Sunday, October 30, 2005

The week Bush got whacked
The Sunday Times
Focus: The week Bush got whacked

His second term was already floundering when, on Friday, a top aide was charged with perjury. Sarah Baxter, in Washington, reports on a bad few days for the president

Nerves were jangling at the White House last week. President George W Bush, never the easiest character to work for, was growing tetchy and was lashing out at junior staff. When he was re-elected last November he said that he had political capital and was going to spend it. A year later the coffers of goodwill and trust were near-empty and he was angry.

"This is not some manager at McDonald’s chewing out the staff," said one source. "This is the president of the United States and it is not a pretty sight."

Bush’s mood had already soured during Hurricane Katrina, when he was accused of being indifferent to the misery of New Orleans. It darkened further when Harriet Miers, his White House legal adviser and nominee for the Supreme Court, was scorned by his own conservative supporters as a hapless crony, forcing her to withdraw her candidature last week.

"Why wouldn’t he be irritable?" said Bill Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard. Everything for Bush had gone from bad to worse and, as fate would have it, the number of American deaths in Iraq passed 2,000 on Tuesday, promoting yet another media blitz on his performance in that country.

"He is like the lion in winter," said an ally. "He’s frustrated. He remains quite confident in the decisions he has made, but this is a guy who wanted to do big things in his second term. Given his nature, there is no way he would be happy about the way things have gone."

Things were about to get worse. Having promised to restore "dignity" to the White House after the bimbo eruptions of the Clinton era, on Friday Bush became the first American president in more than 30 years to see one of his most senior aides indicted on criminal charges.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, right-hand man to Dick Cheney — the most powerful vice-president in American history — was charged on five counts of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice.

Patrick Fitzgerald, an apparently fearless and politically independent prosecutor who had earned his spurs taking down Chicago mobsters, had brought the indictment which concerned the unmasking of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative.

Her outing by an as yet unnamed White House official came only months after her husband, a former US ambassador, had embarrassed Bush, Cheney and Libby by accusing them of misrepresenting the intelligence case of the war on Iraq.

After Fitzgerald had served his indictment on Friday, Libby immediately resigned and now has to report to the FBI for arrest and fingerprinting. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in jail and a fine of up to $1.25m. So much, then, for dignity.

At first glance the Libby affair is a confusing — almost academic — tale of internecine Washington politics with little obvious explosive potential. Yet it is one that has struck at the core of one of Bush’s proudest and most controversial achievements: the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Worse, perhaps, so far as middle America is concerned, it raises a question mark over the one thing that the Bush administration has always been strongest on — its apparently unwavering sense of patriotism.

THE story dates back to the early years of Bush’s presidency and the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Cheney and Libby were at the vanguard of the hardcore group of "neocon" advisers who believed that Saddam’s regime in Iraq should be toppled in the wake of the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The two men, who were called the "commissars" behind their backs, became obsessed with rooting out evidence that Saddam was still seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In regular meetings with the CIA they would press officials to turn over every scrap of evidence that came their way relating to Iraq.

In February 2002, Cheney was given a CIA briefing which mentioned the curious case of Saddam’s attempted purchase of uranium yellowcake from Niger — a crucial ingredient in any nuclear programme. What more could the agency tell him, Cheney demanded.

When vice-presidents bark, officials jump to it and in this case the CIA quickly dispatched Joseph Wilson, a one-time Californian surf dude and diplomat in Baghdad at the time of the first Gulf war, to Niger to find out more. But far from confirming a plot to buy uranium, Wilson reported after an eight-day trip that the allegations were bogus.

The CIA, it seems, did not report this bad news directly back to the vice-president. Cheney claims that he was never told about Wilson’s departure, nor his findings.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the vice-president might well have dismissed Wilson’s report in any event as he had long regarded the CIA with suspicion. He had first clashed with the agency when he was defence secretary under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Then he had accused its risk-averse bureaucrats of failing to foresee the break-up of the Soviet Union.

He also felt that it had not prepared adequately for the possible use of biological weapons by Saddam in the first Gulf war, when Scud missiles were launched at Israel. After the September 11 attacks, the CIA was once again in the doghouse for missing the signs that Al-Qaeda was preparing to crash planes into New York and Washington.

