The Apprentice

"The amazing thing is that we are being taken over basically by a cult, eight or nine neo-conservatives."
            -- Seymour Hersh

In the days after Patrick Fitzgerald read out his indictments of perjury and obstruction of justice against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby a year and a half ago, what drew my attention most was something an old friend of Libby's said about him to a reporter: that the vice-presidential aide's aim in life had always been to remain "so opaque you can't tell he is there." The strategy worked: Despite the central role Libby had in making the case for war in Iraq -- the spy novelist John le Carré called the operation Libby ran out of Dick Cheney's office "one of the great public-relations conjuring tricks of history" -- in October 2005, no one knew much about him.

More than a year later, I sat in a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., and watched as Fitzgerald removed layer after layer of the man's opacity. Why, I asked myself throughout the day, would a smart lawyer like Libby perjure himself to Fitzgerald, the most famous public prosecutor in America? And why would he lie to cover up a crime nearly impossible to prove -- that of knowingly blowing a CIA agent's cover?

Sitting next to me in court that day was Libby's college girlfriend. I had met her outside the courtroom that morning, standing in line waiting to be admitted. She had asked me to save her place in line and rushed over to Harriet Grant, Libby's wife. The two shook hands, and then hugged.

Once the woman returned, I asked her if she was a friend of Libby's. Yes, she said sadly, she had known him since Yale. "He was such a good person," she continued, in tears. I asked if they had been "involved." She nodded. "It's really painful to see him here," she said in a near whisper. She described the Scooter she had first met during the days of the student rebellion in the 1960s. He was a radical who organized antiwar demonstrations and ran around campus wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt. The two had gone to demonstrations together. "He was such a good person," she repeated. "He still is."

"So what happened to him?"

"The Dark Side," she told me with a sigh, had gotten to him.

When I asked her what dark force had turned the radical-on-the-barricades into the right-hand man of the vice president, she answered, bluntly: Paul Wolfowitz. She recalled the first time Libby fell under the neoconservative's trance, and how he became a sort of apprentice to Wolfowitz. "It was as if he had joined a secret society," the woman explained. When I probed about the "secret" in the society, she wiped her eyes dry with a Kleenex and assured me she had no idea what it was. He never told her.

So, I asked myself, how do you make sense of a man getting drawn to the Dark Side without being dark himself? On the train back to New York that day, I read Libby's roman à clef, The Apprentice, a novel that took him 20 years to write. Though its publication had been surrounded mainly by whispers about its pornographic scenes, such as a 10-year-old girl's sex with a bear, what struck me was the apprentice himself. Referred to as "the youth," the hero of the book accidentally comes upon a box filled with his country's secret war plans and becomes the bearer of those secrets.

As the story unfolds, enemies beat the youth black and blue, but he resolutely refuses to divulge what he knows. At book's end, a swashbuckling nationalist embraces the youth as a true patriot. "Arise. You are reborn,'' he proclaims. Having mastered the dangerous art of discretion, the youth's apprenticeship has come to an end.

Could the "secret" Libby's ex-girlfriend alluded to be so compelling in its power that it turned the Ivy League peacenik into a neocon "patriot"? Could the one thing better than writing fiction be the chance to be a real-world bearer and divulger of state secrets? Had Libby perjured himself, I wondered, to protect a real-world secret war plan?


Ruminating on the question, it occurred to me that the secret might have something to do with the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. The notion that one state could preemptively invade another had been considered unambiguously illegal since the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648. But as I would learn, a bevy of Cold War–era intellectuals had changed that. Libby had learned about the secret doctrine from Wolfowitz, who had received it from Albert Wohlstetter, a RAND Corporation and University of Chicago mathematician and nuclear strategist. The crooked path that led to the federal courtroom in 2007 began, it seemed, with discoveries made by an obscure mathematician.

Stanley Kubrick was thinking partly of Wohlstetter when he created Dr. Strangelove. (His first working title for the film was taken from Wohlstetter's seminal paper, "The Delicate Balance of Terror.") But Wohlstetter was the precise opposite of Kubrick's ex-Nazi: He was a moralist who wanted to preserve liberty, even at the cost of limited nuclear war or ethnic conflict abroad.

Despair at the way the elites were managing the world came easy for a Jewish intellectual of Wohlstetter's generation. He was 20 in 1933, when Hitler took power, and he got his degree in mathematical logic from Columbia University in 1938, the year the Western democracies failed to stand up to Hitler in Munich. At the time, bureaucrats and politicians assumed that the fascist powers were like them: rational players who could be dealt with using the established instruments of diplomacy.

