Cheney e-mail to Halliburton adds to mistrust, Pingree says

A Newsweek column by Eleanor Clift

Bush’s Baggage

Washington is agog over George Tenet’s resignation, the Plame CIA case and fresh criticism of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton contacts. Are the wheels coming off the administration?


By Eleanor Clift


Updated: 8:16 p.m. ET June 05, 2004

June 4 – The timing is odd. About to embark on a foreign trip, on his way to his helicopter, President George W. Bush stops to announce his CIA director has resigned. Bush’s words are halting and his body language hesitant, as though the news has taken him off stride.

If George Tenet’s departure was carefully choreographed by the White House, it looks like somebody may have forgotten to tell Bush. The purpose of forcing the resignation of a high-level official is to make the boss look good, and the president looked shell-shocked. He said he was sorry the intelligence chief was leaving, and he praised Tenet’s tenure in government.

Bush’s remarks had the feel of a negotiated settlement, as in “I won’t rat on you if you don’t rat on me.”

When the CIA director bails out this close to the election and in the midst of tense times at home and abroad, voters may wonder if the wheels are coming off the Bush administration. The way Tenet’s resignation was tendered leads to the conclusion this was not coordinated and that Tenet decided on his own it was a good time to get out. His resume is circulating on Wall Street with at least two major corporations, and he’d like to nail something down before his reputation gets further damaged.

Bush did not try to persuade Tenet to remain at his post. The 9/11 commission report is due in July, and the harshest criticism, according to Hill sources, is directed at the CIA under Tenet. A Senate committee report reached the same conclusion. If Tenet hadn’t chosen to take an early exit, his head would be on the chopping block once these reports become public. Tenet is a skilled bureaucrat, but he became the butt of jokes when Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward revealed in his book “Plan of Attack” that Tenet assured Bush it was “a slam dunk” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The next big shoe to drop in Washington is the independent counsel’s investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA operative to conservative columnist Robert Novak, ending her covert career and compromising national security. The White House confirmed this week that Bush has consulted a private lawyer with the expectation that he will be called to offer testimony in the Valerie Plame case. To refresh, Plame is the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who at the request of the CIA traveled to Africa in 2002 to research the claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. He reported back to the administration that the claim was bogus, and when it still showed up in Bush’s State of the Union speech the following year, Wilson went public with what he knew.

The administration retaliated by discrediting Wilson and suggesting that the trip to Niger was a boondoggle made possible by his wife, who worked at the CIA. Plame had been an undercover CIA operative posing as an energy consultant. In his recently published book, “The Politics of Truth,” Wilson says Vice President Dick Cheney’s office ordered a “work-up” on him, and he repeats speculation in Washington that the leak may have emanated from somebody in Cheney’s office. “The real buzz is the veep’s office getting lawyered up,” says a top aide to a prominent Senate Republican.

Cheney has gone underground again, hoping to bury all his baggage with him. But an internal Pentagon e-mail saying Halliburton contracts were “coordinated” with the vice president’s office provided fresh material for Cheney’s critics on Capitol Hill. Asked about the e-mail, Chellie Pingree, who heads the reform group, Common Cause, made a face and groaned in disgust. “Much of the world thinks we went to war over oil, and to boost the profits of the big corporations. This just gives validation to the terrorists.” Pingree points out that Cheney, when he was secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration, commissioned a $9 million study from Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, on privatizing the military. When he left government, he went to work for Halliburton and built it into a huge conglomerate that takes advantage of the privatization of services he put in place.

A fifth of the personnel on the ground in Iraq are private contractors without the accountability of the U.S. military. “Cheney is the godfather of this policy,” says Pingree, adding that the vice president collects more than $100,000 a year from Halliburton in stock options while serving in the White House. “He says it’s not that much. To the average American who has a son over there, that’s more money than most people earn, and it’s a side benefit for him.” Pingree predicted last summer that Halliburton would be Cheney’s downfall.

It would be no less of a shocker if, in August on the eve of the GOP convention, Bush stopped on his way to the helicopter and announced his vice president is stepping down.