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Special Reports Last Updated: Jun 17th, 2008 - 00:55:01

McClellan testimony may shed light on Niger forgeries
By Jason Leopold
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 17, 2008, 00:22

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Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan�s testimony later this week before the House Judiciary Committee promises to reignite the debate over the �16 words� in President Bush�s 2003 State of the Union address that claimed Iraq tried to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger and how the White House�s response to the bogus intelligence led to the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Aides to several senior Democrats on the committee are poring over former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan�s book, What Happened: Inside The Bush White House and Washington�s Culture of Deception, as well as news reports and documents released publicly by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel appointed to investigate the leak of Plame�s identity.

Right-wing columnist Robert Novak blew Plame�s cover on July 14, 2003, in an article suggesting that Plame had helped arrange her husband�s trip to Africa as some kind of junket.

The aides, who requested anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss details of next week�s hearing, have been drafting detailed questions for McClellan about the behind-the-scenes conversations that took place between Vice President Dick Cheney, former White House political adviser Karl Rove, Cheney�s former Chief of Staff I. Lewis �Scooter� Libby, Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and President Bush, surrounding accusations raised in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath that the administration knew the Niger intelligence was false.

The committee wants McClellan, who was deputy press secretary at the time the administration was forced in July 2003 to admit the uranium allegations should not have been included in President Bush�s State of the Union address, to elaborate on Bush, Cheney, Hadley and Rice�s role in the campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson, a diplomat who had served in Iraq and Africa, who was selected by the CIA�s non-proliferation office, where Plame worked, to travel to Niger in early 2002 to examine the Iraq-yellowcake allegations. Wilson returned to the United States and reported to CIA officials that the claims appeared to have no merit, a finding that matched with inquiries from other U.S. officials.

Two weeks ago, Congressman Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent to Attorney General Michael Mukasey a letter that indicated Vice President Dick Cheney may have authorized his former deputy to leak Plame�s identity.

"In his interview with the FBI, Mr. Libby stated that it was �possible� that Vice President Cheney instructed him to disseminate information about Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson's wife to the press. This is a significant revelation and, if true, a serious matter. It cannot be responsibly investigated without access to the Vice President's FBI interview," Waxman wrote.

Waxman's office would not release copies of the Libby-Rove transcripts or describe the contents in any detail. Fitzgerald's investigative interviews with Bush and Cheney -- asking how much knowledge the President and Vice President had about the Plame leak -- have not been disclosed.

But the committee wants to know if McClellan can offer insight into the vice president�s role as well as answers about why the administration continued to peddle the Niger story after the documents the intelligence was based upon were exposed as forgeries,

Democratic lawmakers have been trying to determine if Bush administration officials knew the Niger intelligence was bogus and if they allowed President Bush to cite it in his State of the Union address despite warnings of its veracity.

Last year, they issued a subpoena for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice demanding that she explain her role in the matter and whether she had prior knowledge that Niger intelligence was fabricated. Rice has said that she could not recall receiving any oral or written warnings from the CIA about Iraq's interest in uranium from Niger as being unreliable. Rice penned an op-ed January 23, 2003, claiming Iraq was actively trying "to get uranium from abroad."

Rice ignored Waxman�s subpoena and the congressman had decided not to litigate the issue.

Now, by securing McClellan�s testimony, assuming the White House does not assert a last minute claim of executive privilege, some Democratic lawmakers are hoping they will be able to fill in some holes in the narrative related to the Niger story and determine what the administration knew and when they knew it.

The �16 words,� "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," was cited by President Bush on Jan. 28, 2003 and has widely been viewed as convincing the public and Congress to support a preemptive strike against Iraq.

The White House has never provided a full accounting of how the intelligence, despite warnings from several government agencies that it was unreliable, made its way from Italy to Washington and into President�s Bush�s State of the Union address.

State Department memo

Sixteen days before Bush�s State of the Union, the State Department told the CIA that the intelligence the uranium claims were based upon were forgeries, according to a declassified State Department memo.

The memo says: "On January 12, 2003," the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) "expressed concerns to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries."

Moreover, the memo says that the State Department's doubts about the veracity of the uranium claims may have been expressed to the intelligence community even earlier.

