Tuesday, July 04, 2006
President Bush told the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case that he directed Vice President Dick Cheney to personally lead an effort to counter allegations made by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV that his administration had misrepresented intelligence information to make the case to go to war with Iraq, according to people familiar with the president's statement.
Bush also told federal prosecutors during his June 24, 2004, interview in the Oval Office that he had directed Cheney, as part of that broader effort, to disclose highly classified intelligence information that would not only defend his administration but also discredit Wilson, the sources said.
But Bush told investigators that he was unaware that Cheney had directed I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, to covertly leak the classified information to the media instead of releasing it to the public after undergoing the formal governmental declassification processes.
Bush also said during his interview with prosecutors that he had never directed anyone to disclose the identity of then-covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife. Bush said he had no information that Cheney had disclosed Plame's identity or directed anyone else to do so.
Libby has said that neither the president nor the vice president directed him or other administration officials to disclose Plame's CIA employment to the press. Cheney has also denied having any role in the disclosure.
On October 28, 2005, a federal grand jury indicted Libby on five felony counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice, for allegedly concealing his own role, and perhaps that of others, in outing Plame as a covert CIA officer.
One senior government official familiar with the discussions between Bush and Cheney -- but who does not have firsthand knowledge of Bush's interview with prosecutors -- said that Bush told the vice president to "Get it out," or "Let's get this out," regarding information that administration officials believed would rebut Wilson's allegations and would discredit him.
A person with direct knowledge of Bush's interview refused to confirm that Bush used those words, but said that the first official's account was generally consistent with what Bush had told Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
Libby, in language strikingly similar to Bush's words, testified to the federal grand jury in the leak case that Cheney had told him to "get all the facts out" that would defend the administration and discredit Wilson. Portions of Libby's grand jury testimony were an exhibit in a recent court filing by Fitzgerald.
Dana Perino, a spokesperson for the White House, declined to comment. James E. Sharpe, an attorney for President Bush, did not return a phone message left at his home on Saturday. The special prosecutor's office also declined to comment.
The disclosure of classified information as part of an effort to discredit Wilson, and the unmasking of Plame as a CIA "operative" by columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, occurred after Wilson began asserting that the Bush administration had relied on faulty intelligence to bolster its case to go to war with Iraq.
Wilson had led a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger in March 2002 to investigate claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy enriched uranium from the African nation to build a nuclear weapon. Wilson reported back to the CIA that the allegations were almost certainly not true. Still, President Bush cited the Niger allegations during his 2003 State of the Union address as evidence that Saddam had an aggressive program to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Wilson has said he sought out White House officials, believing they did not know all the facts, and was rebuffed, he began speaking to reporters about his Niger mission, although he initially asked journalists not to reveal his identity.
On June 12, 2003, the same day that news accounts appeared citing Wilson's allegations against the administration-albeit without him being named-Libby first learned from Cheney that Plame worked at the CIA and might have played a role in sending her husband to Niger. Libby's indictment stated: "On or about June 12, 2003, Libby was advised by the Vice President of the United States that Wilson's wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division. Libby understood that the Vice President learned this information from the CIA."
On July 6, 2003, Wilson himself went public in an op-ed piece in The New York Times and on NBC's "Meet the Press" with his claims that the Bush administration had misrepresented the Niger information to make the case for war.
Among those who took notice was Cheney.
Cheney cut Wilson's op-ed out of the newspaper and wrote in the margins: "Have they done this sort of thing before? Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question. Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?"
In grand jury testimony, Libby testified that Cheney would "often... cut out from a newspaper an article using a little penknife he had" and "look at, think about it." Whether Libby saw Cheney's annotation of Wilson's column is not clear. Libby testified: "It's possible if it was sitting on his desk that, you know, my eye went across it."
That aside, court papers filed by Fitzgerald's office have asserted: "At some point after the publication of the July 6 Op Ed by Mr. Wilson, Vice President Cheney, [Libby's] immediate supervisor, expressed concerns to [Libby] regarding whether Mr. Wilson's trip was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife."
Two days after Wilson's column appeared, on July 8, 2003, Libby met with then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Libby questioned Wilson's mission to Niger by telling Miller that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, according to Miller's federal grand jury testimony, and the indictment of Libby. Libby has claimed that he and Miller never discussed Plame that day -- a claim that prosecutors assert is a lie.
Four days later, on July 12, 2003, Libby told Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper that Plame worked for the CIA and that she might have had a role in her husband's selection for the Niger mission. Libby also spoke to Miller again that day and discussed Plame's work at the CIA, according to Miller's grand jury testimony and the Libby indictment.
Central to the criminal charges against Libby is Libby's grand jury testimony and his statements to the FBI that when he talked to Cooper and Miller about Plame, he was only repeating rumors that he had heard from other journalists. Libby has testified that one or two days before talking to Miller and Cooper about Plame, NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert told Libby that Plame worked for the CIA, and that other reporters had heard the same information.
According to Libby's indictment, Libby told the FBI that after Russert told him about Plame, Libby responded "that he did not know that, and Russert replied that all the reporters knew it. Libby was surprised by this statement because, while speaking with Russert, Libby did not recall that he previously had learned about Wilson's wife's employment from the Vice President."
