The Smearing of Scooter Libby
05.21.15 by Arthur Herman
The trial of Lewis Libby began on January 16, 2007. The former chief of staff to then–Vice President Dick Cheney was facing a five-count indictment for obstruction of justice, making false statements, a perjury regarding a Bush-administration leak of a CIA operative’s identity. For 90 minutes, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made the case that Valerie Plame’s real name had been “known only to a small circle of intelligence professionals” because she had been a covert operative. Under U.S. law, the outing of any such operative is a felony. Fitzgerald claimed her name had been leaked by Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Why? To punish her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, for publishing an explosive 2003 op-ed that had done great damage to the Bush administration.
Fitzgerald said that Libby, known as Scooter, had lied to him during the investigation of the leak to throw “sand…in his eyes.” His purpose in the trial was to make the jury see the lies and get at the truth, because, as Fitzgerald had said in an earlier statement, “the truth is the engine of our judicial system.”
It is now clear that nearly everything Fitzgerald said about Libby’s role in the Plame case was false—and that it was Fitzgerald, not Libby, who had compromised the truth and the judicial process. The proof comes in Miller’s The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, a memoir released in April. Miller, who would serve as a key witness in the Libby trial, reveals how Fitzgerald deliberately withheld evidence from her and from Libby’s lawyers that would have made a guilty verdict all but impossible—effectively charging that Fitzgerald framed Libby in a blatant act of prosecutorial misconduct.
Her story provides new weight to evidence that has accumulated over the course of a decade—evidence that the charges against Libby were a fraud, the trial a travesty, and the entire episode a tragedy for the United States and perhaps for Iraq.
In fact, the full story of the Scooter Libby case demolishes two powerful myths that have motivated the left since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and that helped to elect Barack Obama president in 2008.
The first myth is that the main justification for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs) was a lie—a lie confirmed by Joseph Wilson’s exposure of false claims that Hussein had been pursuing yellowcake uranium in Niger. The administration’s supposed response to Wilson’s claims had been the pursuit of revenge against Wilson by exposing his wife’s covert identity. But as we now know, Libby did not “out” Plame. He was essentially convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—a crime, as Miller’s book reveals, Fitzgerald knew he hadn’t committed but had held as a sword of Damocles over Libby’s head in relentless pursuit of a criminal charge of Libby’s boss, the vice president of the United States.
The second myth is that the Bush administration had had no plan for fixing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq when the war did not end after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. In fact, some in the Bush administration had a very clear strategy for dealing with post-invasion Iraq, and Libby was one of the strongest voices among them. The harrying of Libby by the media, and then by prosecutor Fitzgerald, took out an important voice in the internal debate. One can make a strong argument that it wasn’t the despised neocons or Dick Cheney whose policies triggered disaster in Iraq but rather the acts and policies of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department—including Powell’s chief deputy, the man who really leaked Plame’s identity, Richard Armitage. Armitage kept mum while Fitzgerald prosecuted Scooter Libby for what Fitzgerald knew Armitage had done—and knew even before the Fitzgerald investigation began.
For months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had presented evidence of WMDs in Iraq, culminating in Colin Powell’s dramatic speech at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, five weeks before the war began. But after the fall of Saddam, American forces failed to turn up evidence of the WMD stockpiles. Articles began appearing in the press suggesting that the Bush administration had known the WMD evidence had been flimsy but had pressed the case anyway.
In mid-June, Cheney received a call from a reporter regarding a story in the Washington Post. The story cited an unnamed U.S. ambassador who had been sent by the CIA in February 2002 on a mission to Niger to find out whether Saddam had been trying to obtain yellowcake uranium, and who had discovered the dictator had not done so. Nonetheless, nine months later, President Bush had asserted the opposite in his 2003 State of the Union speech when he said that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The story was of particular concern to Cheney, because the unnamed ambassador claimed Cheney had requested the trip, had therefore presumably known about the negative findings, and had allowed the 16 words about uranium to appear in the State of the Union. Cheney had requested no such mission. But he had known about Saddam’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for decades, most notoriously when he built a nuclear reactor for producing plutonium that was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 1981. When Cheney was serving as Defense Secretary on the eve of Desert Storm in 1990, the Israelis had briefed him on Saddam’s ongoing program, and after the war in 1991, the International Atomic Energy Agency had declared that Saddam had been only one year away from a bomb. (Israel concluded it had been closer to six months.)
