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Published: Friday, 11/4/2005

Libby indictment all about run-up to Iraq War

WATER under the bridge it isn't.

The indictment of the right-hand man to the most powerful vice president in modern history isn't a stain on the Bush Administration that can fade away with aggressive diversion.

All the wishful thinking at the White House won't make the ramifications of the federal indictment against Lewis "Scooter" Libby diminish with time.

It's just too big. This scandal can't be brushed off as the fault of a few bad apples of no consequence, like the public relations nightmare at Abu Ghraib. No, the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff is accused of lying throughout a federal investigation, and under oath before a grand jury, and obstructing justice will be much trickier for the administration to sidestep.

This indictment goes straight to the top of the Bush White House and right to the heart of how far it went to make a case for invading Iraq.

The extent to which politics was allowed to shape pre-war intelligence findings about Iraq has never been fully examined. It should be forthwith.

Where there's smoke billowing over Mr. Libby and close presidential adviser Karl Rove, it's a safe bet there's fire burning a path to their bosses' door. It was they, after all, who set an agenda for ousting Saddam Hussein almost as soon as they arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Dick Cheney was a leading protagonist for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Along with neocon soulmate, Mr. Libby, he made a point of personally visiting CIA headquarters in Langley numerous times to convey an unmistakable message of the political stakes involved.

The White House needed to know that the intelligence being gathered and interpreted would ultimately support the President's contention that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Bush's primary justification for sending thousands of young Americans into harm's way couldn't be undermined by disputable facts.

Even so there were plenty in the intelligence community who doubted the veracity of doomsday tales generated by Iraqi exiles citing banned weapons systems. Some of the sources, like Ahmad Chalabi, came with obviously tainted credentials.

But if former CIA director George Tenet was to deliver on his "slam dunk" assurances about Saddam and his secret but certain stash of WMDs, any inside skepticism would have to be minimized.

Yet somehow, skeptic and former ambassador Joseph Wilson managed to have his say in an angry New York Times article where he accused the administration of twisting intelligence reports to steer the nation into war.

Apparently, when the vice president learned that the ambassador was enlightening reporters about key discrepancies between CIA evidence and the administration's portrayal of Iraq as an imminent threat to global security, Mr. Cheney decided to play the "gotcha" card.

He let it slip to Scooter that Mr. Wilson's wife was, in fact, a CIA officer, casting the ambassador's criticism in a whole new light. Mr. Libby's own notes reportedly indicate the veep got his information on Valerie Plame from then-CIA chief Tenet.

But the vice president's main man wasn't about to spill the beans on his boss. He told the grand jury he learned Mrs. Wilson's classified identity from journalists, in a seeming attempt to deflect attention from Mr. Cheney before the 2004 presidential election.

The alleged cover-up was foolproof until tiny fissures in the official version of how the Plame case evolved grew under the burden of proof and then cracked wide open.

Now there is the spectacle of Dick Cheney's go-to-guy facing the real possibility of time behind bars if prosecutors can prove he deliberately impeded a federal investigation with lies to protect the greater political good of neocons like himself. Whether the federal inquiry into the Plame scandal can establish criminal intent to expose a covert CIA agent in a retaliatory move against a Bush Administration critic is unknown.

But what is clear from the Libby indictment is that it's all about the run-up to the war against Iraq. And no tactical detour like stoking a battle royale in the Senate over a troublesome Supreme Court nominee, or drawing attention to a fearful flu pandemic, will ever make it business as usual again in the Bush White House.

The man who once said "Americans are tired of investigations and scandal" and promised to "restore honor and dignity to the White House," is now distracted by a serious scandal that could put the war itself on trial and, through cross-examination, expose the facade that has passed for truth.

The charge of costly deception at the highest levels of government can't be put aside like yesterday's torrent under the bridge.



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