Now, What About Cheney?
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Now that the long speculation about whether White House political czar Karl Rove would be indicted for the role he played in exposing the identity of a CIA operative is done, perhaps the investigation of the Bush administration "hit" on Iraq War critic Joe Wilson can focus in on the fundamental questions that have been raised by the machinations of key players in the administration with the apparent goal of punishing a former diplomat for exposing White House misstatements and misdeeds.
The attention to Rove's involvement in the effort to reveal the identity of Wilson's wife, veteran Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame -- after Wilson, a former ambassador, revealed that key players in the Bush administration had to have know that elements of their "case" for attacking Iraq had been discredited -- was always something of a distraction.
Of course, as David Corn and others have ably illustrated, Rove's actions demanded scrutiny. But the fury that so many Democrats feel toward Rove caused them to obsess on the question of whether he would be indicted, rather than to recognize that the critical indictment was that of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff and a key advisor to President Bush on national security matters.
It is Libby who faces trial in January 2007 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. And it is Libby, the Cheney confidante, who connects this scandal to his boss in a way that Rove, the Bush confidante, was unlikely ever to have connected it to his boss. Thus, from the time of Libby's indictment, the question that always mattered most was not: Will special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove? It was always: Will Fitzgerald connect the dots that lead to Cheney?
No top office within the administration was better positioned than Cheney's to gather the information that was used to attack Wilson and his wife and to peddle that information to the press. In fact, as Joe Wilson told me in an interview about the leaking of his wife's name that we did early in 2004, "With respect to who actually leaked the information, there are really only a few people -- far fewer than the president let on when he said there are a lot of senior administration officials -- who could have done it. At the end of the day, you have to have the means, the keys to the conversations at which somebody might drop my wife's name -- deliberately or not -- a national security clearance, and a reason to be talking about this. When you look at all that, there are really very few people who exist at that nexis between national security and foreign policy and politics. You can count them, literally, on two hands."
Wilson added that, without a doubt, "the vice president is one of those people."
We now know just how right Wilson was. Libby has been indicted. And that documents related to that indictment are filled with references to meetings with Cheney on the very day that Libby began calling reporters as a part of a push to discredit Wilson. We have a copy of a column Wilson wrote for The New York Times with notes from Cheney attacking the former ambassador and making reference to his wife. We have transcripts of Libby saying that he acted with "approval from the President through the Vice President" when he distributed previously classified information -- specifically, portions of a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam Hussein's purported efforts to develop nuclear weapons -- to the media as part of the move to discredit Wilson.
At this point, it is unclear whether Fitzegerald will see his investigation through to its logical conclusion. But there can be no question that, with Rove off the hook, the administration and its media echo chamber will be doing everything in their power to constrain the special counsel. The White House wants this inquiry shut down.
But shutting it down now would prevent an examination of what Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, correctly refers to "the heart of the CIA leak case."
Hinchey leads a group of several dozen House members who have urged Fitzgerald to officially expand his investigation to include an examination of the motives behind the leaks by Libby, focusing in particular on the question of whether the administration's intent was to discredit Ambassador Wilson's revelation that Iraq had never sought uranium from Niger or other African countries. If that is proven to be the case, Hinchey has argued, "President Bush and other top members of his administration knowingly lied about uranium to the Congress, which is a crime."
The New York congressman, who is the most determined Congressional watchdog with regard to the administration's misuse of intelligence information, was never one of those who waited for the Rove shoe to drop. After the April revelation that Cheney's former chief of staff said he was authorized to go after Wilson by the president and vice president, Hinchey said:
"If what Scooter Libby said to the grand jury is true, then this latest development clearly reveals yet again that the CIA leak case goes much deeper than the disclosure of a CIA agent's identity to the press. The heart and motive of this case is about the deliberate attempt at the highest levels of this administration to discredit those who were publicly revealing that the White House lied about its uranium claims leading up to the war. The Bush Administration knew that Iraq had not sought uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapon, yet they went around telling the Congress, the country, and the world just the opposite. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson's husband, publicly spoke out with proof that the administration was not telling the truth on uranium, the administration engaged in an orchestrated plot, which now reportedly includes President Bush, to discredit Ambassador Wilson and dismiss any notion that they had lied about pre-war intelligence."
As Hinchey has argued for months, Libby's testimony about the authorization he received from Bush and Cheney must be seen in the context of a mounting body of evidence that rules, regulations and laws were bent far beyond the breaking point by the administration. The fact that Karl Rove has not been indicted does not eliminate that body of evidence. Nor does it resolve questions about Cheney's involvement in the scandal, or about the motivations of the president, the vice president and others who sought to discredit Ambassador Wilson for telling the truth. And it ought not serve as an excuse for shutting down an inquiry that has yet to examine "the heart of the CIA leak case."
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.