As the build-up to the war in Iraq grew nearer, Cheney and Libby effectively cut the CIA out of the loop, forming their own "Iraq monitoring group" with Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz (Libby’s original mentor) and Douglas Feith, another hawkish defence official. Together they built the case for the invasion and overthrow of Saddam.

For nearly a year Wilson kept quiet about his mission but then — in January 2003 — came the president’s state of the union address and the 16 words that drove the proud, some say vain, man to distraction.

"The British government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," the president told the nation and the world.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Wilson felt ignored and started talking quietly to the press about his mission of a year earlier. His frustration turned to outright anger several months later when Condoleezza Rice asserted on television that no senior person in the administration had been told that the documents relating to Saddam’s alleged uranium purchase were forged. "Maybe somebody in the bowels of the agency knew something about this," she said airily, "but nobody in my circles."

Wilson went ballistic and public. In an article in The New York Times in July 2003, he publicly accused the Bush government of "misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war".

As for Rice, "She was saying, ‘F*** you Washington, we don’t care’. Or rather, ‘F*** you, America’," Wilson later added.

Precisely what happened next within the administration is still the subject of conjecture and criminal investigation. What is in no doubt, however, is that the occupation of Plame, Wilson’s wife, was leaked to the press and her identity as an undercover operative in the counter-proliferation division of the CIA was blown.

The story was broken by Robert Novak, the right-wing columnist, and was widely seen as an attempt to discredit Wilson and rubbish his story. By linking him so closely with the CIA, critics said, the Bush administration was letting people know that he was just another tool of a discredited agency that had long been at loggerheads with Cheney and his neocon advisers.

In Wilson’s eyes it was a straightforward case of revenge by the government. It is a criminal offence in America for an official knowingly to leak the identity of an undercover operative. Wilson — with the backing of his wife and the CIA — demanded that a full criminal investigation be launched to establish who in the administration had leaked Plame’s occupation.

It was Fitzgerald, the 44- year-old prosecutor at the heart of the leak inquiry, who was brought in to sift through the evidence of wrongdoing. It should have been immediately obvious to Cheney and friends that the White House could not simply bluff its way out of trouble.

The clean-cut, bright-eyed prosecutor has the incorruptible air of Kevin Costner in the film The Untouchables, based on lawman Eliot Ness’s account of how he brought down Al Capone, Chicago’s most notorious gangster in the 1930s.

Fittingly, Fitzgerald also lives in Chicago where he runs the justice department. He, too, has had run-ins with the mob and secured the convictions of members of the Gambino crime family as well as terrorists such as Omar Abdul Rahman.

Fitzgerald launched his inquiry by demanding the names of all the reporters whom Libby and other senior White House officials had talked to. It was Novak who broke the story but last summer Fitzgerald was ruthless enough to send Judith Miller, a controversial Pulitzer prizewinning reporter for The New York Times, to prison for 85 days until she agreed to reveal the source of her information on the matter.

The fact that Miller never wrote the story — which turned out to have been supplied to her by Libby — did not spare her from incarceration. "If you’re not zealous, you shouldn’t have the job," Fitzgerald once said of his own role in the investigation.

The White House has tried to fight back. Wilson and his wife, insiders like to point out, are no clear-cut heroes. In Washington circles, they say, Wilson was known to introduce Plame proudly at parties as "my CIA wife" and thus could be said to have broken her cover himself.

Unfortunately for the White House, there is no rule against whistleblowers being vain and self-important. Unlike the right, which has eagerly dissected Wilson’s character and motives, Fitzgerald has shown no interest in his alleged defects.

Early on in the inquiry, one White House ally also took a swipe at Fitzgerald himself: "He’s a vile, detestable, moralistic person with no heart and no conscience who believes he has been tapped by God to do very important things."

That line of attack, too, was dropped — and not only because Bush’s opponents say much the same thing about the president. Fitzgerald, the workaholic, Harvard-educated son of an Irish immigrant New York doorman, is transparently honest and for many Americans represents what is best about their upwardly mobile nation.

YET when Fitzgerald finally served his indictment last week there was no charge levelled for the actual crime of blowing Plame’s identity. Instead Libby was charged with lying. In short he was charged not with the crime but with the cover-up.

Fitzgerald made it plain that he believed that the charges were serious. "When citizens testify before grand juries they are required to tell the truth," he said. "In an investigation concerning the compromise of a CIA officer’s testimony, it is especially important."