Those concerns, according to the memo, are the reason that former Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to cite the uranium claims when he appeared before the United Nations in February 5, 2003 -- one week after Bush's State of the Union address -- to try to win support for a possible strike against Iraq.

"After considerable back and forth between the CIA, the (State) Department, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and the British, Secretary Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council did not mention attempted Iraqi procurement of uranium due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement," the memo further states.

During a closed before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence back in July 2003, Alan Foley, the former director of the CIA's Nonproliferation, Intelligence and Arms Control Center, said he had spoken to Robert Joseph, the former director of nonproliferation at the National Security Council and former undersecretary of state for arms control, a day or two before President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address and told Joseph that detailed references to Iraq and Niger should be excluded from the final draft. Foley told committee members that Joseph had agreed to water down the language and would instead, he told Foley, attribute the intelligence to the British.

At this time, the international community, the media, and the IAEA called into question the veracity of the Niger documents. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of IAEA, told the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003, that the Niger documents were forgeries and could not be used to prove Iraq was a nuclear threat.

Wilson speaks out

Wilson began to question the Niger intelligence a day after Bush's speech. He said he reminded a friend at the State Department that he had traveled to Niger in February 2002 to investigate whether Iraq attempted to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Wilson said his friend at the State Department replied that "perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I accepted the explanation. I didn't know that in December, a month before the president's address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that mentioned the Niger case."

Wilson said he had attempted to contact the White House through various channels after the State of the Union address to get the administration to correct the public record.

"I had direct discussions with the State Department [and] Senate committees," Wilson told me in April 2006 following a speech to college students and faculty at California State University Northridge. "I had numerous conversations to change what they were saying publicly. I had a civic duty to hold my government to account for what it had said and done."

Wilson said he was rebuffed at every instance and that he received word, through then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, that he could state his case in writing in a public forum.

In March 2003, Wilson began to publicly question the administration's use of the Niger claims without disclosing his role in traveling to Niger in February 2002 to investigate it. Wilson's criticism of the administration's pre-war Iraq intelligence caught the attention of Cheney, Libby and Hadley.

In an interview that took place two and a half weeks before the start of the Iraq War, Wilson said the administration was more interested in redrawing the map of the Middle East to pursue its own foreign policy objectives than in dealing with the so-called terrorist threat.

�The underlying objective, as I see it -- the more I look at this -- is less and less disarmament, and it really has little to do with terrorism, because everybody knows that a war to invade and conquer and occupy Iraq is going to spawn a new generation of terrorists," Wilson said in a March 2, 2003, interview with CNN.

�So you look at what's underpinning this, and you go back and you take a look at who's been influencing the process. And it's been those who really believe that our objective must be far grander, and that is to redraw the political map of the Middle East," Wilson added.

A week later, Wilson was interviewed on CNN again. This was the first time Wilson ridiculed the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. "Well, this particular case is outrageous. We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for something like this to go unchallenged by the US -- the US government -- is just simply stupid. It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an embassy there since the early 1960s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted market of buyers and sellers," Wilson said in the March 8, 2003, CNN interview. "For this to have gotten to the IAEA is on the face of it dumb, but more to the point, it taints the whole rest of the case that the government is trying to build against Iraq."

Wilson's comments enraged Cheney because it was seen as a personal attack against the vice president, who was instrumental in getting his underlings to cite the Niger claims in government reports to build a case for war against Iraq.

Wilson's critique during his appearances on CNN, in addition to ElBaradei's UN report, were seen as a threat to the administration's planned attack against Iraq, which took place 11 days later.

Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press" on March 16, 2003, to respond to ElBaradei's assertion that the Niger documents were forgeries.

�I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said during the interview. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."

The former ambassador's stinging rebuke also caught the attention of Hadley, who had played an even bigger role in the Niger controversy by failing to heed written warnings by the CIA to remove the reference from President Bush�s State of the Union address.

Hadley responded to Wilson's comments by writing an editorial about the threat Iraq posed to the U.S., in an attempt to discredit Wilson's comments on CNN.

A column written by Hadley that was published in the Chicago Tribune on February 16, 2003, was redistributed to newspaper editors by the State Department on March 10, 2003, two days after Wilson was interviewed on CNN. The column, "Two Potent Iraqi Weapons: Denial and Deception" once again raised the issue that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger.

