Perhaps the mystery in the news lies in what people think is actually news. There's the Libby trial. Or is it the Cheney trial?
As before, it seems clear that Vice President Cheney was the one who ordered and pretty much planned exposing that CIA agent, to discredit her husband - he had been outraged that the husband had blown one key justification for the Iraq War sky high. Cheney's office had asked the CIA for facts about Saddam Hussein purchasing yellow-cake uranium in Africa, and the husband, a former ambassador to several African nations who also formerly had key diplomatic postings in Iraq and Iran, went and looked into it, and found it never happened. Still, the famous "sixteen words" saying Saddam had been shopping got into the State of the Union. The husband, outraged, went public with what he found. And Cheney set in motion the press leaks and the media blitz - "I never sent HIM, and he only went because the wife, running the spies trying to figure out Iran's nuclear capabilities, set up the trip as a boondoggle - to get him out of the house and give him something to do."
Of course this is a silly defense - it doesn't speak to the facts of the matter, or more precisely, to the lack of any facts to support the claim. Had the CIA sent Ted Nugent or Mother Theresa or Sean Connery as James Bond, there still was nothing going on, but for some obviously forged documents. Still, the plan was to discredit the messenger - so people would forget the message. But it is does seem the president was on the sidelines in the whole business - back in the Oval Office playing video games or something. Someone else was running things.
So that's that. It's in the news, but the whole thing appeals to political junkies and people who actually wonder about the kind of people who are running the country, with a smaller subset of people who are intensely interested in how the press reports what's happening in the world - trying to work out whether the mainstream media is just a tool of those in power, or independent, fact checking what they are told and pointing out when things just don't make sense. The audience for coverage of this trial, if this is so, is limited.
But there's something odd about it all, and Andrew Sullivan tries to put his finger on it -
The Libby trial has proven to be high entertainment for the Beltway, if only because (so far), the case for Libby's perjury seems damn near impregnable. Maybe the defense will turn things around. But it has done something else, I think. Patrick Fitzgerald has been adamant about linking Libby's actions at almost every turn to his political master, Dick Cheney. So what, you might ask? You know the talking points: this is not even about a leak any more, it's about perjury; Libby wasn't the real culprit anyway - Armitage and Rove were; Plame wasn't really undercover anyway, etc, etc. I tend to buy most of that but none of it explains what seems to me to be the central question of the case.
Why did Dick Cheney care so much about Joe Wilson? Wilson was, if he'll excuse me, a two-bit, irrelevant jerk in the grand scheme of things. His Niger report was not central to the WMD case; it would almost certainly have blown over as an issue; the Brits maintained their position that the uranium outreach was for real; even the White House climbed down on the SOTU wording eventually; the public didn't really care.
But Cheney cared. In fact, he cared terribly. He cared so much he risked outing a CIA agent, something he must have known was very dangerous - to both himself and his cronies. He is no fool and has been around Washington for a long time. He knew the risks, and he took them anyway. While the insurgency was first beginning to take off in Iraq, Cheney was far more focused on fighting a petty Beltway skirmish in the press over a petty issue in the recent past.
That is very odd, when you think about it. So something must be going on -
There are only two plausible explanations I can think of for the disproportionate concern. The first is pure arrogance. Cheney thought of himself - and still does - as a sort of prince regent protecting the country from its enemies, arrogating to himself enormous and unconstitutional executive powers, assuring the world that the WMD evidence was watertight, declaring the insurgency in its "last throes", embracing the "dark side" of torture techniques for the good of all, and so on. Any querying of his position was an affront a man of his arrogance couldn't tolerate - even if it meant risking a huge amount to squash a political bug the size of Wilson.
The alternative explanation is that Cheney was scared - so scared he took a huge risk that eventually led to the loss and public humiliation of his most trusted aide, Scooter Libby. But why would he be scared? The most plausible inference is that he knew he had deliberately rigged the WMD evidence to ensure that the war took place. He knew, even if the president was blithely convinced otherwise, that the WMD evidence was weak, and his success in distorting the evidence was threatened by Wilson. Not that Wilson had all the goods - Cheney must have known this was a minor matter. It was the danger that journalists or skeptics pulling on the thread that Wilson represented could get closer to the much bigger truth of WMD deception. This is a huge deal for one single reason: if true, it means that the White House acted in bad faith in making the case for war. There is no graver charge than that. In fact, if true, it's impeachable. I don't want to believe it. But I find it increasingly plausible that this is what Patrick Fitzgerald smells in the Libby case. He can't prove it yet; he may never prove it. But he's getting warmer; and he won't give up.
