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Libby Testimony Raises More Questions about Cheney's Role In The CIA Leak Case
By Murray Waas, National Journal
In the fall of 2003, as a federal criminal probe was just getting underway to determine who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to the media, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the then-chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, sought out Cheney to explain to his boss his side of the story.
The explanation that Libby offered Cheney that day was virtually identical to one that Libby later told the FBI and testified to before a federal grand jury: Libby said he had only passed along to reporters unsubstantiated gossip about Plame that he had heard from NBC bureau chief Tim Russert.
The grand jury concluded that the account was a cover story to conceal the role of Libby and other White House officials in leaking information about Plame to the press, and indicted him on five felony counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice.
At the time that Libby offered his explanation to Cheney, the vice president already had reason to know that Libby's account to him was untrue, according to sources familiar with still-secret grand jury testimony and evidence in the CIA leak probe, as well as testimony made public during Libby's trial over the past three weeks in federal court.
Yet, according to Libby's own grand jury testimony, which was made public during his trial in federal court, Cheney did nothing to discourage Libby from telling that story to the FBI and the federal grand jury. Moreover, Cheney encouraged then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan to publicly defend Libby, according to other testimony and evidence made public during Libby's trial.
If Libby is found guilty, investigators are likely to probe further to determine if Libby devised what they consider a cover story in an effort to shield Cheney. They want to know whether Cheney might have known about the leaks ahead of time or had even encouraged Libby to provide information to reporters about Plame's CIA status, the same sources said.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and defense attorneys for Libby are expected to begin their closing arguments in the case as early as Tuesday morning. Defense attorneys for Libby had said for months that they were going to call Cheney as a defense witness, but informed Federal District Court Judge Reggie Walton, who has presided over the Libby trial, at the last minute that they were not going to call him after all.
Had Cheney testified, he would have been questioned about whether he encouraged, or had knowledge of, the leaking of Plame's CIA status. Sources close to the case say that Cheney would have also been sharply questioned as to why, when presented by Libby with what prosecutors regarded as a cover story to explain away Libby's role in the leak, Cheney did nothing to discourage him.
Dan Richman, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York and a professor at Fordham Law School, said the significance of Cheney's reaction to Libby's version of events depends on exactly what Libby told him and what Cheney knew at the time. "Only Cheney and Libby know the import of their conversation, and as is often the case, each could have even come away with a different impression of what was meant" by what the other said.
"If Cheney was merely showing surprise and interest at what Libby indicating to him he was going to tell investigators, then the vice president is innocent in the exchange," Richman said. "But if he had reason to believe, or personal knowledge, that what Libby was planning to say was untrue then there is good reason to view Cheney's conduct in an entirely different light -- an obstruction interpretation."
Because nobody else was present during the discussion between the two men, and thus only the two of them know what was said, it is difficult to interpret the intent of either man, most particularly Cheney, Richman said. "One of the challenges for prosecutors, jurors, and historians is trying to recapture the signals incorporated in gestures and words between two close associates," Richman said.
Attorneys for Libby say he is innocent of all of he charges and that anything he told the FBI and the federal grand jury was either true or represented his best recollection. A spokesperson for Cheney declined comment because the issues raised in this article are currently "a matter before the courts."
Libby testified to a federal grand jury that he sought out Cheney as the federal leak probe was getting underway to protest his innocence and to complain that the White House was not aggressively defending him against allegations that he had leaked Plame's identity.
Libby testified to a federal grand jury that he told Cheney shortly after the CIA leak probe became public that even if he, Libby, had told reporters that Plame worked for the CIA, he was only repeating unsubstantiated gossip that he had heard from NBC's Russert on July 10, 2003. But notes of Libby's entered into evidence during his trial indicate that Libby learned that Plame was a CIA officer from Cheney during a June 12, 2003 telephone conversation, almost a month before Libby spoke with Russert. In addition, a senior aide to Cheney testified during Libby's trial that, after learning herself from a senior CIA official that Plame worked for the CIA, she shared that information with both Cheney and Libby during a meeting she had with both men. And Cheney himself told the special prosecutor that he regularly shared any information he learned about Plame with Libby as well, according to people familiar with Cheney's interview with the special prosecutor.
Notwithstanding this, Libby later told very much the very same story he told Cheney during two FBI interviews in the fall of 2003 and later during two appearances before the federal grand jury hearing evidence in the CIA leak case on March 5, 2004 and March, 24, 2004.
Libby's assertion that the information came from Russert and was only gossip was central to his claims that he did nothing wrong because if he instead had learned the information from government officials he might be in trouble for leaking classified information.
At Libby's trial, several government witnesses -- among them an under secretary of State, a senior CIA official, Libby's CIA briefing officer, and a senior aide to Cheney -- said they informed Libby that Plame was a CIA officer.
Testifying as a prosecution witness, Russert said that although he and Libby did indeed speak on July 10, 2003, they never discussed Plame during their conversation.
Libby is also alleged by prosecutors to have lied to the FBI and a federal grand jury in claiming that when he mentioned Plame's name to two reporters -- Matthew Cooper, then of Time magazine, and Judith Miller, then of The New York Times -- he was careful to point out to them he was simply repeating rumors that he had heard from Russert. Cooper and Miller testified that Libby stated no such qualifications to them in telling them about Plame.
Libby also testified to the federal grand jury that when Russert purportedly told him about Plame, he had absolutely no memory of having heard the information earlier from anyone else, including Cheney, and was thus "taken aback" when Russert told him. In his opening argument, Fitzgerald, referring to Libby's conversation with Russert on July 10, said: "You can't be startled about something on Thursday [July 10] that you told other people about on Monday [July 7] and Tuesday [July 8]."
