Joe Conason's Journal

Spy vs. spy: Tenet fingers a Bush security official. How high up the White House chain of command will the fingerpointing go?

By Salon Staff

Published July 17, 2003 9:44PM (EDT)

Strong speech, weak intelligence
Tony Blair spoke with great passion and power Thursday, and was embraced with enthusiastic ovations -- and yet he might well have wished for a more auspicious moment to address the United States Congress. Only hours before the prime minister arrived in Washington, the furor over alleged misuse of intelligence during the drive toward war in Iraq again intensified -- as news emerged about CIA director George Tenet's secret testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. What the senators wanted to know, of course, was how a questionable British intelligence claim about Iraq's attempts to obtain African uranium got into the president's State of the Union address.

According to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sits on the committee, the penitent Tenet testified that a White House official had insisted on including the disputed (and since discredited) information about Iraq's attempts to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger. Durbin disclosed that Tenet "certainly told us who the person was who was insistent on putting this language in which the CIA knew to be incredible, this language about the uranium shipment from Africa."

"The more important question is who is it in the White House who was hellbent on misleading the American people and why are they still there?" Durbin said.

"Being a member of the Intelligence Committee I can't disclose that, but I trust that it will come out," he went on. "But it should come out from the president. The president should be outraged that he was misled and that he then misled the American people."

Although Durbin said committee rules prevented him from naming that individual, MSNBC has identified him as Robert Joseph, a staff member of Bush's National Security Council. Joseph, a special assistant to the president, is identified in the latest issue of Time magazine as "the NSC official in charge of vetting the sections on WMD." According to MSNBC, Joseph argued back and forth with Alan Foley, the CIA's weapons proliferation director, about whether the uranium charge should be inserted into Bush's address, and the NSC man finally prevailed.

Whatever Joseph may have done, his role is only a small part of a much larger investigation that Republicans in Congress and the White House are straining to shut down. On Wednesday, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., tried to launch an independent investigation of prewar intelligence, but the GOP-controlled Senate killed his proposal, with Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, fulminating that it was "an attempt to smear the president." As long as Republicans keep stonewalling legislative inquiries, it's up to the press, which has finally begun to show signs of having a pulse, to pursue these essential questions. No. 1 is, who told the NSC's Joseph to ramrod the notorious 16 words into the State of the Union speech, over his CIA colleague's stubborn opposition? Clearly this heretofore faceless bureaucrat would not have felt authorized to do this on his own. Was he doing the bidding of his boss, Condi Rice? Or was it Vice President Cheney? All signs point toward the highest levels of the White House chain of command and the press must continue to pursue them until the president comes clean.

More on Rummy's private spy ring
Today's Guardian follows up on Salon's examination of the Office of Special Plans with its own story by Julian Borger, describing the "shadow agency of Pentagon analysts staffed mainly by ideological amateurs to compete with the CIA and its military counterpart, the Defence Intelligence Agency." Borger reports that the OSP "was set up by the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to second-guess CIA information and operated under the patronage of hardline conservatives in the top rungs of the administration, the Pentagon and at the White House, including Vice-President Dick Cheney." Aside from Cheney himself, those involved with promoting the OSP's ideological intelligence campaign for war included Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense who oversaw the OSP; Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby; and NSC staffer Stephen Hadley, a top advis0r to National Security Advis0r Condoleezza Rice.

All this shadowy spook work sounds disturbingly reminiscent of the late William Casey's "off-the-shelf" rogue intelligence operation that lay at the center of the last big Republican scandal -- the Iran-contra affair. "The big question looming over Congress as Mr. Tenet walked into his closed-door session yesterday," writes Borger, "was whether this shadow intelligence operation would survive national scrutiny and who would pay the price for allowing it to help steer the country into war."
[4:30 p.m. PDT, July 17, 2003]

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