The Vice President's war on Saddam
In August 2002, Dick Cheney was doing his best to shock the nation
BY CRAIG GORDON
10/26/05 "Newsday" -- -- 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
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.
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