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Thursday, October 13, 2005

WHIG vs. the CIA: My Money Is On the Company, Part I

You see the term WHIG thrown all over the blogosphere these days, hear the pundits say the words "White House Iraq Group," and you wonder -- what the hell is that all about, anyway? Most of the readers of this blog have a passing familiarity with all things Traitorgate (if not an intricate knowledge that borders on the encyclopedic, at times), but up until the last couple of weeks, the White House Iraq Group (or WHIG) has remained an obscure little group whose mission statement was buried under the mounds and mounds of speculation and rumor that is rife around this case.

The truly obsessed among us have known bits and pieces about this group, and have speculated about how its tentacles reached into the intelligence community and perhaps shaped intelligence product coming back into the White House, as well as intimidated and silenced critics both inside and outside the Administration.

What has changed at this juncture is the fact that Patrick Fitzgerald appears to be turning his laser gaze to this group as a whole -- and not just to its members Karl Rove and Scooter Libby -- and trying to piece together the series of meetings and directives which may have lead to people at the highest levels of our government deciding to work in concert to get even with an Administration critic by revealing his wife to be a CIA agent, and exposing her family and her WMD network of agents and assets, as payback for him having the gall to open his mouth.

How does it happen that at the highest levels of our government a CIA operative cannot be assured that her true vocation -- that of a CIA NOC, the most protected class of CIA operative there is -- would not be considered sacrosanct? That the national security interests of the nation as a whole would pale in comparison to the need for immediate retribution to staunch a political wound? That the long-term consequences, the ripple of this single name being dropped like a bombshell into the international intelligence community, would not rise to the level of trumping personal payback for the persons involved in making this decision?

How do we have people at this high level of government who are more concerned with maintaining their own power than they are with protecting the nation's security secrets during a time of war?

There has been some excellent coverage of the group by certain media outlets -- the Washington Post, in particular, had an excellent article detailing WHIG background information in its August 10, 2003, edition. This article spelled out, in some excellent detail, how the erroneous theory of the aluminum tubes captured attention at the highest levels of the Administration, and how those claims which later turned out to be completely false were sold to the American public leading into the war in Iraq. (See also the story that went up yesterday on Raw Story for a quick review of the WHIG genesis and its influence within the Administration.)

The WaPo article also contains some fascinating details about the inner workings of WHIG, and the tensions between those involved in WHIG and those outside it who were fighting to shape the policies of the Bush Administration. The backdrop of all of this was the first Gulf War, and the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11 -- and a fundamental clash of political philosophies between institutionalists and neocons at the highest levels of American foreign policy and national security decisionmaking. Ultimately, this is a story which opens the lid on the can of worms that is governmental policy making, and the clash of ideas and facts -- and how those may be bent to fit a particular end in order to maintain a hold on influence and power.

Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff, formed the WHIG in August of 2002. It was tasked with setting the strategy for each stage of the US efforts in Iraq -- from the lead up to the war to the planning for post-war operations, and especially all of the public relations efforts which would feed into these plans. It's primary task was to "educate the public" on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein -- at least the threat as the members of WHIG wanted the public to see it.

The group met weekly in the Situation Room, producing a series of "white papers" on WMD and other threats they thought they saw in Iraq, as well as strategizing how best to publicize these threats to maximize the political potential in our build-up to war.

One of the earliest tasks for the group was to plan for the President's September 12th, 2002, address to the United Nations and to come up with the demands he would make to that body on how to most effectively deal with Saddam Hussein. This was especially important given this speech's potential effects on the upcoming Congressional mid-term elections and how those results would impact whether or not war would be possible depending on the election outcome.

A continued Republican gain in the elections for both the House and Senate was essential in solidifying a momentum toward war with Iraq -- without this momentum, taking on Saddam would be less likely, because support for the WH agenda in general would erode in the face of Democratic gains.

A core group of participants in WHIG stayed fairly constant: Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, who also chaired many of the meetings; communications/public relations strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative guru Nicholas E. Calio; and policy wonks, Condoleeza Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff. Additionally, the Vice President, himself, attended a number of the meetings and provided his stamp on policy initiatives considered and implemented. These were the highest level of trusted advisors to the President on policy initiatives and strategy and on public relations and image crafting for both the White House and its political campaigns.

It sounds like a great idea for information review and policy implementation at first blush -- something put together in order to accomplish the mission without the hassle of added layers of bureaucracy hindering what needed to be done. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, things got skewed, and there was no built-in buffer to sift the grain from the chaff, no means to slow down the political decision-making because that portion of the usual process had been banished from the group at its inception.

What was left was a core group of people used to having their decisions immediately implemented, and who thought in the same terms, and no one who had the stature and the political wherewithal to question their actions was invited to participate -- Colin Powell, for one, was not a participant, neither was any analyst or higher up from the CIA that might have offered competing views. In effect, WHIG was doomed from its start as an organization self-designed to promote ideas it already had -- it was it's own self-fulfilling stove-pipe of intelligence and policy-making.

The genesis of the feud between the members of WHIG and the CIA may have begun with the internal assessment argument over the aluminum tubes, that is detailed so well in the aforementioned Washington Post article. There has long been a tension between the analysts at CIA who provide the "non-political" interpretation of intelligence data and their customers at the Department of Defense and the White House.

The conflict is especially snarky between the CIA and DoD -- and Dick Cheney was very familiar with this, having been the Secretary of Defense during the first Bush Administration, and was heightened by Cheney's learning of mistakes made regarding our lack of intelligence on nuclear weapons programs Hussein was starting at the time of our invasion of Iraq in 1991 during the first Gulf War. That CIA analysts missed this only solidified the mistrust that Cheney and other neocons have long had in the analystical systems put in place at CIA which tend to be conservative in terms of their findings when some might prefer a more hawkish stance.

How does this fit in with the investigation that Fitzgerald is currently doing in Traitorgate? Because the WHIG was also tasked toward dealing with opposition to the Administration's policy decisions, both for dissent within the Administration and from the outside. And it was this tension between the WHIG, the CIA, and other policy makers in the government that led to Joseph Wilson's fact-finding trip to Niger -- and the subsequent revelation that his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA NOC.


More to come on this in Part II.

For some great information and analysis on WHIG background, btw, check out the fantastic work that Digby has doing at Hullabaloo lately. The PDF link is particularly interesting, and I wonder why this issue has not gotten more play in the media. Perhaps with the renewed focus that Fitzgerald is said to be putting on this group, we'll learn even more about these issues. Also, emptywheel has been doing fantastic work at detailing a lot of these issues and her diaries at The Next Hurrah are illuminating and invaluable in terms of putting together the copious bits and pieces into some coherent whole.