For a moment it was as if the prosecutor rather than the president was standing up for the integrity of the nation and behaving as a patriot.

Moreover, Fitzgerald made it clear that his inquiry was not yet over. His indictment reveals that it was not Libby — but a mysterious "Official A" — who gave Plame’s name to Novak. Libby, it transpired, had passed it to three other journalists, including Miller who had failed to make use of the information in print.

Official A is widely believed to be Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser and a man widely known as "Bush’s brain". Experts now believe that Fitzgerald, having charged Libby, could push him to expose Rove’s role in exchange for a more lenient sentence. That, say some, could open the door to Cheney being charged.

If Libby comes to trial, Cheney is bound to have to take the stand as a witness. At the very least he will have to answer embarrassing questions about why he let Libby claim throughout the 22- month inquiry that he learnt of Plame’s identity only through reporters when Cheney himself had told Libby that Plame worked for the CIA.

Whatever the deal, Libby now finds himself, at 55, facing serious jail time.

The Democrats, meanwhile, can hardly believe their luck. "This is going to consume the rest of the Bush presidency," said Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton.

Wilson has certainly got his own back for the perceived smears against him and his wife. "When an indictment is delivered to the front door of the White House, the office of the president is defiled," Wilson said on Friday.

For defenders of the president, the fact that it is only Libby and not Rove who was charged is important. In Kristol’s view, the charges are "a personal blow for Libby and embarrassing for the White House" but they are focused on only one person: "It’s not so bad for Bush. There was no conspiracy, which limits the damage."

Indeed, Washington conservatives were far less despondent this weekend than might have been expected. Buoyed up by their success in getting Miers to withdraw her nomination for the Supreme Court, many talk as if Bush now has a unprecedented opportunity to move forward.

"We have reached the bottom of the Bush bear market," said Kristol emphatically. Others note that there are still three years to go before the next election.

There are signs that the economy is improving and Ben Bernanke, Bush’s nominee for the chairman of the Federal Reserve last week, has been widely praised.

"What they’ve decided to do is have the world’s worst Thursday and Friday, see if they can get through the weekend and start all over again on Monday," said Byron York, a conservative commentator.

It could work if the public has a short-term memory

Cast list of the CIA scandal


The combative Cheney saw Iraq as a serious threat after 9/11. Learning of documents purporting to show that Iraq was trying to buy uranium “yellow cake” —- a potential ingredient for nuclear weapons — from Niger, he ordered further investigations. He pressed CIA analysts sceptical about Iraq having WMD.


Former US ambassador Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA to authenticate the claims. He found no evidence and was dismayed when President Bush referred to the claims in a 2003 speech. To the fury of Cheney’s office, Wilson told journalists that the White House had “twisted” evidence on Iraq’s WMD.


Wilson’s wife, she was a covert CIA operative and WMD expert. According to allegations this week, her identity became known among senior White House figures after Wilson criticised the administration. Her CIA links were revealed by a right-wing newspaper columnist with White House connections. Whoever first “outed” her committed a serious offence.


A tough prosecutor, Fitzgerald launched an investigation into the Plame leak. He examined the roles of senior White House staff, including Karl Rove, the political adviser known as “Bush’s brain”. Last week Fitzgerald left open the possibility of further investigations into Rove, but did not indict him.


Arch neoconservative Libby has resigned as Cheney’s chief of staff. Last week he was indicted by Fitzgerald. Although not directly accused of leaking Plame’s name, he was charged with obstruction of justice, lying to the FBI and committing perjury before a grand jury. Libby denies the charges.

The second term curse has hit every two-term president since the second world war. Recent victims include:

Bill Clinton
On January 26, 1998, he denied on national television having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Found to have lied, he was impeached although the Senate did not convict him.

Ronald Reagan
Cursed by the Iran-Contra affair, in which missiles were sold to Iran and Tehran’s money illegally funded Contras fighting Nicaragua’s socialist government.

Richard Nixon
Brought down by Watergate scandal and on August 8, 1974, announced his resignation.

Lyndon Johnson
Despite earnest pledges, in the first year of his second term American troop numbers in Vietnam rose from 15,000 to 200,000.

Dwight Eisenhower
In 1960 he denied Gary Powers’s spy plane had been shot down in Soviet air space. After Powers was jailed in Russia, Eisenhower then denied he had authorised the mission.