From the moment Wohlstetter became an analyst at the RAND Corporation in 1951, he devoted himself to ensuring that Munich would never happen again. "The Delicate Balance of Terror," which he published with the RAND Corporation in 1958, was a groundbreaking tract that took on the heavyweights of American foreign policy. In it, Henry Kissinger, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and others appear as hapless characters intellectually marooned in a pre-nuclear age.

Wohlstetter singled out the doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) as proof of the national-security elite's dangerous anachronism. The "realists" believed that nuclear weapons had made war obsolete. Only an "insane adventurer" would launch an attack, and professional diplomats assumed that the totalitarian beast in Moscow would probably behave rationally. But, argued Wohlstetter, the Soviet Union was not necessarily a rational actor: The Russians had lost 20 million people during World War II; there was no reason to assume they wouldn't risk losing many more to become the premier global power.

Wohlstetter argued that scientific progress in the hands of such a tyrannical regime would pose an impossible threat to both American security and the cause of human liberty. In the thermonuclear age, the possibility, however remote, that a tyrant could risk a nuclear strike required that tyranny abroad be contained and eventually defeated.

But the most compelling aspect of Wohlstetter's mixture of apocalyptic and utopian thinking, and the reason he won over a devoted band of talented followers, was his radical moral message of the need for a new band of leaders to battle tyranny using policies that would spread liberal democratic values. The logic behind MAD precluded any attempt to defeat evil. The true liberal, Wohlstetter taught, must not be resigned to the enslavement of half the planet; he must desire, and plan for, the triumph of freedom, if need be through the use of tactical nuclear bombs. And the leaders capable of such a daring expansion of American military power, he firmly believed, were not Establishment men trained in the old tradition of diplomacy and foreign policy, speaking the obsolete language of détente; they were a new breed of activist intellectuals who would give Western democracies "a new image of ourselves in a world of persistent danger."


The most prominent person who would carry this theory forward to our time turned out to be Paul Wolfowitz, who first met Wohlstetter at a faculty tea hour at the University of Chicago in 1964, by which time Wohlstetter had written his most-important works and had gathered together a group of young followers. Among them was Richard Perle, who had fallen under his spell five years earlier. (Wohlstetter's daughter invited Perle, then in high school, to swim in the family pool; there, Perle met Wohlstetter, who handed him "The Delicate Balance of Terror." Perle, an avid fan of The Twilight Zone, was mesmerized by what he would describe as the author's "uncontrollably analytical'' mind in matters of life-and-death strategic policy.) Two other disciples, Ahmad Chalabi in the 1960s and Zalmay Khalilzad in the 1970s, joined the ranks of neophytes during graduate work at the University of Chicago.

Wolfowitz was idealistic, ambitious, immensely intelligent, and socially progressive. He was at Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He was a member of a family that had been decimated by Hitler's genocidal war against the Jews. And he had no loyalty to the old American political power structures -- precisely the kind of brainy idealist Wohlstetter was looking for.

After the Israeli-Arab War, in 1967, just as his young protégé was casting about for a dissertation topic, Wohlstetter added a new ingredient to his theoretical mix: the danger of nuclear proliferation in dangerously unstable corners of the globe, in particular the Middle East. One key cause for the heightened tension between Egypt and Israel leading up to the Six Day War was the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert. After the war, the Johnson administration -- assuming that the recurrent wars in the region were rational fights over water and land -- proposed building three nuclear plants, one each for Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, to desalinate water and bring agriculture to millions of acres of desert. The scheme was called "A Proposal for Our Time."

Wohlstetter saw in the proposal the same old delusions: The bureaucrats were blind to the dangers of nuclear technology and the irrationality of authoritarian regimes. He argued that there would be little to stop these nations from diverting some of the materials from their civilian reactors toward the development of nuclear weapons. Then he traveled to Israel, where he got his hands on a raft of top-secret documents showing how the Egyptians were planning to use the American peace initiative to construct a nuclear device. He returned to the University of Chicago and handed the documents over to Wolfowitz, who used them as the basis for his dissertation.


Wolfowitz was finishing up his dissertation on the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East when he began teaching at Yale. It was there, in a class he was teaching in 1971, that he first met Libby. Anecdotal evidence from Libby's ex-girlfriend and from his former classmates suggests a sudden and dramatic shift in Libby's thinking starting at this time. But the strength of the relationship with Wolfowitz became much clearer 10 years later.

Perle and Wolfowitz had carried with them the specter of a Middle-Eastern-madman-with-a-nuke as they rose through the ranks of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Meanwhile, Libby was a high-priced lawyer in Philadelphia (working away in his spare time on The Apprentice). He was also reading William Stevenson's A Man Called Intrepid, a sweeping account of how British and American spies devoted their lives -- many died -- to keep Nazi Germany from developing a nuclear bomb.