Indeed, Saddam had acquired yellowcake uranium, two hundred tons of it, back in the ’90s—but that materiel was under lock and key and subject to IAEA annual inspection. The relevant question was whether Saddam had, in the years since, illicitly sought yellowcake from Niger, one of the world’s major sources. A 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency report indicated he had, and that report drew support both from the CIA and from British intelligence. The fact that the CIA had dispatched a mission to Niger on the matter, hadn’t informed the White House, and that its author was now falsely claiming he had been sent at the behest of the White House, led Cheney to get on the horn to CIA director George Tenet.
“What the hell is going on, George?” Cheney wanted to know, according to Cheney’s own memoir, In My Time. Tenet admitted that neither he nor his deputy John McLaughlin had known of the trip. He did pass on one interesting tidbit: The unnamed ambassador’s wife was part of the interagency unit that had dispatched the ambassador to Niger.
On July 6, 2003, the anonymous source finally decided to publish an op-ed in the New York Times under his own name, Joseph C. Wilson IV. There Wilson again asserted he had been sent on the Niger mission at Cheney’s request; that Cheney and the CIA must have known Wilson had found no evidence of Saddam trying to obtain uranium; and that this proved the administration had deliberately twisted intelligence in order to justify going to war.
Wilson’s column, and his subsequent appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, set off a media firestorm. President Bush (encouraged by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice) decided to approve the issuance of an apology for the 16 words in the State of the Union speech that had mentioned Saddam’s recent search for uranium. He did so even though British intelligence was standing by its report—and a parliamentary review committee later concluded that the president’s words in the State of Union had been “well founded.”
There was another, more fundamental problem with Wilson’s column: The report Wilson himself had delivered to the CIA in 2002 actually contradicted the claims in his own op-ed. It had shown that there had indeed been a meeting in 1999 between the Niger government and Saddam’s representatives. The Iraqis had expressed interest in “expanding commercial contacts” with Niger—which, since Niger’s principal export was uranium, could only have meant yellowcake. Wilson had told reporters the opposite, and he had written the opposite.
Even more strikingly, one of those who knew the Wilson op-ed had distorted his own report was Wilson’s wife. A report by the 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee shows Plame was involved in her husband’s selection and had read his report—and therefore must have known it contradicted what he was telling the media.
On July 11, 2003, the National Security Council had the CIA’s Tenet issue a statement saying that neither the CIA nor Vice President Cheney had sent Wilson to Niger and that Wilson’s own report undermined his column’s claims. Libby manned the phones to alert reporters to Tenet’s statement. He spoke to Matthew Cooper of Time, Miller of the New York Times, and several other journalists. These phone calls would haunt him later. Libby did not know that dozens of people in newsrooms around the country had already received the electronic transmission of a column by the investigative reporter Robert Novak that would blast the Wilson story into the media stratosphere. (Its contents were not public because it was set to run on July 14 and was “embargoed,” meaning it and its contents were not to be made public before publication. Such an embargo would not exist today in the age of Twitter, but it did then, and it held.)
Entitled “Mission to Niger,” the Novak column revealed that Wilson’s trip to Niger had been at the behest of his wife, Valerie Plame, “an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Though he did not say so in the column, Novak had received that insider information from Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage in a call Armitage had placed to Novak. Novak then phoned CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who confirmed it.
What were Armitage’s reasons for planting the story with Novak? One can only speculate. He may have wanted to use the information to deflect potential criticisms of his boss Colin Powell’s claims about WMDs at the United Nations (i.e., Powell didn’t know and couldn’t have reflected the findings of the report because this mission had been a CIA operation and had been kept from him). But if Armitage’s reasons for leaking Plame’s name were understandable, even if they might have been technically a violation of the law, his reasons for remaining silent while another man was hounded for it were anything but honorable—as we shall see.
