13 March 2013

VALERIE PLAME WILSON: Fair Game


by David Edgerley Gates

Let's talk about lies.

It's a widely-held article of faith, particularly on the Left, that the Bush administration falsified intelligence to get us into the Iraq war.  I don't completely subscribe to this, for reasons I'll go into. But the purpose of this post is to examine one of the more puzzling sideshows in the run-up to actual combat operations: the full-court press by Vice President Cheney's office to discredit Valerie Plame Wilson, a career CIA officer, and her husband Joe, a retired diplomat.
Valerie and Joe Wilson

In discussing whether or not the Iraq intelligence was 'stovepiped,' an expression Seymour Hersh was the first to use, it might help to review, first, the culture of CIA, and secondly, the mindset of the Bush security team.  Richard Helms, a former Director of Central Intelligence, once remarked that the DCI has only one consumer, and that he serves only one president at a time.  In other words, the job description is to give the president the best available analysis of sometimes conflicting intelligence product, and reconcile any disagreements.  State and Defense may have competing agendas, and they're free to make their own arguments, but the DCI shouldn't be swayed by policy differences. In practice, however, it's more about political survival.  George Tenet, Bush's DCI, had extraordinary access to the Oval Office, and the president trusted his advice.  The brute fact, though, is that you can't keep bringing your guy news he doesn't want to hear, or he's simply going to stop listening.  Tenet wanted to protect his place at the table, and it led him to start shading or deflecting unwelcome truths.  His own people at Langley were the first to realize he was insulating himself from failure.  He couldn't afford to have Bush turn a deaf ear.  We hang on prince's favors, Wolsey tells us, but when we fallwe fall like Lucifernever to hope again.

George Tenet
Tenet, to be fair, had no mean adversaries, chief of them Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and Rumsfeld had a deep bench to draw on.  He set up a spook shop at the Pentagon, run by an undersecretary named Doug Feith, who reported personally to the SecDef.  (As an aside, and because I can't resist, Gen. Tommy Franks, later commander of the forces in Iraq, was to characterize Feith as "the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.")  The point of the exercise is that they didn't trust Langley, so they mined the same raw data and then came to a radically different conclusion, one more to the liking of the Cabinet war party headed up by the vice president.

Both interpretations of the evidence turned on the trustworthiness of the clandestine Iraqi source codenamed CURVEBALL.  CIA considered him a self-aggrandizing phony and his stuff utterly unreliable, but DoD was ready to cut him more than a little slack.  CURVEBALL gave legs to the story that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological agents, the so-called WMD. There's an apposite quote from the late James Jesus Angleton, legendary chief of CIA counterintelligence (and Angleton will return, in a subsequent blog entry).  "Not every story we wish to be true," he said, of a KGB deception, "is necessarily false."

Rafid al-Janabi a/k/a CURVEBALL
Which brings us to the notorious episode of the Nigerian yellowcake.  A report surfaced that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger, which could be turned into fissionable material for a nuclear weapon.  CIA decided to send Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, who had experience and connections in Africa, to check it out.  If true, here their smoking gun.  It's an axiom, in intelligence, that you can't prove a negative, but Wilson didn't find anything to support the story.  So we've got an ambiguous result.  Wilson couldn't say for sure the Iraqis didn't try to acquire yellowcake, he could only say there was no evidence that they had, in fact, tried.  "Highly doubtful," he told CIA.

The next question in this little drama is how the Nigerian yellowcake found its way into the State of the Union address.  CIA fact-checks a draft of the speech, and Tenet says the offending lines have to come out.  They do. But then, by all accounts, the vice president and the SecDef insist they go back in.  In the event, Bush utters the fatal words, "Saddam Hussein recently bought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."  Joe Wilson, watching the president on television, goes WTF? Disgruntled, or disappointed, or just plain pissed off, he writes an Op-Ed that comes out in the New York Times, disputing the whole nine yards.  There's nothing, he says, to suggest any truth to this yellowcake moonshine.

State of the Union
You with me so far?  Because it gets murkier.

Now, to coin a phrase, the fur hits the fan.  Dick Cheney is reportedly ripshit. Joe Wilson, in his opinion, has stabbed them all in the back.  You don't, for Christ's sake, take your grievances to the God damn New York TIMES.  Joe's gone over to the enemy.  At this point, it's not a dispute about the intelligence, and this is where I put in my own two cents.  Honest men can disagree.  I stepped on my dick about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. I didn't think they'd pull the trigger, and I was proved wrong.  Older, wiser heads were right. This isn't by any means an exact trade.  You make the best guess.  In this case, Cheney's being dishonest.  It's not really about Niger.  It's a grudge match.  Joe Wilson's in his sights.

The rubber meets the road.  Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie, is a serving CIA officer.  She's worked covert, overseas.  Her present post is at Langley, in non-proliferation.  Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, blows Valerie to a Washington columnist, Robert Novak.  The deception they're floating is that Valerie persuaded the powers that be to send Joe to Niger with the express purpose of spiking the yellowcake rumor.

I told you it was complicated.

Let's, for the moment, ignore the facts.
Cheney and Rumsfeld

What's the narrative Cheney's suggesting?  First, that CIA's a hotbed of Lefties, who don't whole-heartedly believe in a war with Iraq. Joe Wilson's another ComSymp.  His wife gets him the gig.  The two of them are in bed together, in more ways than one.  Bottom line, Valerie is soft on Iraq, and so is Joe. Between the two of them, they wanted to sabotage the war effort.

There are a couple of things wrong with this picture.

Valerie didn't pick Joe for the mission, and Joe didn't have a horse in the race.  We're talking apples and oranges.  Valerie, by her own account, really liked her job, and believed in it.  I take her at her word. Duty is, perhaps, a careworn expression.

