Saturday, October 22, 2005

Leak Case War's Rationale

October 23, 2005
Washington Memo

Leak Case Renews Questions on War's Rationale

WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 - The legal and political stakes are of the highest order, but the investigation into the disclosure of a covert C.I.A. officer's identity is also just one skirmish in the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

That fight has preoccupied the White House for more than three years, repeatedly threatening President Bush's credibility and political standing, and has now once again put the spotlight on Vice President Dick Cheney, who assumed a critical role in assembling and analyzing the evidence about Iraq's weapons programs.

The dispute over the rationale for the war has led to upheaval in the intelligence agencies, left Democrats divided about how aggressively to break with the White House over Iraq and exposed deep rifts within the administration and among Republicans. The combatants' intensity was underscored this week in a speech by Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin L. Powell while he was secretary of state.

Mr. Wilkerson complained of a "cabal" between Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that bypassed normal decision-making channels when it came to Iraq and other national security issues. He described "real dysfunctionality" in the administration's foreign policy team and said that Mr. Powell's aides had thrown out "whole reams of paper" from the intelligence dossier developed by Mr. Cheney's staff for use in Mr. Powell's presentation of the case against Iraq to the United Nations in early 2003.

Mr. Cheney's focus on the threat from Iraq has put some of his aides, especially I. Lewis Libby Jr., his chief of staff, in the middle of an investigation by a special prosecutor into the leak of the C.I.A. operative's name. According to lawyers in the case, Mr. Libby remains under scrutiny this week in the investigation stemming from his effort to rebut criticism by Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat, that the administration had twisted intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program.

Mr. Libby has become emblematic of the broader Iraq debate, cast by supporters as a loyal aide working diligently to set the record straight, and by critics as someone working to smear or undermine the credibility of a politically potent opponent.

"The way in which the leak investigation is being pursued is becoming a symbol of who was right and who was wrong about the war," said Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. "The possibility of Libby being indicted, and the whole Cheney angle, is all about proving in some sense that they were wrong and therefore that those who opposed the war and never thought the intelligence was right have been proven correct."

The passions surrounding the investigation and the question of why the administration got it wrong about Iraq's weapons programs, other analysts agree, reflect the troubled course of the war and the divisions over whether it was necessary or a diversion from the effort to combat Islamic extremism.

The administration has acknowledged the failures of pre-war intelligence, though its supporters have pointed out that many Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, and the intelligence services of other countries were also convinced that Saddam Hussein had caches of banned weapons. But the White House's insistence that there were many other compelling reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein have only inflamed critics of the war.

"There's a daisy chain that stems from the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Iraq was at core a war of choice, and extraordinarily expensive by every measure - human life, impact on our military, dollars, diplomatically," said Mr. Haass, a former senior State Department official under President Bush. "If this war was widely judged to have been necessary along the lines of Afghanistan after 9/11, I don't believe you would have this controversy. If the war had gone extremely well, you wouldn't have this controversy."

While the leak case has ensnared other officials, most prominently Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, the special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, appears to have devoted much effort to understanding the role of Mr. Cheney's office and actions taken by Mr. Libby, who has twice testified before the grand jury. Mr. Fitzgerald has been examining whether administration officials disclosed to the media that Mr. Wilson's wife was a C.I.A. employee.

The investigation led to the jailing for nearly three months of a reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller, for refusing to discuss her conversations with a confidential source who turned out to be Mr. Libby.

From the time Mr. Wilson began circulating his criticism in May and June 2003 of the administration's assertions that before the war Iraq had been seeking nuclear material in Africa, Mr. Libby showed an intense interest in Mr. Wilson's public statements and argued to colleagues that he should be rebutted at every turn, a former administration official said, confirming an account Friday in the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Libby also sought to insulate Mr. Cheney from Mr. Wilson's critique, telling journalists that the former diplomat's trip to Africa to assess Iraq's intentions was orchestrated by the C.I.A.

Mr. Libby's involvement in assembling the case that Iraq's weapons constituted an urgent threat began well before the invasion. Along with Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, then senior Pentagon officials, Mr. Libby was immersed in painting a dark picture of Iraq's weapons capabilities and alleged it had ties to Al Qaeda.

In late 2002 and early 2003, according to former government officials and several published accounts, Mr. Libby was the main author of a lengthy document making the administration's case for war to the United Nations Security Council. But in meetings at the Central Intelligence Agency in early February, Secretary Powell and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, rejected virtually all of Mr. Libby's draft as exaggerated and not supported by intelligence.

John E. McLaughlin, the former deputy C.I.A. director, referred to this period in a statement issued in April 2005. "Much of our time in the run-up to the speech was spent taking out material, including much that had been added by the policy community after the draft left the agency, that we and the secretary's staff judged to have been unreliable," Mr. McLaughlin said.

In his 2004 book "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward of The Washington Post wrote that Mr. Powell had rejected Mr. Libby's draft as "worse than ridiculous," which Mr. Wilkerson alluded to in his speech this week.

That episode added to tensions between Mr. Cheney's office and senior officials at the C.I.A., which had also dismissed as unwarranted claims by Mr. Cheney and others about close links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Before the war, the C.I.A. also issued intelligence assessments warning of potential obstacles to the stability of postwar Iraq, although the agency's capabilities have also been harshly criticized since the war and it is now in the midst of upheaval set off by the creation of a new intelligence structure and the appointment of a new director, Porter J. Goss.

The wrangling over the United Nations speech exposed long-simmering suspicions by some administration officials about the reliability of the C.I.A.'s intelligence on Iraq. A former intelligence official who previously worked with Mr. Libby said that his antipathy to the C.I.A. dated back at least 15 years, to the first Bush administration, when he was working under Mr. Wolfowitz at the Defense Department.

"He always saw C.I.A. as the enemy, more a problem than a help, and someone who was out to get him," the former intelligence official said.

Mr. Libby was also part of the network of Iraq hawks within the administration. He is a protégé of Mr. Wolfowitz, perhaps the leading neoconservative in the administration until he left to head the World Bank. Mr. Libby's deputy, John Hannah, had close ties to John R. Bolton, then the undersecretary of state for arms control; David Wurmser, a Bolton aide who later joined Mr. Cheney's office; and Robert Joseph, then the senior director for nonproliferation on the National Security Council.

Mr. Bolton is now ambassador to the United Nations, and Mr. Joseph has taken over as undersecretary of state, where he has retained as his executive assistant Frederick Fleitz, a C.I.A. officer who had served as Mr. Bolton's chief of staff. Some of those officials, including Mr. Hannah and Mr. Joseph, have been questioned in the leak case.

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