The U.S. government and military has undergone a series of jolting expansions in the Bush years. We got, for instance, a second Defense Department called the Department of Homeland Security. We got a military command for North America called United States Northern Command. More than anything else, however, while we already had an “imperial presidency,” we also got an add-on — an imperial vice-presidency, a new form of shadow government in the United States, a startlingly unbound, constitutionally unmandated new institutional power.
On taking office, Dick Cheney promptly began to set up a vice-presidential office that essentially mimicked, and then to some extent replaced, the National Security Council (NSC). Just as promptly, his office plunged itself into utter, blinding secrecy — as journalist Robert Dreyfuss discovered when he simply tried to chart out who was working in this new center of power. No information, it turned out, could be revealed to a curious reporter, not even the names and positions of those who worked for the Vice President, those who, theoretically, were working for us. Cheney’s office would not even publicly acknowledge its own employees, no less let them be interviewed.
From that office (and allied posts elsewhere in the executive branch and the federal bureaucracy), the Vice President and his various right-hand men like I Lewis “Scooter” Libby and present Chief of Staff David Addington, both fierce believers in the so-called unitary executive theory of government (in which a “wartime” commander-in-chief president is said to have unfettered power to command just about anything), elbowed the State Department, the NSC, and the Intelligence Community. With the President’s ear, and in league with Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon (among others), they spearheaded a series of mis- and disinformation operations that led to Iraq and beyond. (Reporter Jim Lobe wrote about this at Tomdispatch in August 2005, “Dating Cheney’s Nuclear Drumbeat.”)
Now shorn of Rumsfeld, Cheney and his men, increasingly beleaguered, are nonetheless pushing on as the Vice President secretively travels the world, warning and scheming. Only this week, in “The Redirection,” a New Yorker piece as chilling as any you might ever want to read, our premier journalist of this era (as well as the Vietnam one), Seymour Hersh reports that, two years ago, old hands from the Iran-Contra fiasco of the Reagan era, well-seeded into the Bush administration, had an informal meeting led by Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Their conclusions: “As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: ‘One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office.”
That’s what passes for learning from experience in the Bush/Cheney White House. Indeed, the same folks are now evidently running an updated version of Iran-Contra (without the CIA) out of the Vice President’s office. At the same time, according to Hersh, Cheney, in his urge to roll back Iranian regional power as well as undermine Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia in Iraq, and the Syrians, has set the Saudis loose to fund Sunni jihadis — just as they did in Afghanistan at American behest in the 1980s. The result then was, among other things, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So imagine: Cheney’s office is now working hard to combine the worst of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal with the worst of the Afghan disaster. I wonder what the results could possibly be?
The history of this sudden explosion of ultra-secretive vice-presidential power remains to be written, based on documents that have not yet seen the light of day. The Libby trial has recently offered us a glimpse into the most secretive and powerful office in the land and its interplay with the White House, State Department, and CIA. As former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega points out below, that glimpse should be enough to trigger a Congressional investigation into the Plame case. It’s time, she tells us, for Congress to investigate all the President’s and Vice President’s men and women.
De la Vega has written a remarkable, must-read book about how we were defrauded into war in Iraq, United States v. George W. Bush et al. Every day since it first appeared, our country has come to look ever more like a United States v. Bush/Cheney world. De la Vega is a woman who should be heeded. Tom
A Call to Investigate All of the President’s Men
By Elizabeth de la Vega
Last week, apparently belatedly realizing the obvious — that the attack on former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame was a White House family affair — New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called for the administration to come clean. Bush and Cheney owe “the American people a candid explanation” of their conduct with regard to the leaking of Plame’s identity as a CIA agent, Kristof insisted.
If, after observing this administration for over six years, Nicholas Kristof thinks that the President and Vice President are going to suddenly be overcome by conscience and tell all because he has put his foot down, then Nicholas Kristof is downright adorable.
The trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was merely a snapshot view of this administration in daily action; but incomplete as it was, it nevertheless starkly revealed what many had known all along: that the most powerful officials in the United States government — including, but not limited to, the Vice President, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, the Deputy Secretary of State, the President’s Press Secretary, the President’s Chief of Staff, and, yes, the President himself — had responded to the barrage of criticism being aimed at their fictitious case for war in the spring and summer of 2003 by focusing their sights on a man and woman who had devoted their lives to public service.
Such people — those who will use the highest offices of the United States government to protect themselves and their prospects for reelection by whatever means they deem necessary, regardless of the damage they leave in their wake — are not going to confess to anythingever.
Indeed, in answer to questions from a reporter about this very issue on February 14, President Bush explained helpfully, “I’m not going to talk about any of it.” We will surely all expire if we hold our collective breath waiting for the President to change his mind about this (or anything else, for that matter). Fortunately, we do not need to hear what Bush and Cheney have to say about “it” right now.
Nor do we have to wait for the outcome of any further investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, even though it is entirely possible he and his eminently capable prosecutors Peter Zeidenberg, Debra Bonamici, and the rest of their team will continue to explore possible criminal activity on the part of Vice President Cheney and others. A continued investigation would, in fact, be both appropriate and warranted, given the abundant evidence of Cheney’s wrongdoing.
As Fitzgerald implied on the day he announced the charges against Scooter Libby, however, the criminal justice system is not designed to address all the issues raised by the CIA leak affair, perhaps not even the major ones. The Libby case was not, Fitzgerald said, as he announced the indictment, about the validity or honesty of the President’s arguments for an invasion of Iraq. In fact, the Libby case was not even about the conduct of other members of the administration; it was solely about I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and whether he obstructed a grand jury investigation, lied to federal agents, and then lied to a grand jury.