Second State Department memo

Wilson spoke to at least two journalists in May 2003 about the bogus Niger intelligence. A phone call to the White House by one of the reporters, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, seeking comment about Wilson�s accusations prompted I. Lewis �Scooter� Libby, Cheney�s former chief of staff to inquire about Wilson�s trip to Niger. Libby contacted the State Department. A memo, dated June 10, 2003, drafted by Carl Ford Jr., the former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was issued and sent to Libby. It said Wilson undertook the mission to Niger to investigate the Niger intelligence.

The White House has long maintained that they were never briefed about the State Department's or the CIA's concerns related to the Niger uranium claims..

But in a previous interview with me, the memo's author, Carl Ford, said he has no doubt the State Department's reservations about the Niger intelligence made their way to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

�This was the very first time there was written evidence -- not notes, but a request for a report -- from the State Department that documented why the Niger intel was bullshit," Ford told me. "It was the only thing in writing, and it had a certain value because it didn't come from the IAEA. It came from State. It scared the heck out of a lot of people because it proved that this guy Wilson's story was credible. I don't think anybody wanted the media to know that the State Department disagreed with the intelligence used by the White House."

Ford added that when the request came from Cheney's office for a report on Wilson's Niger trip it was an opportunity to put in writing a document that would remind the White House that it had been warned about the Niger claims early on.

Tenet warned Hadley

In his book, At the Center of the Storm, former CIA Director George Tenet wrote that he personally asked Hadley to remove the 16 words from President Bush�s speech just three months earlier.

�Steve, take it out," Tenet wrote about a conversation he had with Hadley on October 5, 2002. As deputy national security adviser, Hadley was also in charge of the clearance process for speeches given by White House officials. "The facts, I told him, were too much in doubt."

Following his conversation with Hadley, one of Tenet's aides sent a follow-up letter to then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Hadley, and Bush's speechwriter Mike Gerson highlighting additional reasons the language about Iraq's purported attempts to obtain uranium from the African country of Niger should not be used to try to convince Congress and the public that Iraq was an imminent threat, Tenet wrote in the book.

"More on why we recommend removing the sentence about [Saddam's] procuring uranium oxide from Africa," Tenet wrote in the book, apparently quoting from a memo sent to the White House. "Three points: (1) The evidence is weak. One of the two mines cited by the source as the location of the uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine cited by the source is under the control of French authorities; (2) the procurement is not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions; and (3) we have shared points one and two with Congress, telling them the Africa story is overblown and telling them this was one of two issues where we differed with the British."

Tenet, however, says he was "in bed, asleep" when Bush delivered the State of the Union.

"You won't find many Washington officials who will admit to not watching the most important political speech of the year, but I was exhausted from fifteen months of nonstop work and worry since the tragedy of 9/11," Tenet writes in the chapter "16 words." "We had warned the White House against using the Niger uranium reports previously but had not done so with the State of the Union," Tenet wrote.

Tenet wrote that he believes the administration was excited about the prospect of removing Saddam Hussein from power and ignored his previous warnings about the bogus intelligence in order to win support for the war.

"The vision of a despot like Saddam getting his hands on nuclear weapons was galvanizing" and "provided an irresistible image for speechwriters, spokesmen, and politicians to seize on," Tenet wrote.

Still, Tenet says when the furor surrounding the 16 words reached a boiling point in July 2003, he "decided to stand up and take the hit."

"Obviously, the process for vetting the speech at the Agency had broken down," Tenet wrote. "We had warned the White House about the lack of reliability of the assertion when we had gotten them to remove similar language from the president's October [2002] Cincinnati speech and we should have gotten that language out of the [State of the Union address] as well."

Tenet added that the White House officials had told the media that the language pertaining to Niger omitted from the Cincinnati speech was dramatically different from the Niger claims that ended up in the State of the Union address.

"That simply wasn't so," Tenet wrote. "It was clear that the entire briefing was intended to convince the press corps that the White House staff was an innocent victim of bad work by the intelligence community."

�On July 18, Condi Rice requested formal declassification of part of the October NIE, including the "key judgments" section and the paragraphs relating to Iraqi attempts to secure uranium in Africa. This was done through the normal CIA channels the same day, and Tenet personally spoke with Cheney and Rumsfeld that day to let them know it had happened,� McClellan wrote in his book.