The second explanation is amazingly theatrical - or more precisely, the stuff of one fine Hollywood movie one day. You can see how it would play out on the big screen - the man who set up the war knew all along he was misleading the whole country, and he works feverously to cover his tracks, while the Elliot Ness figure - actually a real man from the real Chicago in this case - slowly, carefully, implacably, unravels the whole plot to hoodwink the nation, one step at a time, in surprising and sly ways. He hammers away at the hapless subordinate on a secondary issue, and the mighty is suddenly in deep trouble. Heck, the original Elliot Ness finally sent Al Capone to prison on tax evasion changes. This could work, and the screenplay almost writes itself. Out here there may well be three dozen hopeless hopefuls within these ten blocks pounding away at their laptops right now hoping to pitch the screenplay of this to the major studios, if they can find an agent and also pay the rent and explain to the folks back in Iowa the they really are going to make it big in Hollywood.
But the problem for everyone else is that Sullivan's alternative explanation is both logical and plausible. It's frightening in that it just makes sense.
Kevin Drum, writing from Orange County, well south of Hollywood, has a different take -
Andrew Sullivan notes today that testimony in the Scooter Libby trial has made it crystal clear just how obsessed Dick Cheney was with Joe Wilson's rather modest criticisms of the administration back in 2003. It's also made it clear just how weird this obsession was. After all, Cheney's pushback against Wilson started before he wrote his infamous New York Times op-ed. It was based on nothing more than a couple of anonymous interviews Wilson had given to Walter Pincus and Nick Kristof, neither of which had resulted in very much attention.
As Sullivan notes, one possible answer is: Cheney was just being Cheney. Massive retaliation is the only way he knows. And, frankly, that's a pretty persuasive theory.
But I don't think it's the right one. I think the right theory is that it was all about the nukes. It's always been all about the nukes.
In fact, back on July 18, 2005, Drum had said it was all really about the nukes and the base -
Step back from Plamegate for a moment and ask yourself a broader question: why did the White House react so violently to Joe Wilson's suggestion that the story about Saddam Hussein trying to procure uranium from Niger was false? After all, as conservative apologists never tire of pointing out, Wilson didn't really debunk George Bush's words in the 2003 State of the Union address. Bush said only that Saddam "sought" uranium from Africa, while Wilson merely provided evidence that no uranium ever changed hands. The fact is, Wilson's report didn't invalidate Bush's statement.
So why did the White House go nuts? What were they so scared of that they went into full-blown smear-and-destroy mode?
One of the advantages of living in Orange County is that I have plenty of centrist and conservative acquaintances, and one thing I've learned from them is that even among Bush's own supporters it was the possibility of Saddam getting hold of nukes that really scared them. Chemical and biological weapons were a bit of a yawn. Without nukes, even Bush sympathizers were skeptical about the whole Iraq adventure.
Since Karl Rove has much more sophisticated means of gauging public opinion than my occasional lunches with friends, he obviously knew this full well. And that means that he was hell-bent on making a case in the SOTU that Saddam had an active nuke program. The problem is that even after sifting through every available rumor, analysis, and unconfirmed report, they were only able to come up with two meager pieces of evidence… Uranium from Africa and aluminum tubes. It was pretty thin stuff.
And if you take that away, you lose the base. It was a political calculation -
In other words, the White House political operation wasn't lashing out just because of Joe Wilson. They were lashing out because they believed their political lives depended on their own supporters continuing to believe that Saddam had been actively working on a nuke program. Without that belief, they'd lose support within their own base even if they eventually found evidence of chem and bio programs.
In Karl Rove's world, the base is sacred, and nukes were the key to their support. Joe Wilson threatened to open a crack in that support, and that's why he had to be destroyed.