Libby hadn’t been taken aback by Novak’s account. White House aide Karl Rove had mentioned the Plame-Wilson connection to Libby on July 11, and it had come up the following day when Libby was on the phone with Tim Russert of NBC. It was Russert who brought up Plame, her CIA identity, and the Wilson mission. This had “surprised” Libby, as he later told FBI interrogators, because didn’t think the information was widely known. (He did not know Novak’s column had been sitting there in newsroom computers for any enterprising journalist to read.)
Russert and Libby would later disagree on what was said in that phone call, with Russert contradicting himself on the witness stand. But the implications became clear when the Nation’s David Corn published a story a few days later arguing that the leaking of Plame’s identity as a CIA operative might have been a crime.
If so, it was a crime many had been committing in the previous month. Armitage did it twice, first to Novak (just like the CIA’s Harlow) and then to a Washington Post reporter on July 12. So did Karl Rove, who confirmed the fact first to Novak before mentioning it to Time’s Matt Cooper. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer mentioned it twice as well, first to a small circle of reporters on the presidential plane on July 11, then on the phone to a Washington Post reporter.
In fact, almost the only administration official talking to the press about the Wilson matter who hadn’t volunteered information about Plame, or confirmed her CIA employment, was Scooter Libby.
Still, when the CIA recommended a criminal referral in the Plame case later in the month, the speculation in the media was that since Cheney and Libby had been in the forefront of refuting Wilson’s column, they would be the targets of the case.
As it happens, that referral was remarkably routine. As John Rizzo, then acting CIA general counsel, wrote in his 2014 book Company Man, 400 such referrals are filed every year in response to possible criminal violations involving classified information. Rizzo said he had expected the Justice Department “to do little or nothing” regarding the disclosure of Plame’s job because “there was no evidence indicating that any CIA source or operation—or Plame herself—was placed in jeopardy.” According to Rizzo, “she was so obscure that I didn’t ever recall hearing her name, much less meeting her.”
Besides, “dozens if not hundreds of people knew she was an Agency employee.” Indeed, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said on the air she had known it (a statement she later retracted when questioned on Don Imus’s show). To Rizzo, the idea that passing on a known fact could be construed as a serious criminal leak seemed absurd. “The crimes-reporting process had never been so trivialized and distorted like that in all my years at the CIA,” he wrote in Company Man.
But this routine referral involved a White House on the cusp of a presidential-election year, and so the story deepened and darkened for those with an axe to grind. For to hear anti-Bush partisans like Corn talk, it was not merely that the White House had supposedly lied about Niger and yellowcake—but that White House officials had deliberately placed a covert operative of the United States government in grave personal danger as retaliation because her husband had revealed a dangerous truth. That was how Andrea Mitchell framed the story when she broke the news of the criminal referral on September 26. Plame had been outed, she reported, “in retaliation against the woman’s husband, a former ambassador who publicly criticized President Bush’s since-discredited claim that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium from Africa.” Mitchell’s account was patently inaccurate, for the claim was not “discredited” (despite the White House’s disawoval); it was backed by reasonable collateral from other intelligence agencies, as British intelligence and the bipartisan Robb-Silberman commission later concluded.
Intense media speculation about the culprit had already narrowed to two names: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. The person who actually had leaked Plame’s name, Richard Armitage, was nowhere near the suspect list.
Four days later, on September 30, 2003, the Justice Department announced it was launching a formal investigation of the Plame leak. Three months after that, the Justice Department announced the appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald, then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, as special prosecutor. This was done to avoid the charge that the Bush administration could not fairly investigate those in its highest echelons.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey reportedly told Fitzgerald, “Follow this anywhere it goes.” In the end, Fitzgerald would take it where he wanted to go regardless of the facts.
But there was a profound oddity here. Fitzgerald began his work already knowing who had promulgated the leak, for Armitage had confessed as much to the FBI in October. “I may be the guy who caused this whole thing,” he reportedly told a State Department official.
