush administration with a battery of damaging leaks and briefings about Iraq.

The White House is incensed by the increasingly public sniping from some senior intelligence officers who, it believes, are conducting a partisan operation to swing the election on November 2 in favour of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, and against George W Bush.

Jim Pavitt, a 31—year CIA veteran who retired as a departmental chief in August, said that he cannot recall a time of such 'viciousness and vindictiveness' in a battle between the White House and the agency.

The Wall Street Journal went even further, publishing this editorial following the confirmation of new DCIA Porter Goss:

Congratulations to Porter Goss for being confirmed last week as the new Director of Central Intelligence. We hope he appreciates that he now has two insurgencies to defeat: the one that the CIA is struggling to help put down in Iraq, and the other inside Langley against the Bush Administration.

We wish we were exaggerating. It's become obvious over the past couple of years that large swaths of the CIA oppose U.S. anti—terror policy, especially toward Iraq. But rather than keep this dispute in—house, the dissenters have taken their objections to the public, albeit usually through calculated and anonymous leaks that are always spun to make the agency look good and the Bush Administration look bad.

Their latest improvised explosive political device blew up yesterday on the front page of the New York Times, in a story proclaiming that the agency had warned back in January 2003 of a possible insurgency in Iraq. This highly selective leak (more on that below) was conveniently timed for two days before the first Presidential debate.

The leaks were condemned by one of the most brilliant men ever to serve the United States in any capacity, Admiral Bobby Inman, who worked in the intelligence community for more than 30 years:

I was utterly appalled during the 2004 election cycle at the number of clearly politically motivated leaks from intelligence organizations — mostly if not all from CIA — that appeared to me to be the most crass thing I had ever seen to influence the outcome of an election. I never saw it quite as harsh as it was. And clearing books to be published anonymously — there was no precedent for it. I started getting telephone calls from CIA retirees when Bush appointed Negroponte, talking about how vindictive the administration was in trying to punish CIA, and I was again sort of dismayed by the effort to play politics including with information that was classified. What is the impact on younger workers who see the higher—ups engaged in this kind of leaking?

Inman is speaking about the book Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer (published under the author's nom de plum 'Anonymous' when it came out weeks before the election) that skewered the Administration over everything from the war against Bin Laden to Iraq.

This, of course, is the context of the entire Wilson/Plame affair. And the question arises what should the White House have done? Clearly, the effort to counteract Wilson's charges had both political and policy overtones. But Wilson had been shopping his 'story' for months prior to the publication of his Niger adventure in the Times.

What appeared to be more of the same effort to 'get' the President by the CIA couldn't go unanswered. Scooter Libby is paying for the White House trying to do something about the leaking and sniping done by the Administration's partisan opponents and others may as well. But to posit the notion that the Wilson/Plame imbroglio took place in a vacuum and was a matter of sheer 'revenge' is lunacy. The facts do not support such a claim. But you'd never know it because of the curious reluctance on the part of both the mainstream press and the New Media to face up to the consequences of CIA perfidy in the lead up to the election.

I honestly don't know how many of the millions of words written about pre—war intelligence are true and how much is fantasy, a construct of thousands of unrelated parts that are shaped and shaded to fit into a conspiracy of monstrous proportions. But by failing to illuminate this story by placing all the revelations in the context of the continuing war by the CIA against the Bush Administration, an enormous disservice is done to the American people. Because in the end, in order to find the truth of the matter, you have to understand the motivating factors of both sides. And the way writers are approaching the story now, that just isn't happening.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and proprietor of Rightwing Nuthouse.

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