The Washington Times yesterday published part one of my two-part column about issues raised by the Sean Penn movie Fair Game, about events surrounding the release of the name of CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson. This is part two of that column. In the Washington Times article, I noted that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted entirely on the basis of differing recollections, between Libby and the late TV journalist Tim Russert, about a particular conversation the two men had related to the Wilson case. Yet it turns out that even Russert was unsure, when first interviewed by the FBI, about the substance of that conversation.
The FBI report reads: “Mr. Russert acknowledged that he speaks to many people on a daily basis and it is difficult to remember some specific conversations, particularly one which occurred several months ago.” That, of course, was the exact substance of Mr. Libby’s defense.
Libby’s lawyers had argued that he did not commit perjury because he testified as accurately as possible about a conversation that, months later, different people could legitimately remember differently. My column makes the case that Libby never should have been convicted. So did several other excellent pieces. Libby did not perjure himself or obstruct justice. Period. More on that in a few moments.
Now here’s the rest of the story related to Fair Game. The movie, highly entertaining but far from the “truth,” not only intimates that Libby effectively was behind the leak of Ms. Wilson’s name — which is demonstrably false — but also portrays him as masterminding a devious, sinister manipulation of evidence concerning Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. According to the movie, Libby went to the CIA and browbeat a top counter-proliferation agent to try to force a report that some now-famous aluminum tubes were meant for nuke use. The movie Libby also, at least by inference, is hip-deep in all affairs related to the controversial “16 words” in President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address to the effect that British intelligence had determined that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium from Africa. Libby thus is made complicit, ultimately, for “lying” the United States into war.
Here’s the truth: Nobody lied us into war. Ambassador Joe Wilson’s own report had noted a 1999 “trade mission” by Iraq, to Niger, that likely was an attempt to secure yellowcake. British intelligence, independently of forged reports, had indeed concluded that Iraq actively sought yellowcake. And almost everybody involved honestly believed Iraq still had weapons of mass murder. Those believers included Valerie Plame Wilson herself.
On pages 95-98 of her memoirs (also called “Fair Game”), Ms. Wilson writes this:
The U.S. intelligence community was not the only actor that found Iraq’s provocations alarming. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies (www.cns.miis.edu), a non-partisan, non-governmental research organization devoted to training the next generation of nonproliferation experts, was also concerned. Here’s what some of their research revealed about the state of Iraq’s WMD programs in 2001:
What followed was three full pages of details about what was thought to be known about Iraq’s nuclear, biological, chemical, and ballistic missile capabilities. The first item under “Nuclear” was this: “With sufficient black-market uranium or plutonium, Iraq probably could fabricate a nuclear weapon.” A few paragraphs after the three-page list, Ms. Wilson wrote: “Many of the CIA liaison partners around the world were picking up evidence that Iraq was seeking to procure items that could be used in their suspected WMD programs. It was a huge puzzle with only a few pieces that fit together correctly.”
Here’s what the official Robb-Silberman commission that later looked into the WMD question found out:
The intelligence community had learned a hard lesson after the 1991 Gulf War, which revealed that the intelligence community’s pre-war assessments had underestimated Iraq’s nuclear program and had failed to identify all its chemical weapons sites. Intelligence analysts [HILLYER NOTE: intelligence analysts, not political pressure from the V-P’s office] were determined not to fall victim again to the same mistake…. Collectors and analysts too readily accepted any evidence that supported their theory that Iraq had stockpiles and was developing weapons programs…. For good reason, it was hard to conclude that Saddam Hussein had indeed abandoned his weapons programs.
In short, the simple fact is that Ambassador Wilson’s fulminations about the “16 words” were almost irrelevant. So much evidence led so many intelligence analysts and agencies into believing that Iraq had WMD that the Bush statement about uranium was mere icing not on, but in the guise of, the yellowcake.
What for strange reasons has never received the attention necessary is that American forces did actually find WMD materials after toppling Saddam Hussein. As Deroy Murdock has noted in several columns, Iraq still possessed mustard and sarin nerve agent, low-enriched uranium, and live botulinum toxin. For what it’s worth, Iraq also operated a terrorist training camp just south of Baghdad called Salman Pak, and it knowingly harbored some terrorists and provided material support to many others. It repeatedly violated United Nations sanctions and repeatedly fired on American planes enforcing the “no-fly zone.” And it had a history of gassing its own people.
All of which makes all of Scooter Libby’s deep concerns abut Iraq, and his actions and those of the whole Bush administration, not sinister or in any way dishonest but instead understandable and even wise efforts to protect Americans from deadly future attacks.
The real record similarly has been obscured, by the establishment media and especially by the movie Fair Game, about the leak of Ms. Wilson’s name and Mr. Libby’s role in events surrounding that leak. Here’s what it boils down to: Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s case against Libby made no sense. None. Richard Armitage, not Libby, leaked Ms. Wilson’s CIA affiliation. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow confirmed it, on the record — hardly the actions of an agency that wanted to protect the identity of a covert operative. Robert Novak’s column containing the name “Valerie Plame” began showing up in newsrooms on Friday, July 11, 2003. It was that same day that Libby spoke to Russert. It is entirely plausible that Russert did indeed mention the information to Libby after seeing or hearing about the Novak column on the wires.
What is clear is that prosecutor Fitzgerald’s theory was that Libby invented and lied about the information coming from Russert in order to excuse subsequent mentions of Plame to the New York Times‘ Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper. But the judge and jury threw out the charges relating to Cooper and Miller: Libby was innocent on those counts. In that case, though, why would Libby have made up the bit about Russert, months later, if he had no reason to try to hide something else the jury concluded he didn’t do?
The man had no reason to lie or to knowingly deceive the FBI or the courts. He quite literally had no motive.
It is a very bad thing indeed for a covert agent’s identity to be divulged in public. But sometimes it happens inadvertently — especially when the CIA’s own spokesman helps divulge it. It is a far worse thing to try to create a scapegoat for a leak that the scapegoat didn’t commit, on a subject about which the scapegoat himself had no reason to feel defensive. The whole “16 words” controversy was not just a tempest in a teapot but a Katrina in a thimble. Those words did not make the difference between this nation going to war or not going to war. The war decision was based on a mix of faulty and accurate intelligence, along with an entirely defensible assessment of the geopolitical situation in 2003. It was made in the shadow of terrorist attacks that killed innocents and changed our very way of life. What was on the minds of Bush officials wasn’t bloodlust so much as protection — protection of American lives and liberties. Nobody needed to lie to make the arguments for war; whether they reached wise conclusions or not, they merely had to cite all the best available evidence for their positions.
Intending to refer to his trial and conviction, I asked Libby if, with perfect hindsight, he would have done anything differently.
“If I knew then what we know now?” he repeated, rhetorically. “I would find some way to save those 3,000 Americans who were crushed or burned alive on 9/11.”
On the available evidence, Scooter Libby contributed mightily to ensuring it didn’t happen again. Forget his wrongful conviction for perjury; it was his conviction to protect this nation, his determination to see that no similar assaults succeeded, that is the truest measure of his character and career. It’s a measure not of shame but of high honor.