But Fitzgerald declined to prosecute Armitage. Indeed, he told Armitage to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t prosecute Bruce Harlow or Fleischer either. He was after bigger fish. If he could catch either Rove or Libby lying to his investigators or making misstatements that could be portrayed as perjurious, he might be able to get them to turn on their bosses and “expose” a conspiracy reaching up to the president and vice president to punish Wilson by outing Plame.
This was a classic prosecutor ploy in cases involving the Mafia or other RICO-style investigations. It was a new and disturbing way to proceed against men with spotless, even distinguished, public records.
But with the media firestorm about the Plame story and the war in Iraq, Fitzgerald felt free to press ahead. Throughout the 2004 election cycle, the White House and Office of the Vice President were locked in a routine of reviewing and providing thousands of documents to the FBI, Justice Department, and then Fitzgerald; providing hours of sworn depositions in front of investigators; and long bouts of grand-jury testimony for both Rove and Libby. With the violence in Iraq growing and the occupation strategy flailing, with WMD investigator David Kay’s January 2004 report to Congress on the absence of stockpiles seeming to confirm Wilson’s claims that the administration had twisted intelligence about Saddam’s WMDs, and with Democrats who had supported the war now arguing that “Bush lied and people died,” Fitzgerald’s investigation had taken on a new importance. Its very existence was a way to portray the Bush policy in Iraq as not only the result of incompetence, but deliberate wrongdoing.
As 2004 bled into 2005, the investigation’s primary focus became Libby (ironically so, since between Libby and Rove, Libby was by far the less involved). It became clear to Libby’s team that Cheney’s was the scalp he really wanted when they were approached in October 2005 by Fitzgerald with an offer: “Unless you can deliver someone higher up—the vice president,” Fitzgerald told Libby lawyer Joe Tate, according to Miller’s account in The Story, “I’m going forth with the indictment.”
Libby refused. He knew Cheney wasn’t responsible for the leak, any more than he was. Fitzgerald then went ahead and indicted him in October 2005—not for leaking Plame’s name but on the charge that in the course of an almost-two year investigation he had lied to FBI investigators about three conversations in 2003.
One was the July 11 conversation with NBC’s Tim Russert, which—as Fitzgerald himself asserted—had had nothing to do with Valerie Plame. The second was a conversation with Time’s Cooper in which Cooper stated that Libby had confirmed Plame’s CIA employment. Cooper’s own notes, however, contradicted him, and the jury rejected his claim. The third was a July 12 conversation with the Times’s Miller—a charge the judge eventually tossed out himself.
The four-month trial and Libby’s eventual conviction would turn not on any physical evidence or proof, but on what the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz has called “a contest of recollections.” Libby eventually lost that. But this was a contest Fitzgerald had won from the start—with Judith Miller as his unwitting tool.
The full story of how Fitzgerald did so hinges on notes taken by Miller during a conversation with Libby on June 23, 2003. That conversation was about her experience watching the search for WMDs in Iraq. It had had nothing to do with Valerie Plame and had taken place more than a week before Wilson’s column appeared in the New York Times. That conversation, however, had already drawn Fitzgerald’s hostile attention, as her notes that day contained multiple references to Valerie Plame from various official sources—other sources, as it happened, than Libby.
Fitzgerald demanded the names of her sources. Citing her promises of confidentiality to them, Miller refused. Libby waived his confidentiality agreement, knowing their conversation was never about Plame and therefore irrelevant to the hunt for the leaker. She was found guilty of contempt and sent to jail, where she served 85 days. It was only after Fitzgerald agreed to limit his questions to Libby, and Libby reiterated his earlier waiver, that Miller agreed to testify.
At last, Fitzgerald got his chance to make her say what he wanted to hear. As Miller relates in The Story, Fitzgerald eagerly pounced on a single line in her notes on the Libby conversation where she had written in parentheses: “Wife Worked at Bureau?”
Fitzgerald asked: “Did Bureau mean FBI?” Miller told Fitzgerald she had no recollection of what her note, taken down two years earlier, really meant. Under Fitzgerald’s prodding, Miller came to believe that the reference to “Bureau” had to have meant the CIA. During Fitzgerald’s direct examination during the Libby trial, she said as much on the witness stand.