That works too. It just makes for a far less compelling screenplay. Karl Rove just doesn't cut it as a screen scoundrel, the ultimate bad guy. He's hardly some James Bond villain, secretly starting a world war and giggling maniacally as it all falls into place (the premise of every bond film, it seems). Rove, in this latter case, is just grubbing for votes with tawdry tricks, and in that screenplay the war is a secondary matter. You'd last four seconds in the pitch meeting down the street at Paramount with that premise - you see, it's All the President's Men with ugly people and no really big issues. You'd be on your way back to Iowa.
And anyway, every character actor in this town would be clambering for the chance to play Cheney - maybe Anthony Hopkins would do it perfectly, as he did with his Nixon for Oliver Stone. And Stone would love to direct such a screenplay - he loves conspiracy stories. Who would want to play Rove?
But the Libby trial is not either screenplay, yet. It's not getting "top of the broadcast" placement on the news shows, and each day it moves further back from the front page of the papers - three column-inches on A-18 these days, if that. For most people, it's not the news they want.
And, regarding the recent spike in our helicopter losses, there are more important stories -
Some aspects of the recent crashes indicate that insurgents have become smarter about anticipating American flight patterns and finding ways to use old weapons to down helicopters, according to military and witness reports.
... Historically, improved tactics in shooting down helicopters have proved to be important factors in conflicts in which guerrillas have achieved victories against major powers, including battles in Somalia, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Yes, the New York Times is reporting there is some worry that the Iraqis who fight along with us - or we fight along with them in support only, if you hopefully choose to put it that way - have been passing the routes and flight times to their buddies in the militias. In short, we're being set up by the bad guys who are just an integral part of almost all units of the standing Iraqi army. That's just how it is. And the Times points out, helpfully, that shooting down lots of helicopters is what drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The irony that the article doesn't mention is that we provided the victorious Taliban there with the shoulder-fired missiles to do just that, as messing up the Soviets seemed a good idea at the time. There seem to be some of those left over, available on the black market. Oops.
As for the infiltration issue with the Iraqi army, that had been covered the week before -
The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has been battling to take over much of the capital city as American forces are trying to secure it.
... After U.S. units pounded al-Sadr's men in August 2004, the cleric apparently decided that instead of facing American tanks, he'd use the Americans' plans to build Iraqi security forces to rebuild his own militia.
... His recruits began flooding into the Iraqi army and police, receiving training, uniforms and equipment either directly from the U.S. military or from the American-backed Iraqi Defense Ministry.
That also didn't make the front pages. No one wants to hear such things. And it came from the second string of the mainstream press, from Tom Lasseter of what used to be Knight-Ridder, now McClatchy Newspapers - the guys who actually get things right but who no one reads.
Drum, again, sums it up well -
Every day that we remain in Iraq we are almost certainly making things worse, both politically and militarily. The political situation will continue to deteriorate because any kind of compromise is fatally associated with doing the Americans' bidding. The military situation will continue to deteriorate as the insurgents take advantage of the war to become better trained and more lethal. (Remember the mujahedin in Afghanistan?)
… Iraq is not likely to have a happy ending no matter what we do, and that's hard to accept. But there's a huge downside to staying, namely that the ending is likely to be a lot less happy the longer we're there. It's time to stop digging ourselves into an ever deeper hole.
Well, yes, but is this news? And is it what the people want in the news.
What does get to the front page, and get top of the hour placement on television?
Thursday, February 8, that was obvious, as only one news story flooded the media - Anna Nicole Smith dies in Florida at 39 - "Anna Nicole Smith, the pneumatic blonde whose life played out as an extraordinary tabloid tale - Playboy centerfold, jeans model, bride of an octogenarian oil tycoon, reality-show subject, tragic mother - died Thursday after collapsing at a hotel."
There was nothing else on the cable news shows, even if she died in the wrong Hollywood, the one in Florida.
So these pages will play along, and do the real news thing. Here she is, just down the street, June 12, 2005 - in this context. You want news, you get news.
Photo - Just Above Sunset archives, from June 2005
This item posted - in its final version - February 11, 2007
Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik