WASHINGTON - It was called the White House Iraq Group and its job was to make the case that Saddam Hussein had nuclear and biochemical weapons.
So determined was the ring of top officials to win its argument that it morphed into a virtual hit squad that took aim at critics who questioned its claims, sources told the Daily News.
One of those critics was ex-Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who debunked a key claim in a speech by President Bush that Iraq sought nuclear materials in Africa. His punishment was the media outing of his wife, CIA spy Valerie Plame, an affair that became a "side show" for the White House Iraq Group, the sources said.
The Plame leak is now the subject of a criminal probe that has seen presidential political guru Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, hauled before a grand jury.
Both men were members of the group, also known as WHIG. From late 2002 through mid 2003, it was locked in a feud with officials inside the CIA and State Department over claims Saddam tried to buy "yellow cake" uranium in Niger to build nukes, a former Bush administration and intelligence sources told The News.
"There were a number of occasions when White House officials or Vice President [Cheney's] staffers, or others, wanted to push the envelope on things," an ex-intelligence official said. "The agency would say, 'We just don't have the intelligence to substantiate that.'" When Wilson was sent by his wife to Africa to research the claims, he showed the documents claiming Saddam tried to buy the uranium were forgeries.
"People in the Iraq group then got very frustrated. It was a side show," said a source familiar with WHIG.
Besides Rove and Libby, the group included senior White House aides Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, James Wilkinson, Nicholas Calio, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley. WHIG also was doing more than just public relations, said a second former intel officer.
"They were funneling information to [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller. Judy was a charter member," the source said.
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