Here’s the problem with this: No knowledgeable government official like Libby, and indeed few people with any real knowledge of Washington, would use the term “the Bureau” to refer to the CIA. “The Bureau” is the FBI, just as “the Pentagon” is the Defense Department.
But this detail became crucial to Fitzgerald’s case against Scooter Libby, the accused leaker. For if Libby had discussed someone’s wife working at the CIA on June 23, Fitzgerald told the jury, then Libby had to have lied to FBI agents when they interviewed him as part of Fitzgerald’s investigation. Libby had described himself as being “surprised” when Tim Russert told him two weeks later that Plame had been instrumental in sending Wilson to Niger or at least that she had worked at the CIA (Libby couldn’t remember which).
“You don’t get surprised on Thursday,” Fitzgerald scornfully said in his final summary, “by something you’re giving out on Monday and Tuesday.”
In response, Libby’s lawyers pointed out that Russert had actually changed his testimony about their conversation. In his initial FBI interrogation, Russert had said he may indeed have discussed Plame with Libby on the 11th or 12th but couldn’t remember. But at trial, Russert said they couldn’t have discussed Plame at all, since Russert had only learned of her from reading Novak’s column on the 14th. Russert died a year later, and never explained the discrepancy; he may have said what he said at trial because if he had been the one to tell Libby, he would have violated the law protecting a covert operative’s identity.
In the end, the jury of 11 Democrats and one Green Party member chose to believe Fitzgerald’s assertion that Libby had lied about the Russert conversation. At Libby’s sentencing hearing, Fitzgerald urged the judge to impose harsh punishment “to make a clear statement that truth matters, and matters above all else in the judicial system.”
In light of what we know now, these words are especially appalling. Truth was the last thing Fitzgerald wanted to get at. The jurors had been right to be suspicious, for there was indeed something nefarious afoot—but on Fitzgerald’s part, not Libby’s.
As Miller has now revealed, Fitzgerald knew all along what the word Bureau had meant in her June 23 notes. It had been a reference to Plame’s earlier cover with the State Department when she was overseas. The CIA isn’t divided into bureaus; the State Department is.
Neither Miller nor Libby had known at the time that Plame had ever been under cover at State. Fitzgerald did know, however, when he deposed Miller; he had Plame’s entire job history in his files. But he deliberately withheld that information from Miller and from Libby’s lawyers. Instead, he encouraged Miller to believe the word Bureau had referred to Plame’s current CIA employment, and that the information had to have come from none other than Scooter Libby—even though she had had no clear memory of her conversation with Libby.
Only years later, after reading in Plame’s 2008 memoirs about her State Department cover, did Miller realize the truth. As she relates in The Story, she then remembered she had spoken to many State Department people before she had spoken to Libby. Moreover, if Libby had then known Plame was in fact a CIA employee, “he would not have used the word Bureau to describe where Plame had worked.” This piece of information had to have been something she had learned from someone else and had meant to ask Libby about, but which she may never have raised.
“A terrible thought struck me,” she writes. “Contrary to my testimony, had someone else told me that Plame worked at the State Department?…My heart sank. What if my testimony about events four years earlier had been wrong?…Had I helped to convict an innocent man?”
The inescapable conclusion is that she had—with the help of a prosecutor intent on gaining a conviction regardless of the truth. “I could have made good use of that,” Libby’s lawyer wistfully said when Miller told him of Plame’s State Department employment. Indeed he could have, which is why Fitzgerald made sure Libby’s team never got any information about Plame’s employment history. Fitzgerald had claimed it was irrelevant (and the judge in the case, Reggie Walton, had backed him up).
Without Miller’s testimony, Fitzgerald had had virtually no case. Other than Matt Cooper, the other reporters Fitzgerald had called to the stand—including Russert—testified that Libby had never discussed Plame with them. And the testimony of the government officials called on to prove Libby must have known about Plame’s CIA employment before July 11 had fallen apart.
But with Miller’s (unknowingly false) testimony, it became suddenly believable that Libby had been dissembling when he had claimed to be “surprised” by his conversation with Russert. Certainly the jury believed it and so found him guilty.