The NIE was formally declassified on July 18, 2003, and a background briefing with a "senior administration official" was arranged for reporters to respond to questions about Wilson and how White House officials failed to vet the State of the Union.

Tenet wrote that the intent of the White House's background briefing on July 18 "was obvious.�

�They wanted to demonstrate that the intelligence community had given the administration and Congress every reason to believe that Saddam had a robust WMD program that was growing in seriousness every day. The briefers were questioned about press accounts saying that the White House had taken references to Niger out of the Cincinnati speech at the CIA's request. Why then did they insert them again in the State of the Union address?" Tenet wrote in his book.

The NIE leak and the attack on Wilson

McClellan wrote in his book that the campaign to discredit Wilson heated up at the White House in June 2003 when Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus contacted the Office of the Vice President.

�In early June, while making inquiries about what [New York Times columnist Nicholas] Kristof wrote, Pincus had contacted Cathie Martin, who oversaw the vice president's communications office. Martin went to Scooter Libby to discuss what Pincus was sniffing around about,� McClellan wrote. �The vice president and Libby were quietly stepping up their efforts to counter the allegations of the anonymous envoy to Niger, and Pincus's story was one opportunity for them to do just that.�

Kristof accused Cheney of allowing the truth about the Niger documents the administration used to build a case for war to go "missing in action." The columnist obtained his information from Wilson in May 2003 at a political conference in Washington sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

In mid-June 2003, Libby chose New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as recipients of the still classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalists were urged by Libby to report that that Iraq had in fact attempted to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger, directly contradicting Wilson's claims.

A week before he met with Libby, around June 16, 2003, Woodward met with two other government officials, one of whom was later revealed to be Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Woodward says Armitage, referring to him as an unnamed official, told him in a "casual" and off-handed manner that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Woodward said the meeting with Libby and the other government officials had been set up simply as "confidential background interviews for my 2004 book, 'Plan of Attack,' about the lead-up to the Iraq war, ongoing reporting for the Washington Post and research for a book on Bush's second term to be published in 2006."

Woodward wrote a first person account in the Washington Post about his involvement in the Plame leak a couple of weeks after Libby was indicted. The Watergate-era journalist wrote that when he met with Libby on June 27, 2003, "Libby discussed the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned 'yellowcake' and said there was an effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa. It goes back to February '02. This was the time of Wilson's trip to Niger."

Neither Miller nor Woodward wrote stories for their newspapers about the intelligence report Libby leaked to them.

Libby also met with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, another Pulitzer Prize winner, and leaked the same portions of the NIE when Miller raised questions about Wilson's claims about the administration's use of pre-war Iraq intelligence.

Miller spent 85 days in jail for in 2006 for refusing to reveal Libby as her source who disclosed Plame�s identity to her.

Libby and Cheney continued to peddle the Niger intelligence as solid even though there was agreement among Bush�s senior officials that the White House would issue a mea culpa. Indeed, on July 14, 2003, just three days after senior officials met to discuss the White House response, Libby contacted then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and asked him to contact the editorial department at the Wall Street Journal and leaked the NIE to the paper as a way of undermining Wilson. Cheney approved leaking the NIE to the Journal.

"After July 14, in that week, the Vice President thought we should still try and get the [NIE] out. And so he asked me to talk to the Wall Street Journal. I don't have as good a relationship with the Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did, and so we talked to Secretary Wolfowitz about trying to get that point across [to the Journal], and he undertook to do so," Libby testified.

Wolfowitz faxed the Wall Street Journal a set of "talking points" about the former ambassador that the paper's editors could use to discredit him in print, according to Libby's grand jury testimony, and then leaked to the paper a portion of the then-still-classified NIE that claimed Iraq did in fact attempt to acquire uranium from Niger. The Journal printed, verbatim, Wolfowitz's talking points in an editorial in its July 17, 2003, edition and then misled its readers about the source of the information.

According to the editorial, "Yellowcake Remix," the Journal said the data the newspaper received about Iraq's interest in uranium "does not come from the White House," despite the fact that Libby testified that he personally lobbied Wolfowitz to leak the NIE to the Journal, and that arguably Wolfowitz's position as undersecretary of defense made him a senior member of the Bush administration.