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified as a prosecution witness that on July 7, 2003, Libby told Fleischer, "Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife. His wife works for the CIA." Fleischer testified that Libby referred to Wilson's wife by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. "He added it was hush-hush, on the Q.T., and that most people didn't know it," Fleischer said Libby told him.
Libby and other White House officials leaked information about Plame's identity to the media in an effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Bush administration's war policy.
Wilson had traveled to Niger in February 2002 on a CIA-sponsored mission to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime had attempted to procure weapons-grade uranium from the African nation. Wilson reported to the CIA that from what he could learn the allegations were almost certainly untrue.
In a July 6, 2003, op-ed in The New York Times, Wilson charged that the Bush administration had "twisted" intelligence information when it cited the alleged Niger-Iraq connection in the president's State of Union address earlier that year.
Cheney cut Wilson's op-ed out of the newspaper and scribbled 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?"
On the very next day, on July 7, 2003, Libby told Fleischer about Plame, and the day after that, on July 8, he leaked information to the Times' Miller about Plame, according to Miller's testimony.
On July 12, 2003, as Cheney and Libby flew back to Washington D.C. aboard Air Force Two from Norfolk, Va. after attending a ceremony commissioning the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, they strategized once again as how best to discredit Wilson. During an interview with the FBI and later during an appearance before a federal grand jury, Libby said it was possible that he and Cheney may have discussed leaking information about Plame to reporters. But Libby had claimed that neither he nor Cheney would have been doing anything wrong because the only thing either of them knew about Plame was what Libby had purportedly heard from Russert.
After arriving back in Washington, according to Cooper's and Miller's testimony at Libby's trial, Libby spoke to both of them by telephone and confirmed to them that Plame worked for the CIA and may have played a role in sending her husband to Niger.
Two days later, on July 14, 2003, a column by Robert Novak was published outing Plame as a CIA "operative." Novak testified at Libby's trial that he learned about Plame from then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and White House aide Karl Rove.
Libby Talks to Cheney
In the fall of 2003, when it was disclosed that the Justice Department had begun a criminal probe as to who leaked Plame's identity to reporters, Libby sought out Cheney to complain that while then-White House spokesperson McClellan was making public statements that Rove had not been a source of the leak, McClellan refused to do the same on Libby's behalf.
Asked by Fitzgerald whether during that conversation Libby might have in fact told Cheney that he had spoken to reporters about Plame, Libby answered: "I think I did. Let me bring you back to that period. I think I did in that there was a conversation I had with the vice president when all this started coming out and it was this issue as to, you now, who spoke to Novak.
"I told the vice- you know, there was- the president said anybody who knows anything should come forward or something like that... I went to the vice president and said, you know, I was not the person who talked to Novak.
"And he [said] something like, 'I know that.' And I said, you know, 'I learned this from Tim Russert.' And he sort of tilted his head to the side a little bit and then I may have in that conversation said, I talked to other -- I talked to people about it on the weekend," Libby said in apparent reference to his conversations with Cooper and Miller.
Fitzgerald then pressed Libby: "What did you understand from his gesture or reaction in tilting his head?"
Libby responded: "That the Tim Russert part caught his attention. You know, that he- he reacted as if he didn't know about the Tim Russert thing or he was rehearing it, or reconsidering it or something like that... New, new sort of information. Not something he had been thinking about."
Fitzgerald asked: "And did he at any time tell you, 'Well, you didn't learn it from Tim Russert, you learned it from me? Back in June you and I talked about the wife working at the CIA?'"
"No," Libby responded.
"Did he indicate any concern that you had done anything wrong by telling reporters what you had learned?" Fitzgerald asked.
"No," Libby responded.
Later, Fitzgerald asked Libby: "Did you tell the vice president that you had actually spoken to Time magazine and Mr. Cooper and had discussed Wilson's wife's work with Mr. Cooper?
Libby answered: "I think this conversation was about whether -- the leak to Novak. I don't know that I discussed that with the vice president. I did tell him, of course, that we had spoken to the people who he had told us to speak to on the weekend. I think at some point I told him that."
Libby had been frustrated that in recent days that McClellan had made statements saying that Rove had nothing to do with the leak of Plame's identity, but refused to do so for Libby as well. Libby then pressed his case to then-White House chief of staff Andy Card, but to no avail himself until Cheney intervened.
An agitated Cheney wrote in a note to himself: "Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy who was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others." Cheney also scribbled: "Must happen today."
Some time later -- Libby wasn't able to provide the grand jury with the exact date -- he went back to Cheney to tell him that he discovered a note indicating that he had first learned from Cheney, not Russert, that Plame was a CIA officer.
Libby told the grand jury: "In the course of the document production, the FBI sent us a request for documents, or Justice Department, I'm not sure technically. In the course of that document production I came across the note that is dated on or about June 12, and the note... shows that I hadn't first learned it from Russert, although that was my memory, I had first learned it when he said it to me.
"And so I went back to see him and said, you know, I told you something wrong before. It turns out that I have a note that I had heard, heard about this earlier from you and I just -- you know, I didn't want to leave you with the wrong... the wrong statement that I heard about it from Tim Russert. In fact, I had heard about it earlier, but I had forgotten it."
Asked by Fitzgerald what Cheney's reaction was, Libby responded by saying that Cheney hardly had anything at all:
"He didn't say much. You know, he said something about, 'From me?' something like that, and tilted his head, something he does commonly, and that was that."
Copyright 2007 by National Journal Group Inc.