Contradicting Libby, Russert testified to the grand jury that he never spoke about Plame to Libby. Prosecutors alleged that Libby lied about Russert, and the Libby indictment states that he learned about Plame from Cheney and also from State Department and CIA officials with either direct or indirect access to classified information.
A central focus of Fitzgerald's investigation has been why Libby would devise a cover story on how he learned of Plame's CIA work when prosecutors had obtained Libby's own notes showing that Libby had first gotten the information from Cheney. Libby told the FBI and testified to the grand jury that he had forgotten what Cheney had told him by the time that he made the Plame disclosure to reporters.
"I no longer remembered it," Libby testified to the grand jury regarding his June 12 conversation with Cheney. It was only after speaking to Russert, Libby testified, that he "learned" the information about Plame's CIA employment "anew."
Federal investigators have concluded that Libby's account is implausible. They have also questioned Libby's testimony that he does not believe he discussed the matter again with Cheney until at least July 14, 2003, the date of Novak's column that called Plame an "agency operative."
Federal investigators have a substantial amount of evidence that Cheney and Libby spoke about the matter in detail shortly after Wilson's column appeared on July 6. Cheney's handwritten notes in the margin of the Wilson column are one reason that prosecutors have believed that the two men spoke earlier than Libby has said they did.
Why -- if the criminal charges against Libby are correct -- would Libby lie to the FBI and the grand jury that he was only circulating rumors he had heard from reporters?
One obvious reason, prosecutors have believed, is that Libby did not want to admit that he was disseminating material gleaned from classified information. Even if Libby believed that he was unlikely to be charged with disclosing classified information, the investigators think that Libby could have feared the loss of his security clearance or his job. Or, perhaps most important of all, he worried about embarrassing Cheney and Bush.
Sources say investigators believe it is possible that Libby was trying to obscure Cheney's role in the Plame leak -- either by the vice president directing Libby to leak her CIA status, or through a general instruction from Cheney encouraging Libby to get the word out about Plame's role in sending Wilson to Niger. They say it is also possible that Libby lied to conceal the fact that he leaked Plame's identity to the press without Cheney's approval.
Another important reason that Cheney and Libby may have spoken about Plame shortly after July 6, rather than July 12, is that Libby testified that he and Cheney talked on a regular basis after July 6 about how to counteract Wilson's allegations. During grand jury testimony, a prosecutor asked Libby whether this was "a topic that was discussed on a daily basis?" Libby replied: "Yes, sir." When the prosecutor followed up by saying, "And it was discussed on multiple occasions each day, in fact?" Libby again responded: "Yes, sir."
Asked why the matter was so important to Cheney, Libby replied: "He wanted to get all the facts out about what he had or hadn't done-what the facts were or were not. He was very keen on that and said it repeatedly: Let's get everything out."
Libby further testified that Cheney was not referring to going public with information about Plame, but rather making available other classified information that both men believed would rebut Wilson's charges and discredit him.
Cheney encouraged Libby to disclose portions of a then-still highly classified National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam's weapons-of-mass-destruction program, according to court records filed by Fitzgerald. One section of the report mentioned the Niger allegations as credible, and Cheney, Libby, and other senior administration officials wanted to demonstrate that the CIA's incorrect assessments were a reason why the administration was making its own claims about the Niger matter.
As National Journal first reported in April, Cheney directed Libby to leak portions of a highly classified March 2002 intelligence report on the CIA's Directorate of Operations debriefing of Wilson after he returned from Niger. Although the debriefing did not mention Plame, Cheney and Libby believed that portions of it would contradict Wilson's accounts.
During the same time that Cheney and Libby's effort to leak classified information to discredit Wilson was under way, other White House officials were working through a formal interagency declassification process to make public portions of one or both of the same documents. It is unclear why Cheney and Libby were apparently acting without the knowledge of other senior government officials who were working with Cheney and Libby to formally declassify much of the very same information.
Leading the effort to formally declassify some of the same information, according to legal and government sources, were presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and then-CIA Director George Tenet.
A senior government official who has spoken to the president about the matter said that although Bush encouraged Cheney to get information out to rebut Wilson's charges, Bush was unaware that Cheney had directed Libby to leak classified information. The White House has pointed out that the president and vice president have broad executive powers to declassify whatever information they believe to be in the public interest. Meanwhile, court papers filed by Fitzgerald in April suggest that Libby was reluctant to leak any classified information to the press, and only did so after being assured that his actions were approved by both the president and vice president.
Regarding a meeting with Judith Miller that was scheduled for July 8, 2003, in which Cheney wanted Libby to leak her portions of the National Intelligence Estimate, Fitzgerald asserted in the court papers that Libby "testified that he was specifically authorized in advance of the meeting to disclose... [portions] of the classified NIE to Miller on that occasion."
"[Libby] further testified that he at first advised the Vice President that he could not have this conversation with reporter Miller because of the classified nature of the NIE. [Libby] testified that the Vice President later advised him that the President had authorized [Libby] to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE."
And Libby "testified that he spoke to David Addington, then Counsel to the Vice President, whom [Libby] considered to be an expert in national security law, and Mr. Addington opined that presidential Authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to a declassification of a document."
A senior government official familiar with the matter said that in directing Libby to leak the classified information to Miller and other reporters, Cheney said words to the effect of, "The president wants this out," or "The president wants this done."
-- Previous coverage of pre-war intelligence and the CIA leak investigation from Murray Waas.