For Libby himself, his wrongful conviction was a personal tragedy. He lost his job and was disbarred, paid a $250,000 fine, and was nearly sent to jail until President Bush commuted his sentence at the last moment.
Further, the framing of Scooter Libby seemed to confirm the idea that “Bush lied and people died,” and that the entire justification of the war had been flawed, deliberately so. Fitzgerald himself contributed to that impression in his closing statement, declaring that there was “a cloud over the vice president,” thus implying that Cheney himself was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Plame leak case. He also suggested there was “a cloud over the White House as to what happened.”
Democrats were quick to seize on the implications. “The testimony unmistakably revealed—at the highest levels of the Bush administration—a callous disregard in handling sensitive national-security information,” proclaimed then–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, “and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq.”
But it was Cheney who was being smeared and Libby who had been callously railroaded.
Then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid felt it necessary to also weigh in. “It’s about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics,” he said. Additionally the trial “revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney’s role in this sordid affair.” Yet the lies would stick, and a myth about the Iraq war was born: of manipulated intelligence, of lies about WMDs, of a former ambassador whistle-blower smeared, and his CIA employee outed as punishment.
The tragedy for the nation, however, extended even further. For the false charges against Scooter Libby may have had a deleterious effect on the debate over how to win in Iraq.
The Plame-Wilson scandal unfolded during the crucial summer after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, when everyone from the White House to GIs on the ground in Baghdad realized something had gone wrong with the U.S. strategy and that something needed to be done to fix it.
This would be the other myth about the decision to go to war with Iraq in April 2003, besides “Bush lied and people died”—that there was no planning for the aftermath, especially the possibility of a Sunni insurgency. That was not true. What follows is an account of Libby’s role in the run-up to and the aftermath of the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, taken from Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor’s authoritative account of the lead-up to the Iraq war, Cobra II (2006), Douglas Feith’s War and Decision (2008), Dick Cheney’s In My Time (2011), and conversations with Libby himself.
In January 2002, after decades-long worries about Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs had taken on new urgency in the shadow of 9/11, a debate began within the George W. Bush administration on whether and how to pull the trigger on the regime change Bill Clinton had endorsed six years earlier. A flurry of interagency meetings resulted, and Scooter Libby was a key participant.
As former deputy undersecretary of defense for the first president Bush, Libby was no stranger to military or strategic planning. In the new administration’s run-up-to-war councils, Libby was one of the advocates for getting some Iraqi voices involved in planning a post-Saddam Iraq. He pointed out that in 1999, Clinton had organized a conference of Iraqi exiles to discuss future Iraq democracy. Libby’s concern was that without Iraqis leading from the front, especially representatives of Iraq’s Shia majority, any post-Saddam regime would be seen as lacking credibility.
It was a view widely shared in the Pentagon. Key figures in the Defense Department such as Feith and Paul Wolfowitz expressed a strong belief that power should be handed over to Iraqis as soon as Saddam was gone, just as had been done in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. The Pentagon civilians and Libby were also insistent that the new Iraqi government be buttressed by a new 300,000 strong post-Saddam Iraqi army that would be used to keep the peace in case of any disorder—or get to work rebuilding the country if everything passed smoothly.
Across the river at the State Department, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage had had a very different plan. They envisaged a two-year American occupation of Iraq modeled on the occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II, with minimal Iraqi involvement until the U.S. government felt it was ready to hand over power to a responsible government.
To Rumsfeld and his team, as well as Libby representing the vice president, this seemed a formula for trouble. Later, Wolfowitz would urge the creation of an Iraqi provisional government before any invasion took place, but Powell and Armitage opposed that plan because they had bad relations with and deep suspicions of the leading exile leader, Ahmad Chalabi. State finally agreed to hold a meeting with Iraqi exile groups in April 2002 to discuss postwar plans, but the meeting didn’t take place until December—by which time the train of war was fully in motion.