Libby had just finished the book when he got a surprise phone call from Wolfowitz. Ronald Reagan was president, and Wolfowitz had landed a plum job as the State Department's head of foreign-policy planning. Perle had become assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, and had hired his friend Douglas Feith to work for him. Wolfowitz asked Libby to be his top aid.

The pair put together a golden team that included two other Wohlstetter devotees, Francis Fukuyama and Zalmay Khalilzad. It was a dedicated and intelligent group, united by a common vision almost transcendental in its force. Together they celebrated the Israeli attack on the French-built nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad, which Perle, over at the Pentagon, had helped plan. Wohlstetter had been issuing warnings about the plant for years, and he was beside himself with joy: Finally, a government was showing the chops needed to thwart evil.

A decade later, Libby left his clearest traces of his membership in the Wohlstetter society. George Bush Senior was president, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. To a man, the neocons were convinced that the hard-line anti-Soviet policies they had tirelessly promoted were responsible for the victory over the "Evil Empire." Libby and Wolfowitz were working for then–Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who wanted a paper outlining American strategies in the post–Cold War era.

What Libby -- with ample help from Wolfowitz, Khalilzad, and Perle, plus some from Wohlstetter -- came up with was the Defense Policy Guidance. Written up in 1992, it focused on the danger posed by Middle Eastern dictators with technologically sophisticated and centralized bureaucracies. In the hands of such a state, modern technology could "threaten world order." As such, the draft concluded, the "United States may be faced with the question whether to take military steps to prevent the development or use of weapons of mass destruction." This, however, would not be an act of aggression but "a measured military action" that could "contain or preclude a crisis." One former CIA analyst described Libby's paramount foreign-policy aim as "never to permit another rival and another threat to America's dominance so we wouldn't have to engage in another Cold War."

The top-secret plan stirred up a torrent of opposition in the Pentagon. The top brass dismissed Wolfowitz and Libby as dangerous civilians, if not lunatics. A high-ranking officer in the military, seeking to expose the plan's "mad unilateral ambitions," leaked excerpts to The New York Times. Secretary of State James Baker warned President Bush against the "kooks" working for his secretary of defense. Cheney, who had not yet fully wrapped his mind around Wohlstetterian logic, reined in his men.

Libby left government work, made a fortune as Marc Rich's lawyer, and finally finished his novel. But his Defense Policy Guidance was not forgotten. By 2002, when The Apprentice came out in paperback (for which Cheney threw a lavish book party at his home), Wohlstetter's ideas had morphed into the Bush doctrine, which held that there was a basic irrationality -- a "hatred of our liberties" -- lurking in the breasts of Middle Eastern dictators. To deter them from using weapons of mass destruction against America or its allies, George W. Bush called for military preemption and a determination to spread "democracy" and "liberty."

The secret war plans cooked up in Cheney's office involved turning a distant and highly dubious possibility -- that Saddam Hussein would develop and hand over weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda -- into the kind of imminent national threat detailed in the Bush doctrine. And despite the chaos it unleashed, the war in Iraq was a resounding success in Wohlstetterian terms: The disintegration of the state guaranteed that the technological elite of the country wouldn't be building dangerous weapons anytime soon.

Indeed, the crumbling of the Iraqi state was the fulfillment of a prophecy fellow neocon David Wurmser -- Perle's protégé and ally at the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think tank that named its conference room after Wohlstetter -- had made in 1997: that if Saddam Hussein were driven from power, Iraq would be "ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families," and out of the "coming chaos in Iraq and most probably in Syria," the United States and her principal allies, namely Israel and Jordan, could redraw the region's map.

Then Patrick Fitzgerald showed up. From his first day on the job, he knew that Richard Armitage had been the source of the Valerie Plame leak. But his aggressive investigation left little doubt as to where he was heading: into the inner workings of the vice president's office. Fitzgerald was on the spoors of a war strategy that had twisted or fabricated information -- including fake evidence that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq -- to fit a worldview that would justify preemptive action.

So why would Libby, a master of discretion and opacity, "throw sand in the umpire's eyes," to use the expression Fitzgerald employed when he read out the perjury indictment in October 2005? Like the apprentice in his novel, Libby may have sacrificed himself to keep the "war plans" secret.

Of course, the author of The Apprentice may have also assumed that the end of the story would be very much as in his novel: The swashbuckling President Bush, in the form of a pardon, would decree to the patriotic Libby, "Arise. You are reborn."