In a series of articles I began last July entitled “The CIA Vs. The White House,” I have tried to give context and meaning to the CIA’s war against the Administration and how that war has its roots in both partisan politics and bureaucratic infighting. But at bottom, what the Plame Affair reveals about the CIA is a culture of incompetence whose principals will do anything to avoid responsibility for their mistakes.
This is more than just simple bureacratic CYA. It is one thing for officials to hide some boondoggle or another in the Department of Health and Human Services. It is quite something else to miss 9/11 or be wrong about Saddam’s WMD’s.
One would think that by this time, the CIA would be used to owning up to its spectacular incompetence. Blessed with technical intelligence gathering capabilities that boggle the mind as well as some of the best minds in the country, one would believe that the CIA has its finger on the pulse of events around the world and with penetrating analysis, give our elected leaders a heads-up about what is coming down the pike that might be a threat to the United States and our vital interests.
Think again. While it is undoubtedly true that the CIA has assisted in heading off many threats to the US and its interests, it has also had several conspicuous and, in hindsight, puzzling failures. What these failures reveal is a system that does not punish incompetence – even when mistakes lead to the kind of tragedy we experienced on 9/11. Rather, a huge amount of effort is expended in either trying to explain away the errors or worse, attack those who attempt to find an explanation for the incompetence.
We have seen both tactics on display in the Plame Affair. The CIA’s failures in Iraq go all the way back to the first Gulf War when the Administration of George Bush #41 was taken completely by surprise when Saddam invaded Kuwait. This despite a huge build-up of Iraqi forces on Kuwait’s border prior to the invasion as well as many overt threats by Saddam against the Kuwaiti’s for pumping too much oil thus keeping the price depressed.
Following tactics that they repeated when it was discovered that Saddam’s huge stockpiles of WMD were a chimera, the CIA began to leak cherry-picked analysis which revealed that the the Agency did indeed believe that Saddam was going to invade, that it was the policymakers who missed the clear signals emanating from Langely. The problem, of course, is that those analyses were ignored in the run-up to the invasion as both the State Department and the CIA were telling the White House that Saddam was simply doing some saber rattling in order to get the Kuwaitis to cut back oil production.
The consequences of the CIA’s mistaken analysis about Saddam’s intentions were huge. It has since been revealed by former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that Saddam never anticipated the angry reaction from the United States that led to war. Just imagine what a strong statement from President Bush warning Saddam about the consequences of an invasion could have accomplished.
What the CIA analysis of Saddam’s intentions at that time revealed was a clear bias toward what has become known as the realpolitik faction in government who believed that Saddam was a vital ally and bulwark against radical Islam. There may have been a case to be made for such thinking prior to 9/11 as several high level Bush #41 Administration officials such as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker believed. But as Howard Fineman points out in this article from October, 2003 in Newsweek, opposition to that policy came from the Department of Defense which, at that time, was headed up by current Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney:
Behind the scenes or openly, at war or at peace, the United States has been debating what to do in, with and about Iraq for more than 20 years. We always have been of two minds. One faction, led by the CIA and State Department, favored using secular forces in Iraqâ€”Saddam Hussein and his Baathistsâ€”as a counterweight to even more radical elements, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Shiite ayatollahs in Iran to the Palestinian terrorists in the Levant. The other faction, including Dick Cheney and the â€œneo-cons,â€ has long held a different view: that, with their huge oil reserves and lust for power (and dreams of recreating Baghdadâ€™s ancient role in the Arab world), the Baathists had to be permanently weakened and isolated, if not destroyed. This group cheered when, more than 20 years ago in a secret airstrike, the Israelis destroyed a nuclear reactor Saddam had been trying to build, a reactor that could have given him the ultimate WMD.
The â€œwe-can-use Saddamâ€ 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 chargeâ€™ dâ€™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 didnâ€™t want the Americans to â€œmarch all the way to Baghdad.â€ 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.
Choosing Wilson then to go to Niger to check out the yellowcake story does not seem such a stretch when placed in the context of a faction at the CIA who thought that their judgment about what kind of threat Saddam presented was superior to that of individuals who the American people elected to make those kinds of decisions. By sending Wilson, the CIA knew full well what the result of his “investigation” would be. So why weren’t Wilson’s conclusions widely disseminated by the CIA? Speculation in this regard has run the gamut from a CIA “set-up” of the Administration to simple bureaucratic incompetence. Given a choice, I would settle on the latter. While it may be true that the CIA was trying to undercut the Administration’s case for war, it would be a stretch to believe that they knew there were no large stockpiles of WMD and thus, any use of Wilson’s “report” would be to demonstrate the “twisting” of intelligence charged by many on the left.
What may be true is that by not having Wilson sign a confidentiality agreement, they wished his “findings” to receive the widest possible distribution. Wilson’s contacts in the press included both Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times, two reporters who eventually did publish very selective information about his trip Wilson himself admits to shopping his story to reporters for months prior to his OpEd in the New York Times in early July, 2003. This would seem to indicate that the selective leaking of classified information carried out by a partisan cabal at the CIA for more than a year prior to the election last November was done not just to discredit the Administration’s Iraq War case but also to politically damage the President so as to cause his defeat for re-election.
For those who were puzzled by why the Bush Administration was trying to push back against Wilson more than a month prior to his public acknowledgment of the Niger trip as both Cheney and Libby were discussing Wislon-Plame in early June, one need look no further than the Administration’s recognition that they were in the midst of a partisan political attack by a known Democratic party sympathizer who was running around Washington trying to discredit the Bush Administration by giving a skewed account of his CIA “mission” to national security reporters. If they could connect Wilson to both the nepotistic actions of his wife and the partisan cabal in the CIA who, along with those seeking to cover up the Agency’s incompetence with regard to WMD’s wanted to show the Administration “twisted” intelligence on Iraq, Cheney-Libby would be able to blunt the impact of the attack.
What is the connection between lack of WMD and the Administration countering of Wilson? The answer is Valerie Plame whose associates in the Counterproliferation Department at the agency were responsible both for sending Wilson to Niger and giving the Administration uncredible reports with regard to WMD in Iraq in the first place. Any attempt to understand the prosecution of Libby must begin with Valerie Plame herself and her part in the leaking and bureaucratic backbiting that led the Administration to its current dilemma.
Will this part of the story ever fully be revealed? If Scooter Libby goes to trial rather than take a plea deal, it is very possible that the full role of the CIA and their war against the Administration will be revealed. Otherwise, the entire matter will simply remain an interesting footnote in the history of the Iraq War.
Powerline “gets it”...
“...[Is] there a serious journalist among the mainstream media who thinks the story in the Libby case might be the CIA’s efforts to defeat the president. Isn’t that the big story?”
Does Glenn Reyonolds “get it?”
“This leaves two possibilities. One is that the mission was intended to result in the New York Times oped all along, meaning that the CIA didn’t care much about Plame’s status, and was trying to meddle in domestic politics. This reflects very badly on the CIA.”
Once again, Mr. Reynolds proves that his gift for understating the obvious with devastating effect is the best around.
How about Tom McGuire?
Come on, we see through this – if the CIA prepared a formal report, it would be subpoenaed as evidence, and the jury would laugh out loud at the “no damage” assessment. So the CIA filed a criminal referral in 2003, got the White House tied up in a two year investigation, and now they are laughing out loud. Well played, especially if you like a spy service that shrugs off executive oversight by inventing crimes and playing dirty tricks.