But an American occupation without Iraqi participation wasn’t all that worried Libby in 2002. The previous fall he had read Cruelty and Silence, a book about the 1991 Iraqi Shia uprising by the Iraqi exile Samir Al-Khalil. It described how, during an uprising of Shia Iraqis following the liberation of Kuwait in 2001, Saddam and his Baath Party passed out arms from caches in hospitals, schools, mosques, and virtually every public building in Iraq to loyalist Sunnis to wage a massive campaign of urban guerrilla warfare in case the United States invaded to support the Shia. As far as anyone knew, those weapons caches still existed. In January 2003, Libby began arguing that Saddam might do it again in response to a U.S. attack.
He was not alone. During a war-games exercise prior to the Iraq invasion, a retired colonel named Gary Anderson had found that the only way Saddam could win was by launching an urban-based insurgency. Even as U.S. forces were advancing on Baghdad in April 2003, Anderson wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post warning that Saddam seemed to be doing just that with his auxiliary fedayeen forces, who were attacking U.S. troops and convoys with RPGs and machine-guns from the back of Toyota trucks. The Anderson op-ed raised concerns among Wolfowitz, Libby, Cheney, and others. But since the Pentagon planners assumed they would have a 300,000-man Iraqi army and an Iraqi government in place ready to deal with an insurgency if and when it broke out, they were not unduly alarmed.
Here, they proved to be tragically wrong. On March 13, 2003, a week before the invasion, President Bush weighed in with a fateful decision. He had put off endorsing the Pentagon’s plan for Iraq, as well as State’s, for fear his decision would shift the public debate from WMDs to regime change. Now at the last minute he unveiled a compromise, with a post-Saddam Iraq run by an American-led Coalition Provisional Authority that would hand the country over to an Iraqi-staffed Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA) “as soon as possible.” That interim authority would then pave the way for a new constitution and elected government. At the same time, he endorsed keeping an Iraq army of 300,000 in place in case of trouble.
The new plan generated confusion and friction, especially in the chaotic aftermath of the war (the CIA’s earlier prediction that Iraqi police would help the victors maintain order proved false). General Jay Garner, the first head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, told Iraqis that the handover to them would be almost immediate, a matter of months. His successor in early May, the State Department’s L. Paul Bremer, interpreted “as soon as possible” to mean at least two years, an approach Colin Powell fully supported. Bremer aide Walter Slocombe told Libby and others on June 3 that instead of the 300,000-man army in place Bush had agreed to, the new Iraqi forces would number less than 12,000 in the first year of the occupation. (Bremer and Slocombe had already ordered the old Iraqi army disbanded on May 23, throwing 400,000 Iraqi soldiers on the streets without pay.)
Libby was stunned by the change. “Who approved this number?” he asked Slocombe. No answer was forthcoming from either Slocombe or the Department of Defense.
Libby raised the issue of the inadequate size of the planned new Iraqi army at an NSC gathering of sub-Cabinet officials in mid-June. Libby argued that the real issue should be not how many Iraqi soldiers could be conveniently trained in a year, as Slocombe and others insisted, but how many would be needed to hold the country together now in the face of growing violence. Above all, he added, it was time to think about a strategy that would win the peace as effectively as the military had won the war. As Libby describes it, the response was a “resounding silence.”
June passed into July. Bremer’s relations with the Iraqis appointed to the IIA deteriorated. Terrorist bombings were now a daily occurrence, including one at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that killed the UN’s chief envoy and effectively ended the UN role in the rebuilding process. On July 7, 2003, General John Abizaid took over as head of America’s military forces in the region and announced that America was facing a guerrilla war.
Events in Iraq, however, were being overtaken by what was happening in Washington.
For the day before Abizaid took over CENTCOM, Joe Wilson’s New York Times column appeared. Libby recounts that he and Cheney held a meeting with Pentagon officials on July 11 to ask again that they reconsider the Slocombe plan. Given his experience at the Pentagon, Libby argued that what was needed in Iraq was a strategy for winning followed by an assessment of what size and type of forces were needed to carry out the victory strategy. This was effectively the opposite of what Bremer and Slocombe were doing.