What was the point?  Or the object.  What is Cheney trying to accomplish, and who would care? Who'd even understand the Byzantine reasoning behind this stratagem?  Nobody outside the Beltway.  Cheney's an inside guy.  He doesn't come right out and say, Joe Wilson's soft on Iraq. He moves in on the oblique.  Which might lead us to believe his target audience wasn't the general public at all, but Congress, particularly the ranking members of the armed services committees. These are the people who'd vote on any Iraq war resolution, and the vice president wants their votes in the bag.  Anything else would be noise.

Push comes to shove, sacrificing Valerie Plame's career or Joe Wilson's reputation is small potatoes. They get thrown under the bus to Baghdad.

Full disclosure. I've met Valerie Wilson since she and her family moved to Santa Fe, and have had some passing conversations with her– not, as it happens, on these particular questions. In their own words, here's a recent article Valerie and Joe wrote for THE GUARDIAN.

11 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

In the aftermath, I had the feeling Tenent knew there was no yellow cake and threw himself on his sword for the President. Sadly, I have friends who still swear Iraq had yellow came uranium.

Louis A. Willis said...

Your post is the first time I've read a good, understandable explanation about the whole mess leading up to the Iraq war. I'm beginning to believe that fact is stranger than fiction.

Robert Lopresti said...

Good depressing post. Thanks.

R.T. Lawton said...

Those who play with our intelligence for personal gain are once again making the world more dangerous for Americans in the long run.
Thanks, David, for going to all the trouble of putting this interesting post together for us.

David Edgerley Gates said...

The thing to remember about this is that both Ambassador Wilson and VP Cheney acted out of conviction: Wilson because he didn't think the war should be sold ob a false premise, and Cheney because he thought Wilson's public reaction was treasonous. They were on a collision course.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my jaundiced view, but it seems to me Cheney's (and Scooter Libby's) actions were treasonous, not to mention high-handed and arrogant.

Dixon Hill said...

David, I saw this yesterday, but am afraid I didn’t have time to post a comment. Riveting article, and most cogent explanation I’ve encountered, concerning what happened vis-à-vis Wilson, Cheney, et al.

“Honest men can disagree. I stepped on my dick about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. I didn't think they'd pull the trigger, and I was proved wrong. Older, wiser heads were right. This isn't by any means an exact trade. You make the best guess.”

Right on the NAILHEAD, buddy!

For my part, I often think the average American is simply too likely to believe the characterization of intelligence operations as presented by Hollywood—either intel agencies are malicious arms of the government, bent on controlling US Citizens for non-sensible reasons; or conversely they are all-knowing, all-seeing, infallible organizations that can predict the minutest future event.

Your post presented one of the best examples, demonstrating that analysts are just that: Analysts. Not crystal ball gazers with some magic power to see into the future. An estimate is an estimate, and an analyst simply cannot KNOW what is going to happen; he has to make a possibly-wrong prediction that’s based on data of various (and – at the heart of it – largely unknown!) reliability.

I know it must not have been easy to write those few lines, but I appreciate your courage and conviction in writing them.

I’ll lift a beer to you, this evening!
--Dix

Eve Fisher said...

I will always believe that the outing of Valerie Plame should have been treated as treason, because with her went everyone she had ever contacted, worked with, etc. Now, setting her up to fall because she was embezzling, screwing around, etc. - dirty tactics, morally indefensible, dishonorable in the extreme, but not treason. But outing her as a CIA agent? Treason. But more proof that (1) I'm more naive than I think and (2) I can still be surprised by what certain government megalomaniacs will do. (You should have heard me after the Iran-Contra thing came out.)

Robert Lopresti said...

I hate to find myself defending the Bush/Cheney crowd - not my usual position - but this essay and Dix's comment reminds me that we tend to look back at history (even recent) with 20/20 hindsight and not realize how MUDDLED it looked to the people making decisions.

I learned recently that in the three months before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln took three or four completely contradictory positions on the future of slavery. Looking back we see his true course, but he was flailing around in the weeds looking for it.

There was a hilarious essay a couple of years ago complaining about a tv show that had "jumped the shark," becoming too ridiculous to believe. It was History Channel's WORLD WAR II and the author listed a lot of plot twists that were far too bizarre to believe. Except, of course, the show was non-fiction.

Having said all that, hell yes, revealing a CIA agent should be a felony.

Robert Lopresti said...

I hate to find myself defending the Bush/Cheney crowd - not my usual position - but this essay and Dix's comment reminds me that we tend to look back at history (even recent) with 20/20 hindsight and not realize how MUDDLED it looked to the people making decisions.

I learned recently that in the three months before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln took three or four completely contradictory positions on the future of slavery. Looking back we see his true course, but he was flailing around in the weeds looking for it.

There was a hilarious essay a couple of years ago complaining about a tv show that had "jumped the shark," becoming too ridiculous to believe. It was History Channel's WORLD WAR II and the author listed a lot of plot twists that were far too bizarre to believe. Except, of course, the show was non-fiction.

Having said all that, hell yes, revealing a CIA agent should be a felony.

Toe Hallock said...

Pardon my interruption. Believe it or not, I had always heard that the whole Iraq thing was the culmination of Cheney's and Rumsfeld's never getting over the Vietnam fiasco. G.W. was a puppet in that "they" convinced him he could outdo Daddy by bringing down Saddam. A war of convenience? For the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about. And Cheney's "ex" company cleaned up pretty good through contracts to rehab Iraq without the normal procedures of competing bids. Does any of this surprise you? Not me. But, just in case, I'm going to pull a Romney. I didn't mean any of this. Yours truly, Toe.