Despite the spin immediately set in motion by Libby’s cadre of supporters, Fitzgerald was not suggesting that the charges he was leveling were trivial, nor was he presuming to sanction the conduct of the Bush administration in the run-up to the war. As a seasoned prosecutor, he was merely making a simple, but necessary, point about the nature of criminal charges and the laws that govern them. The laws of perjury and obstruction of justice exist to vindicate an important government interest in the integrity of grand-jury proceedings. Once such charges are brought, however, they raise but a single issue: Is there proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual or individuals charged committed the conduct specified in the indictment?
From the perspective of the prosecution team, that question was, quite properly, the only one raised by the criminal trial of Scooter Libby. And within the confines of United States District Court Judge Reggie Walton’s courtroom, the prosecutors were only entitled to offer evidence relating to that question. That is why the Libby trial has offered such an incomplete and unsatisfying picture.
Evidence in the trial showed, for example, that, on May 29, 2003, Libby first asked former Undersecretary of Defense Marc Grossman for information about an unnamed former ambassador’s trip to Niger to inquire about possible Iraqi purchases of uranium. Evidence was also presented that such a trip had been mentioned in a May 6, 2003 op-ed written by Nicholas Kristof. But because the prosecution was limited to introducing evidence that tended to prove the charges in the indictment, the evidence did not indicate what else were reporters saying about the administration’s case for war in the spring of 2003. From the Bush administration’s perspective, it would be the height of understatement to say that there was not a whole lot of positive press.
For starters, by at least mid-May, the Democrats, with Jay Rockefeller leading the charge, were calling for an investigation into the intelligence cited repeatedly by senior administration officials as grounds for the invasion of Iraq. And here is a sampling of the accompanying media furor:
May 30 — Nicholas Kristof, “Save our Spooks,” the New York Times:
“According to a ‘torrent’ of sources, there is reason to believe that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was ‘deliberately warpedto mislead our elected representatives into voting to authorize [the war in Iraq].”
June 2 — Jim Lobe, “Credibility Gap over Iraq WMD Looms Larger,” Foreign Policy in Focus:
“When all three major U.S. newsweeklies — Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report — run major features on the same day on possible government lying, you can bet you have the makings of a major scandal.”
June 7 — “Questions Swirl Around WMD Charges,” CBS/AP
“President Bush’s administration distorted intelligence and presented conjecture as evidence to justify a U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to a retired intelligence official who served during the months before the war.
“‘What disturbs me deeply is what I think are the disingenuous statements made from the very top about what the intelligence did say,’ said Greg Thielmann, who retired last September. ‘The area of distortion was greatest in the nuclear field.'”
June 9 — Unnamed reporter to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer at White House Press Briefing
“Q. You said in April that the war was about weapons of mass destruction. The war resulted in tens of thousands of innocent civilian deaths — thousands of innocent civilian deaths, according to The Los Angeles Times. Do you personally feel any remorse, given the public case that’s being made that this war was based on that false pretext?”
It was, in short, a public relations nightmare, involving a sudden upsurge in calls for an investigation as well as a surge of reports, stories, and questions about government lying, warped intelligence, distortions, and false pretexts for war. And the criticisms were aimed not only at the White House but at the State Department, which was the likely reason for the appearances of both National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell on the June 8, 2003 Sunday morning talk shows.
To make things worse, the Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign was about to rev up, with major fundraisers scheduled for mid-June. Given this context, “no sane person” (to borrow Patrick Fitzgerald’s phrase from his closing argument in the Libby case) could possibly believe that anyone in the Bush administration was not involved in the smears, selective declassifications, ongoing deceit, and cover-up that spun out of control in the spring and summer of 2003. Indeed, we know that at least one key re-election campaign committee member, lobbyist Ken Duberstein, was involved as well, acting as an intermediary between reporter Robert Novak and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
No criminal investigation, and certainly no criminal trial, is ever going to illuminate these White House machinations. In addition, as significant as the criminal issues that arise from the circumstances of the CIA leak may be — and they are significant — whether any members of the administration violated any federal statutes in conducting their attack on Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame has never been the most important issue raised by this whole tawdry affair.
The paramount issue is one of abuse of power by our highest executive branch officials and their stable of White House staffers, lobbyists, Republican operatives and other surrogates. The criminal justice system was never intended by the framers of the Constitution to be the sole, or even primary, means of investigating and redressing what the late Congresswoman from Texas Barbara Jordan described during the Watergate investigations as “the misconduct of public men.” On the contrary, it is Congress that is both entitled and obligated to oversee the conduct of the Executive Branch.
So yes, the trial of Scooter Libby has raised as many questions as it has answered, but we need not wait for the President and Vice President to answer them; nor should we wait for the outcome of any further criminal investigation. What is needed is a full-scale congressional hearing by the House Oversight Committee on Government Reform. Representative Henry Waxman (D. Ca.), the chair of the committee, has subpoena power and can subpoena telephone records, meeting notes, daily calendars, memos, and a host of key players whose testimony was not legally relevant in the Libby trial, but who obviously have intimate knowledge of the entire CIA leak case and cover-up. These figures would include Karl Rove, Richard Armitage, lobbyist Ken Duberstein, Colin Powell and Stephen Hadley among others. Finally, unlike the prosecutor in a grand jury investigation, Waxman can hold hearings that are public — in Room 2154 Rayburn Office Building, Washington, D.C. So the misconduct of these public men and women, our highest elected and appointed officials in the Executive Branch, can finally be judged by a much larger jury of their peers, the people of the United States.
Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. During her tenure, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in the Nation Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for Tomdispatch.com. She is the author of United States v. George W. Bush et al. She may be contacted at [email protected].
Copyright 2007 Elizabeth de la Vega