Later that month, Libby was urging the vice president to push for a crash program to train hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers to fight the escalating insurgency. (Bremer and Slocombe wanted Iraqis trained to deal with external threats only, leaving the terrorists to U.S. forces.) “Let’s have a WW2 effort,” Libby said, “to mobilize and get ahead of this thing.”
It wasn’t to be. The Pentagon’s generals were reluctant to get more deeply involved in Iraq; Abizaid and others still hoped the counterterrorism strategy they were employing would make the problem go away—presumably by killing terrorists faster than groups like the Baathists and al-Qaeda could recruit them. That turned out to be a horrible error. And by this point, only weeks after Wilson’s op-ed ran, Libby was already becoming enmeshed in efforts to deal with the gathering storm over yellowcake and then Valerie Plame—with his presence and effectiveness in presidential war councils proportionately diminished.
By the fall, the opportunities to reverse the course of occupation were slipping by, and Libby was finding himself at the center of a full-scale FBI investigation. He made one last stab at affecting policy by urging the defense analyst Gary Schmitt to pen an op-ed urging a change of strategy. It appeared on October 26, 2003, in the Washington Post under the title, “The Right Fight Now: Counterinsurgency, Not Caution, Is the Answer in Iraq.” It, too, went unheeded. Two months later, Patrick Fitzgerald was unleashed, and Libby’s hopes of effecting change faded to nothing.
In 2004, Paul Wolfowitz was one of those who still held out hope that a change was possible. In January he set out for Baghdad with Gary Anderson to get Bremer and his team to understand how and why the counterterrorism strategy was failing, in vain. Wolfowitz later told Judith Miller that Libby had been his “principal ally” in the early debate over conduct of the war, and that Libby’s “strong voice” was badly missed during the Fitzgerald-Plame furor. Wolfowitz believes that if the analysis Libby had been urging on the Pentagon in their July 11 meeting had been undertaken, it might “have led to a new strategy,” Miller writes, “and to the formation of Iraqi security forces capable of countering the insurgency years before” the change in strategy known as “the surge,” which stabilized Iraq beginning in 2007.
General Jack Keane, a principal architect of the surge, agrees. He told Miller that Libby was one of the first White House officials to realize the war might be lost if the Sunni insurgency wasn’t halted early. “Until he was distracted and ultimately taken by the investigation,” Keane stated, Libby had pushed hard for a fresh look at the failing counterterrorism strategy. “Without Scooter’s early efforts,” he adds, “I’m not sure the White House would have admitted failure and changed the military strategy” later on—particularly in the teeth of determined State Department opposition.
Cheney is equally emphatic in defending the role of his former chief of staff in the strategy debate. “It took enormous courage to walk into a crowded interagency meeting and say you are all wrong,” he said in 2013. The Plame investigation “distracted and undermined” his chief of staff’s effectiveness long before he was forced by his indictment to resign in December 2005.
Libby himself raises a slightly different point. If Libby had taken Fitzgerald’s offer and lied about his boss’s involvement in the Plame leak, Libby speculates, then Cheney, a major supporter of the later 2007 surge, would almost certainly have been forced to resign—and there likely would have been no surge at all.
The final irony is this: From 2003 to 2006, Bush’s war was effectively Colin Powell’s war—and therefore Dick Armitage’s as well. They had been the principal architects of the occupation, and when it began to fail and as voices like Libby’s were raised in doubt, the furor over Valerie Plame and the subsequent investigation into the leak of her name took out one of their key opponents. And they knew it.
On October 11, 2003, when the media witch hunt in the Plame case was at its height, there was a CABINET meeting at the White House. When reporters were invited in to ask Bush a question about the investigation, Bush said he wanted anyone in his government who knew who had leaked Plame’s name to speak up. Sitting a couple of chairs away was Richard Armitage, the man who had done it. Sitting beside the president was Colin Powell, to whom Armitage had confessed days earlier.
They said nothing—and kept silent for three long years. By the time Armitage admitted publicly that he had been the leaker in September 2006, Patrick Fitzgerald’s monstrously successful and spectacularly dishonest war on Scooter Libby’s job, reputation, FINANCES, and legal innocence was well on its way to its morally depraved triumph.