Dick’s War on Saddam
In August 2002, Dick Cheney was doing his best to shock the nation into action
by Craig Gordon, Newsday, October 26, 2005
WASHINGTON — It was the last week of August 2002, and the Bush administration’s case for war against Iraq was running into serious headwinds – internal dissent, go-slow warnings from Republican elders, grumbling in Congress.
And one man, Vice President Dick Cheney, was doing his best to shock the nation into action.
Cheney ratcheted up the war rhetoric in speeches that week that highlighted a particularly frightening notion, one Cheney had tracked intently in his Pentagon days a decade earlier: charges that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons.
“Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon,” Cheney said Aug. 26, warning of a “mortal threat” that would enable Hussein to blackmail the United States and seek domination of the Middle East.
So when former ambassador Joseph Wilson publicly charged in an op-ed article a year later that the White House had “twisted” intelligence to exaggerate Hussein’s nuclear threat, Wilson was taking direct aim at the case for war championed by the vice president himself.
It brought a sharp response from Cheney’s chief of staff and loyal confidant, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who took a significant role in trying to knock down Wilson’s charges. And he did so in part by telling reporters that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, which had sent Wilson to Niger to check out reports of Iraq’s nuclear efforts.
Wilson’s article “was a public shot across the bow, and they were bound to react,” said Gary Schmitt, a longtime friend of Libby who helped found the Project for a New American Century, a conservative group that supported war against Iraq.
The leak prompted a two-year grand jury investigation expected to produce indictments as early as today, with Libby, who had about a half-dozen conversations with reporters, viewed as the most likely target, along with the president’s top political adviser, Karl Rove.
Libby’s apparent involvement also has drawn attention to the role of Cheney in the case, and as one of the leading Iraq war hawks in the Bush administration, Cheney was doing all he could in the summer before the war to quiet the naysayers. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was pressing Bush to give weapons inspections more time, as were key figures from Bush’s father’s White House.
Cheney sought to raise the stakes in August 2002 by moving Hussein’s alleged nuclear pursuits front-and-center. Within two weeks, the White House had adopted that language as a potent talking point.
“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sept. 8, 2002.
The nuclear rhetoric by Cheney, Rice and others in the White House was running far ahead of other key agencies, such as the Pentagon and State Department. “When she first said that, a lot of eyebrows went up. ‘Wow, that’s ahead of us’ – tougher, stronger, more provocative,” one former senior administration official said.
The nuclear drumbeat was powerful from the public-relations aspect of selling the war. Coming not a full year after the Sept. 11 attacks, it wasn’t hard for Americans to grasp the horror of a nuclear 9/11. For Cheney in particular, the question of Hussein’s nuclear efforts had long been vexing, dating back to his days as defense secretary for President George W. Bush’s father at the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He had made clear in subsequent years that he felt the U.S. government had wildly misjudged the seriousness of Hussein’s nuclear program then, and he appeared determined not to repeat that mistake. Libby, too, worked in Cheney’s Pentagon.
Yet even as Cheney and others talked up the nuclear threat, that evidence was some of the most circumstantial in the administration’s war dossier. The administration later pointed to reported efforts by Iraq to obtain uranium ore, known as yellow-cake, from Niger, and the CIA sent Wilson to check them out in February 2002.
So when Wilson a year later slammed the White House for slanting the nuclear intelligence, “Scooter” Libby moved into action, seeking to discredit Wilson’s report and to insulate the man who first brought the nuclear charges into the spotlight, his boss, Dick Cheney.