Since the indictment and resignation of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff in a case involving a CIA leak and the war in Iraq, Democrats have seized on the scandal with a multi-front campaign to discredit the war and the Republican-held Congress and White House.
Democrats are divided over whether to use their newfound leverage to seek policy changes, such as how to fight the ground war. Some want immediate troop withdrawal, while others feel the United States must finish what it started. A middle group wants to reassess the situation after another round of elections in Iraq scheduled for next month but favors some withdrawal schedule.
What unites the minority party is a two-part contention: that highlighting I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s indictment in order to pick up seats in the 2006 midterm elections is fair game, and that a greater good can be served by trying to dig up new information about what the White House knew, and did or didn’t disclose to Congress, before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“If the reasons we went to war were distorted, don’t you think we should know that?” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview. “This is a question of the truth being known. That’s important, after all.”
Since Libby’s indictment, Democrats have forced Republicans to go forward with a long-stalled Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry _ known simply as “Phase II” _ into whether the Bush administration withheld or twisted the intelligence to Congress before the invasion. What documents and testimony will be sought has yet to be determined.
They also are pressuring the White House to dismiss several key players beyond Libby, including Karl Rove, President Bush’s top political adviser and deputy chief of staff.
Some Democrats are eyeing an even higher target: Cheney, who was defense secretary to the president’s father, and upon whom the current president relies heavily for military and foreign policy advice.
The White House is struggling to defend itself while also saying as little as possible, in part because special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has not yet closed his inquiry into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity in 2003.
Libby, who last week pleaded not guilty, stands accused of obstructing federal investigators who are looking into the possibly intentional outing of Plame.
Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador, was a critic of the war who asserted that the administration overstated Saddam Hussein’s threat to national security in order to justify going to war. He later accused the White House of blowing his wife’s cover to punish him.
Although Libby admitted discussing Plame with some reporters in 2003, he has not been charged with deliberately leaking her identity, nor has anyone else to date. But the wording of the indictment portrays Libby and several White House officials discussing Plame and her husband’s Iraq-related research.
The public’s strong reaction to the indictment has helped drive the president’s public approval ratings to unprecedented lows, giving Democrats the political leverage they have lacked until now to complain and accuse. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll found 58 percent of Americans now feel the president is not honest or trustworthy, and 59 percent said Rove should resign.
Bush, traveling in Argentina on Friday, deflected reporters’ questions on Rove’s future and his administration’s broader response.
“The investigation on Karl, as you know, is not complete. And, therefore, I will not comment upon, about him and/or the investigation,” he said.
“I understand the anxiety and angst by the press corps to talk about this,” he said. “On the other hand, it is a serious investigation and we take it seriously and we’re cooperating to the extent that the special prosecutor wants us to cooperate.”
White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said the Senate’s Phase II investigation is “a debate we’re willing to have in the open” but suggested it was pointless. “Senator Reid himself voted for the war and cited the same intelligence the president did in doing so,” he said. “Did he have the same intelligence? He did.”
Lisaius also predicted Republicans would draw the previous Democratic administration into the discussion.
“Maybe that investigation can start with the previous administration, where then-President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talked about the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein,” he said. “Now, everybody recognizes the intelligence wasn’t all correct, but the decision (to go to war) is correct.”
But some Democrats believe the Phase II investigation could unearth new information. That optimism is due in part to the release of unrelated embarrassing emails this week, as part of a congressional probe into the administration’s handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. In emails back and forth with staff during the crisis, ex-FEMA director Michael Brown plotted how his clothing choice played on TV, sought a dog sitter and expressed a desire to leave his job, while offering slow or minimal responses to storm-related inquiries.