Oct. 31, 2005 issue - It is the nature of bureaucracies that reports are ordered up and then ignored. In February 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney received a CIA briefing that touched on Saddam Hussein's attempts to build nuclear bombs. Cheney, who was looking for evidence to support an Iraq invasion, was especially interested in one detail: a report that claimed Saddam attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. At the end of the briefing, Cheney or an aide told the CIA man that the vice president wanted to know more about the subject. It was a common enough request. "Principals" often ask briefers for this sort of thing. But when the vice president of the United States makes a request, underlings jump. Midlevel officials in the CIA's clandestine service quickly arranged to send Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate the uranium claims. A seasoned diplomat, Wilson had good connections in the region. He would later say his week in Africa convinced him that the story was bogus, and said so to his CIA debriefers. The agency handed the information up the chain, but there is no record that it ever reached Cheney. Like hundreds of other reports that slosh through the bureaucracy each day, Wilson's findings likely made their way to the middle of a pile. The vice president has said he never knew about Wilson's trip, and never saw any report.

If he had, Cheney might not have been inclined to believe a word of it anyway. At the time of Wilson's debunking, the vice president was the Bush administration's leading advocate of war with Iraq. Cheney had long distrusted the apparatchiks who sat in offices at the CIA, FBI and Pentagon. He regarded them as dim, timid timeservers who would always choose inaction over action. Instead, the vice president relied on the counsel of a small number of advisers. The group included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and two Wolfowitz proteges: I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, and Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld's under secretary for policy. Together, the group largely despised the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other analyses handed up by the intelligence bureaucracy. Instead, they went in search of intel that helped to advance their case for war.

Central to that case was the belief that Saddam was determined to get nukes—a claim helped by the Niger story, which the White House doggedly pushed. A prideful man who enjoys the spotlight, Joseph Wilson grew increasingly agitated that the White House had not come clean about how the African-uranium claim made it into George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. In June, Condoleezza Rice went on TV and denied she knew that documents underlying the uranium story were, in fact, crude forgeries: "Maybe somebody in the bowels of the agency knew something about this," she said, "but nobody in my circles." For Wilson, that was it. "That was a slap in the face," he told NEWSWEEK. "She was saying 'F--- you, Washington, we don't care.' Or rather 'F--- you, America'." On July 6, Wilson went public about his Niger trip in his landmark New York Times op-ed piece.

From there, as we now know, things got a bit out of hand. Within the White House inner circle, Wilson's op-ed was seen as an act of aggression against Bush and Cheney. Someone, perhaps to punish the loose-lipped diplomat, let it be known to columnist Robert Novak and other reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA operative, a revelation that is a possible violation of laws protecting classified information. This week the two-year-long investigation of that leak could finally end. It is widely expected that Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor appointed in the case, may issue indictments of one or more top administration officials, possibly including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

Of course, Fitzgerald could always pack up without issuing a single indictment, or even an explanation why. Tight-lipped, Fitzgerald has not said a word about his intentions. That has left Washington breathlessly reading into the flimsiest clues. Last week bloggers seized on the discovery that Fitzgerald had set up a Web site, which was taken as a sure sign that indictments were around the corner. Lawyers who have had dealings with Fitzgerald's office, who spoke anonymously because the investigation is ongoing, say the prosecutor appears to be exploring the option of bringing broad conspiracy charges against Libby, Rove and perhaps others, though it's still unclear whether Fitzgerald can prove an underlying crime.

Some lawyers close to the case are convinced Fitzgerald has a mysterious "Mr. X"—a yet unknown principal target or cooperating witness. Some press reports identified John Hannah, Cheney's deputy national-security adviser, as a potentially key figure in the investigation. Hannah played a central policymaking role on Iraq and was known to be particularly close to Ahmad Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress supplied some of the faulty intelligence about WMD embraced by the vice president in the run-up to the invasion. Lawyers for Rove and Libby have said their clients did nothing wrong and broke no laws. Last week Hannah's lawyer Thomas Green told NEWSWEEK his client "knew nothing" about the leak and is not a target of Fitzgerald's probe. "This is craziness," he said. Whatever news Fitzgerald makes this week, however, the case has shed light on how Cheney and his clique of advisers cleared the way to war, and how they obsessed over critics who got in the way.

The Cheney group isn't a new fraternity. Separately and together, they've been fighting the same battle with the intelligence bureaucracy for decades. Libby first worked for Cheney during the gulf war, when W's father was president and Cheney was Defense secretary. Libby was brought into the Pentagon by Wolfowitz, his former Yale professor, who was an under secretary of Defense. The arguments of the time seem familiar today. Cheney backed the elder Bush's vow to oust Saddam from Kuwait by force, over the objections of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who favored negotiations, and over dire predictions of disaster from the CIA. Cheney emerged with a low opinion of his senior military and of the intelligence community, believing both to be risk averse and too comfortable with conventional wisdom.
When Bush was elected in 2000, Cheney—who had been impressed with Libby's political savvy and mastery of detail—tapped him as his No. 2. Libby was perhaps the group's most relentless digger. An intense former litigator, he acted as a conduit for Cheney's obsessions. Soon after 9/11, Libby began routinely calling intelligence officials, high and low, to pump them for any scraps of information on Iraq. He would read obscure, unvetted intelligence reports and grill analysts about them, but always in a courtly manner. The intel officials were often more than a little surprised. It was unusual for the vice president's office to step so far outside of channels and make personal appeals to mere analysts. "He was deep into the raw intel," says one government official who didn't want to be named for fear of retribution. (Cheney's office declined to comment on specific questions for this story, beyond saying that the vice president and his staff are cooperating with Fitzgerald's probe.)

Behind their backs, their detractors dubbed Cheney and his minions "the commissars." The vice president and Libby made three or four trips to CIA headquarters, where they questioned analysts about their findings. Agency officials say they welcomed the visits, and insist that no one felt pressured, though some analysts complained that they suspected Cheney was subtly sending them the message to get in line or keep their mouths shut.

Cheney and the commissars seemed especially determined to prove a now discredited claim: that Muhammad Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had secretly met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer in April 2001. If true, it would have backed administration assertions of a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, one of Bush and Cheney's arguments justifying an invasion. The story fell apart on serious examination by the FBI and CIA—Atta was apparently in the United States at the time of the alleged visit. But Cheney continued to repeat the story in speeches and interviews, even after the 9/11 Commission found no evidence to support it.

Behind the scenes, no one pushed the terror link harder than Libby. He urged Colin Powell's staff to include the Prague meeting in the secretary of State's speech to the United Nations. But Powell wanted no part of it. After one long session debating the evidence before the speech, Libby turned to a Powell aide. "Don't worry about any of this," he said, according to someone who was in the room. "We'll get back in what you take out." They didn't. Powell refused to use the line, but Libby's audacity stunned everyone at the table. "The notion that they've become a gang has some merit," says a longtime colleague of Libby's who requested anonymity to preserve the friendship. "A small group who only talk to each other ... You pay a price for that."

Libby seemed to bring the same kind of intensity when it came to Wilson. The timing of the diplomat's fiery op-ed couldn't have been worse for the administration. It was July 2003, two months after Saddam's statue fell, and still no WMD had been found. The administration's primary sales pitch was being called into doubt.
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