Bush�s role

For an administration that despises leaks, the decision by Cheney to declassify highly sensitive portions of the NIE and have his most trusted aide leak it to reporters in order to attack Wilson�s credibility showed that Bush and Cheney and other senior administration officials took the ambassador�s criticism personally.

In his book, McClellan said in early 2006 a reporter questioned him aboard Air Force One about rumors that Bush authorized Libby to leak the NIE to the media. McClellan wrote that he asked the president the question directly and was stunned by his response.

A reporter �asserted you authorized the leak of part of the NIE,� McClellan wrote about a conversation he had with Bush.

�Yeah, I did,� is what Bush�s response was, McClellan wrote. �The look on his face said he didn�t want to discuss the matter any further. Nor did I expect him to, since he had already been advised by his personal attorney Jim Sharp not to discuss any details related to the Libby trial. I was shocked to hear the President casually acknowledging its accuracy, as if discussing something no more important than a baseball score or the latest tidbit of inside-the-Beltway gossip.�

�No one else was told about the secret declassification -- not Chief of Staff Andy Card, not National Security Advisor Condi Rice. When Rice was publicly rejecting the notion of selective declassification on July 11, 2003, Scooter Libby had already leaked it to Judith Miller on July 8 -- at the vice president�s direction with authority from the president.�

In early fall 2003, President Bush then announced that he was determined to get to the bottom of the Plame leak.

�If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,� Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. �I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.�

Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters.

In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the scheme to discredit Wilson got started -- since he was involved in starting it -- the president uttered misleading public statements that obscured the White House role.

Also, since the leakers knew that Bush already was in the know, they might well have read his comments as a signal to lie, which is what they did. In early October, McClellan said he could report that political adviser Rove and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams were not involved in the Plame leak.

That comment riled Libby, who feared that he was being hung out to dry. Libby went to his boss, Vice President Cheney, complaining that �they want me to be the sacrificial lamb,� Libby�s lawyer Theodore Wells said later.

Cheney scribbled down his feelings in a note to Press Secretary McClellan: �Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy [that Pres -- struck out by Cheney] that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others."

In the note, Cheney initially ascribed Libby�s role in going after Joe Wilson to Bush�s orders, but the vice president apparently thought better of it, crossing out �the Pres� and putting the clause in a passive tense.

Cheney has never explained the meaning of his note, but it suggests that it was Bush who sent Libby out on the get-Wilson mission to limit damage from Wilson�s criticism of Bush�s false Niger yellowcake claim.

Did Bush authorize Plame leak?

During Libby�s criminal trial last year, David Addington, Cheney�s attorney in the Office of the Vice President, had testified that during a conversation with Libby about the president's authority to declassify documents, Libby also questioned him specifically about whether "if somebody worked out at the CIA and the CIA sent the person's spouse on a trip to do something for the CIA, would there be a record out at the CIA of that," states a copy of the trial transccript.

Addington said he told Libby "it depended . . . the kind of paperwork would depend on whether you were on the operational side of the CIA, the folks who run spies overseas, if you will, or on the analytical side, the folks at CIA who write reports for policymakers and so forth about what is going on in the world."

In late June or early July 2003, "a question was asked of me . . . by Scooter Libby: Does the president have authority to declassify information?" Addington testified. "And the answer I gave was, 'Of course, yes. It's clear the president has the authority to determine what constitutes a national security secret and who can have access to it.'"

In an interview with Fox News in 2006, Cheney said he had the legal authority to declassify intelligence as he saw fit. There is still strong debate about the interpretation of the executive order Cheney referred to that provided him with such power. Cheney's comments came on the heels of a disclosure Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made in a letter to defense attorneys representing Libby in the leak case.

President Bush signed an executive order in 2003 authorizing Cheney to declassify certain intelligence documents. The order was signed on March 23, four days after the start of the Iraq War and two weeks after Wilson first appeared on the administration's radar.

McClellan wrote that he wondered whether allowing the NIE to be leaked to the media had somehow caused the same officials to disseminate Plame�s CIA status.

�Questions were also raised about whether the president's action had set in motion the unauthorized disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity,� McClellan wrote in his book.

Jason Leopold is the author of "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit for a preview. His new website is The Public Record.

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