Wednesday, July 06, 2005

WHAT IF THE OUTING of Valerie Plame as a C.I.A. agent was not about revenge against Joseph Wilson (Plame's husband) for blowing the whistle on the fake Niger-Iraq-yellowcake intelligence? What if the Bush staffer (reported by Editor & Publisher to be Karl Rove) who leaked Plame's identity to Robert Novak was trying to cast doubt on Wilson's credibility by linking him to a prominent member of the faction at C.I.A. -- Valerie Plame -- who opposed war with Iraq?

Economaniac posted a piece at Daily Kos back on June 30 that makes a very convincing argument for this possibility:

As confirmed by the Downing Street Memos, Bush was determined to take out Saddam, and the administration was "fixing" the intelligence to provide a justification. Unfortunately the CIA wasn't helping very much. While "everyone" "knew" that Saddam had WMD, the actual intelligence we had was really poor. Experts were sure that the evidence we ended up seeing like the aluminum "centrifuge tubes" for uranium enrichment, the Niger documents and the mobile biological labs were bogus, and the CIA didn't trust the human intelligence from Chalabi's gang of informers.

Since the CIA was shooting down reasons for war as fast as Chalabi could make them up, the Bushies (paticularly Cheney and Rumsfeld) set up the Office of Special Plans at DOD to "stovepipe" the good stuff and package it for public and international consumption. There were reports of "war" within the intelligence community between the CIA regulars and the prowar DOD. Plame was a top CIA WMD analyst. She was one of the generals on the other side.

Now the timing of the Plame leak is important. When he War began in March even skeptics expected Iraq had some WMD stockpiles. While there was some surprise that none were used, we saw throughout the fighting reports about potential exposure. When Bush declared Mission Accomplished on May 1 the official line was still that we expected to find large caches which were hidden before the war. The administration was counting on those discoveries to justify their manipulation of intelligence before the war.

Wilson's story started to reach the public in early June when it was reported that the CIA had a negative report on the now discredited Niger memos a year earlier. It blew up in early July when Wilson went public, and Novak published his column outing Plame on July 14. ...

At the time the administration was flush with success and still confident that they would find illegal weapons. They were sorting Washington into good guys (who supported the war) and bad guys (who questioned it). When Wilson came up they asked around "Who is this guy" and learned he was married to a CIA WMD analyst. That made him a bad guy, so they share the news with Novak, as a way of discrediting Wilson. It wasn't about retaliation, it was about tarnishing Wilson by tying him to the antiwar faction at CIA. The White House knows Plame as an analyst who refused to support their prowar view. They have been fighting these internal battles for months; now that they have won the war those Saddam lovers are out. I doubt anyone even thought about her being covert.

Given George W. Bush's obsession with Iraq, and his unmistakeable signaling to top aides that he wanted evidence of Iraq's involvement with 9/11, one can easily imagine his fury when Wilson publicly announced that a key piece of intelligence -- the document purporting to show that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger -- was a worthless forgery. If there are any doubts at this point about Bush's intense desire to invade Iraq -- not Afghanistan -- in the days and weeks after 9/11, flashing back to the 60 Minutes interview with Richard T. Clarke, Bush's former intelligence adviser, should lay them to rest.

"After the president returned to the White House on Sept. 11, he and his top advisers, including Clarke, began holding meetings about how to respond and retaliate. As Clarke writes in his book, he expected the administration to focus its military response on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. He says he was surprised that the talk quickly turned to Iraq.

'Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq,' Clarke said to Stahl. 'And we all said ... no, no. Al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan. And Rumsfeld said there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq. I said, 'Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with it.

'Initially, I thought when he said, 'There aren't enough targets in-- in Afghanistan,' I thought he was joking.'

'I think they wanted to believe that there was a connection, but the CIA was sitting there, the FBI was sitting there, I was sitting there saying we've looked at this issue for years. For years we've looked and there's just no connection.'

Clarke says he and CIA Director George Tenet told that to Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Clarke then tells Stahl of being pressured by Mr. Bush.

'The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.

'I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection.'

'He came back at me and said, 'Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer. We wrote a report.'"

So, if Pres. Bush wanted to invade Iraq badly enough to pressure and even bully his top aides into finding a smoking gun that he could use as a reason, it makes sense that he and his supporters in the White House and at Defense would regard C.I.A. agents who failed to find definitive evidence and refused to invent it as being dangerous ideological opponents.

Looked at that way, the question everyone up until now has been asking -- who leaked Valerie Plame's identity to the press -- is less germane than a question (or a series of questions) almost no one has been asking: Who forged the Niger documents? And who started and supervised the entire process, from the initial idea for the forgery to the forged documents ending up at the U.S. Embassy in Rome?

Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo has been asking, and trying to find the answers to, these questions for about a year now.

I've gotten hints or suggestions from several sources over the last month that new information is bubbling to the surface, not about who leaked Valerie Plame's identity, but who was behind the underlying caper that started the whole drama afoot in the first place: those phoney Niger uranium documents.

As longtime readers of this site know, last year colleagues of mine and I were able to trace the documents back to a former Italian intelligence agent named Rocco Martino. Martino was the 'Italian businessman' who tried to sell the documents to Elizabetta Burba, the journalist who eventually brought them to the US Embassy in Rome.

It's beginning to look as if the Valerie Plame leak, the identity of the leaker, and the fixing of the intelligence around the decision to invade Iraq, as revealed in the Downing Street minutes, may be an interconnected series of events that are all part of the same singular policy.

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