Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The White House Iraq Group

The thread between the Plame leak case and the administration's exaggerated case for war is a connection that is rarely made in the media.

First of all there's the claim that the administration leaked Plame's name in retaliation against Plame's husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, who was outspoken in debunking the infamous 16 words that made it in to Bush's 2003 State of The Union address:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought
significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Wilson of course was sent to Africa, apparently at the suggestion of his wife, to check on whether Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. His conclusion: it wasn't.

Some claim that the 16 words referred to another country in Africa altogether and the statement was essentially factually true since it was qualified by the words "British government learned." But no matter the resolution of this debate, the fact is that these words, which were later retracted, made their way into the State of the Union as part of the concerted effort by a little known top level group called The White House Iraq Group to make the case for war. It is no accident that the Plame leak investigation is focusing on its members.

It was called the White House Iraq Group and its job was to make the case that Saddam Hussein had nuclear and biochemical weapons.

So determined was the ring of top officials to win its argument that it morphed into a virtual hit squad that took aim at critics who questioned its claims, sources told the Daily News. One of those critics was ex-Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who debunked a key claim in a speech by President Bush that Iraq sought nuclear materials in Africa. His punishment was the media outing of his wife, CIA spy Valerie Plame, an affair that became a "side show" for the White House Iraq Group, the sources said.

The Plame leak is now the subject of a criminal probe that has seen presidential political guru Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, hauled before a grand jury.

Both men were members of the group, also known as WHIG.
And who else was in the group?

Besides Rove and Libby, the group included senior White House aides Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, James Wilkinson, Nicholas Calio, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley. WHIG also was doing more than just public relations, said a second former intel officer.

"They were funneling information to [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller. Judy was a charter member," the source said.

The same Judy Miller who went to jail for 85 days for not cooperating with Patrick Fitzgerald's Plame leak investigation. The same Judy Miller who published all those articles in The New York Times that spoke confidently of aluminum tubes and WMDs in Iraq that led The Times to finally issue a Mea Culpa in May 2004, which cited such Miller classics as September '02's U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts and White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons, January '03's Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say and April '03's Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.

Frank Rich elaborates on the WHIG in his column on Sunday:

Very little has been written about the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG. Its inception in August 2002, seven months before the invasion of Iraq, was never announced. Only much later would a newspaper article or two mention it in passing, reporting that it had been set up by Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff. Its eight members included Mr. Rove, Mr. Libby, Condoleezza Rice and the pinmeisters Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin. Its mission: to market a war in Iraq.
Of course, the official Bush history would have us believe that in August 2002 no decision had yet been made on that war. Dates bracketing the formation of WHIG tell us otherwise. On July 23, 2002 - a week or two before WHIG first convened in earnest - a British official told his peers, as recorded in the now famous Downing Street memo, that the Bush administration was ensuring that "the intelligence and facts" about Iraq's W.M.D.'s "were being fixed around the policy" of going to war. And on Sept. 6, 2002 - just a few weeks after WHIG first convened - Mr. Card alluded to his group's existence by telling Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times that there was a plan afoot to sell a war against Saddam Hussein: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

The official introduction of that product began just two days later. On the Sunday talk shows of Sept. 8, Ms. Rice warned that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," and Mr. Cheney, who had already started the nuclear doomsday drumbeat in three August speeches, described Saddam as "actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons." The vice president cited as evidence a front-page article, later debunked, about supposedly nefarious aluminum tubes co-written by Judy Miller in that morning's Times. The national security journalist James Bamford, in "A Pretext for War," writes that the article was all too perfectly timed to facilitate "exactly the sort of propaganda coup that the White House Iraq Group had been set up to stage-manage."

The administration's doomsday imagery was ratcheted up from that day on. As Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post would determine in the first account of WHIG a full year later, the administration's "escalation of nuclear rhetoric" could be traced to the group's formation. Along with mushroom clouds, uranium was another favored image, the Post report noted,
"because anyone could see its connection to an atomic bomb." It appeared in a Bush radio address the weekend after the Rice-Cheney Sunday show blitz and would reach its apotheosis with the infamously fictional 16 words about "uranium from Africa" in Mr. Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address on the eve of war.