WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN)–To say that there’s blood in the water and sharks are circling the Bush administration would be an understatement.
The administration, including virtually all of its top officials, is on the defensive. Not only have the president’s approval ratings plunged to the lowest level in his term, but his administration has opened a potentially lethal credibility gap on so many different fronts that reporters hardly know which one to write about.
The Justice Department’s recent announcement that it has launched a formal investigation at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the identification by as-yet-unidentified “senior White House officials” of a covert CIA agent is just the latest of a series of brewing scandals that are likely to dominate public debate in the coming weeks and months.
Pres. Bush and his Iraq policy advisers are now being charged with violating just about every imaginable tenet of governance–from deceit and corruption, to incompetence and betrayal.
That many of these charges have moved from the alternative to the mainstream media and from grassroots activists to Capitol Hill indicates the seriousness of the situation.
The administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion about an active nuclear weapons program, have been totally discredited. It now appears that Iraq may never have reconstituted its WMD efforts after the first Gulf War in 1991.
Lawmakers are also increasingly unnerved by the extent to which Pres. Bush’s and Mr. Cheney’s political and business cronies appear to be profiting from the Iraq war and its reconstruction.
Congressional complaints have already resulted in the decision to rescind a huge no-bid contract that went to Halliburton, the giant construction company that Mr. Cheney headed and retains a financial interest in.
But evidence that Pres. Bush’s major campaign contributors and associates are hoping to make big money in the reconstruction effort is growing almost daily. Indeed, the administration’s opposition to inviting the United Nations or other countries to take a bigger role in the effort is increasingly being attributed to the White House’s desire to pass along the goodies to its supporters back home.
“By treating contracts as prizes to be handed to their friends, administration officials are delaying Iraq’s recovery, with potentially catastrophic consequences,” warned Harvard economist Paul Krugman in a Sept. 30 New York Times column that charged the administration’s beneficiaries with “war profiteering.”
The Times disclosed that a group of businessmen closely linked to Mr. Bush, his family, and other top officials, including his 2000 presidential campaign manager, have set up a consulting firm to advise companies that want to do business in Iraq.
The news followed a report earlier this month that a former Israeli law partner of Douglas Feith, the senior neo-conservative Pentagon official in charge of post-war planning in Iraq, was also advising companies on business opportunities in Iraq, in association with the nephew of the Pentagon-picked leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Ahmad Chalabi.
Accusations of sheer incompetence, both in the administration’s post-war planning and in its implementation, are common in Washington, particularly since Bush himself implicitly admitted that things were not going according to plan by asking Congress to approve $87 billion for expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan over the coming year.
Not only did post-war planners fail to anticipate the armed resistance that has killed U.S. soldiers at the rate of one every 36 hours and wounded an estimated eight a day, but they also completely underestimated the frailty of Iraq’s infrastructure.
And, while the administration still insists that it doesn’t need any more than the 130,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq, top commanders say they cannot begin to control Iraq’s borders.
And now, there is the recent big scandal: the apparent involvement of “two senior White House officials” in leaking the name of a CIA agent in retaliation for her husband-diplomat’s role in discrediting Pres. Bush’s contention in last year’s State of the Union Address that Iraq tried to buy uranium material from Niger.
The case revolves around retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who traveled to Niger in 2002 at the CIA’s behest, to check out the story, which turned out to be based on forged documents.
His conclusion, that the story was a fraud, was reported back to the CIA many months before Pres. Bush gave his address. After the Iraq invasion, Mr. Wilson published an article in the Times that recounted both his trip and his conclusions, noting also that he had been told by the CIA that Mr. Cheney had explicitly requested that the report be investigated.
Shortly after the appearance of Mr. Wilson’s article, at least six reporters, including conservative columnist Robert Novak, were informed by “two senior White House officials” that Mr. Wilson’s spouse, whom they identified by name, was a covert CIA agent working on non-proliferation issues who had urged that her husband be assigned to go to Niger.
The apparent intent was to discredit Mr. Wilson, although he has said it was designed to demonstrate to other former and serving officials that they would pay a price for crossing the administration. Other observers have pointed out the real possibility of physical danger to an exposed secret operative.
Mr. Wilson, who has very good contacts within both the State Department and the CIA, has also claimed that Pres. Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, “at a minimum, condoned” the effort to expose his wife and might even have been one of those two “senior White House officials.”
Under a 1982 law, identifying a covert CIA agent is a felony punishable by 10 years in prison. The CIA filed a complaint invoking the law with the Justice Department shortly after Mr. Novak’s column appeared, and three weeks ago turned in the paperwork required for the investigation to proceed. The Justice Department announced Sept. 30 that a probe had been launched.
Democrats are already demanding that, given Mr. Ashcroft’s status as a Bush appointee, the case should be handed over to an independent prosecutor–demands that so far have been rebuffed.
But, based on what is already known by the press, there appears little doubt that a crime has been committed and that a major scandal is on the wing.