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Cheney's Handwritten Notes Implicate Bush in Plame Affair
By Jason Leopold and Marc Ash, www.truthout.org
Copies of handwritten notes by Vice President Dick Cheney, introduced at trial by defense attorneys for former White House staffer I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, would appear to implicate George W. Bush in the Plame CIA Leak case.
Bush has long maintained that he was unaware of attacks by any member of his administration against [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson. The ex-envoy's stinging rebukes of the administration's use of pre-war Iraq intelligence led Libby and other White House officials to leak Wilson's wife's covert CIA status to reporters in July 2003 in an act of retaliation.
But Cheney's notes, which were introduced into evidence Tuesday during Libby's perjury and obstruction-of-justice trial, call into question the truthfulness of President Bush's vehement denials about his prior knowledge of the attacks against Wilson. The revelation that Bush may have known all along that there was an effort by members of his office to discredit the former ambassador begs the question: Was the president also aware that senior members of his administration compromised Valerie Plame's undercover role with the CIA?
Further, the highly explicit nature of Cheney's comments not only hints at a rift between Cheney and Bush over what Cheney felt was the scapegoating of Libby, but also raises serious questions about potentially criminal actions by Bush. If Bush did indeed play an active role in encouraging Libby to take the fall to protect Karl Rove, as Libby's lawyers articulated in their opening statements, then that could be viewed as criminal involvement by Bush.
Last week, Libby's attorney Theodore Wells made a stunning pronouncement during opening statements of Libby's trial. He claimed that the White House had made Libby a scapegoat for the leak to protect Karl Rove - Bush's political adviser and "right-hand man."
"Mr. Libby, you will learn, went to the vice president of the United States and met with the vice president in private. Mr. Libby said to the vice president, 'I think the White House ... is trying to set me up. People in the White House want me to be a scapegoat,'" said Wells.
Cheney's notes seem to help bolster Wells's defense strategy. Libby's defense team first discussed the notes - written by Cheney in September 2003 for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan - during opening statements last week. Wells said Cheney had written "not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others": a reference to Libby being asked to deal with the media and vociferously rebut Wilson's allegations that the Bush administration knowingly "twisted" intelligence to win support for the war in Iraq.
However, when Cheney wrote the notes, he had originally written "this Pres." instead of "that was."
During cross-examination Tuesday morning, David Addington was asked specific questions about Cheney's notes and the reference to President Bush. Addington, former counsel to the vice president, was named Cheney's chief of staff - a position Libby had held before resigning.
"Can you make out what's crossed out, Mr. Addington?" Wells asked, according to a copy of the transcript of Tuesday's court proceedings.
"It says 'the guy' and then it says, 'this Pres.' and then that is scratched through," Addington said.
"OK," Wells said. "Let's start again. 'Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy ...' and then what's scratched through?" Wells asked Addington again, attempting to establish that Cheney had originally written that President Bush personally asked Libby to beat back Wilson's criticisms.
"T-h-i-s space P-r-e-s," Addington said, spelling out the words. "And then it's got a scratch-through."
"So it looks like 'this Pres.?'" Wells asked again.
"Yes sir," Addington said.
Thus, Cheney's notes would have read "not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy this Pres. asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others." The words "this Pres." were crossed out and replaced with "that was," but are still clearly legible in the document.
The reference to "the meat grinder" was understood to be the Washington press corps, Wells said. The "protect one staffer" reference, Wells said, was White House Political Adviser Karl Rove, whose own role in the leak and the attacks on Wilson are well documented.
Furthermore, Cheney, in his directive to McClellan that day in September 2003, wrote that the White House spokesman needed to immediately "call out to key press saying the same thing about Scooter as Karl."
McClellan had publicly stated in September 2003 that Rove was not culpable in the leak of Valerie Plame's covert CIA identity, nor was he involved in a campaign to discredit her husband, but McClellan did not say anything to the media that exonerated Libby, which led Cheney to write the note. A couple of weeks later, in October 2003, McClellan told members of the media that it was "ridiculous" for them to suggest Libby and Rove were involved in the leak, because he received personal assurances from both men that they had nothing to do with it.
Moreover, Wells insinuated Tuesday that Cheney's note [seemingly] implicating President Bush in the discrediting of Wilson was one of the 250 pages of emails and documents the White House failed to turn over to investigators who had been probing the leak for more than two years.
Wells insinuated that Cheney's note, because it contained a reference to "this Pres." may have been an explosive piece of evidence that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who at the time of the leak was White House counsel, withheld from investigators, citing executive privilege. Addington told Wells that when subpoenas were first issued by the Justice Department in the fall of 2003, demanding documents and emails relating to Wilson and Plame be preserved, he was given Cheney's notes and immediately recognized the importance of what the vice president had written. Addington said he immediately entered into a "discussion" with Gonzales and Terry O'Donnell, Cheney's counsel, about the note, but Addington did not say whether it was turned over to investigators in the early days of the probe.
Wells's line of questioning is an attempt to shift the blame for the leak squarely onto the shoulders of the White House - a tactic aimed at confusing the jury - and will likely unravel because it has nothing to do with the perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges at the heart of the case against Libby. Still, Tuesday's testimony implicating President Bush may be the most important fact that has emerged from the trial thus far.
Addington revealed during his testimony Monday that in June 2003 there were internal discussions - involving President Bush and Vice President Cheney - about declassifying for specific reporters a portion of the highly classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate as a way to counter Wilson's criticisms against the administration. That portion purportedly showed that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium from Niger to use for building an atomic bomb - a claim that Wilson had debunked when he personally traveled to Niger to investigate it a year earlier.
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 told jurors Monday, in response to a question by defense attorney William Jeffress. "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.'"
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.
Truthout will publish a follow-up to this story, with opinions from legal experts on possible implications of these latest developments for the White House.
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Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.