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Fitzgerald: "There Is a Cloud Over the Vice President"

By Jason Leopold,

For the first time since the investigation into the leak of a covert CIA operative began more than three years ago, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has suggested that Vice President Dick Cheney was behind the effort to unmask the officer, the wife of a vocal critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

During closing arguments Tuesday in the obstruction of justice and perjury trial of former vice presidential staffer, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Fitzgerald told jurors that "there is a cloud over the vice president. ... a cloud over the White House over what happened," according to a copy of the transcript of Fitzgerald's statements.

"We didn't put that cloud there," Fitzgerald said. "That cloud's there because the defendant obstructed justice. That cloud is something you just can't pretend isn't there."

Moreover, Fitzgerald told jurors that Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, discussed aspects of the investigation with the vice president only when he was told by investigators not to talk about the probe, according to the transcript. Libby is "not supposed to be talking to other people," Fitzgerald said. But "the only person [Libby] told is the vice president. Think about that."

The suggestion by Fitzgerald that Cheney was complicit in the unmasking of Valerie Plame Wilson's undercover CIA status led to immediate speculation by pundits that the special prosecutor is widening his probe and may have Cheney in his crosshairs.

A year ago, truthout published a series of investigative reports that stated Fitzgerald was digging deeper into the role Cheney played in the leak itself. Those reports were largely ignored and in some cases dismissed by other media organizations.

Fitzgerald also excoriated President Bush for failing to uphold a promise to fire anyone in his administration that was found to have been involved in the Plame leak. Fitzgerald reminded the jury that in October 2003, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters of the president's intentions during a morning news briefing at the White House.

"Any sane person would think, based on what McClellan said in October 2003, that anyone involved in this would be fired," Fitzgerald said, referring to the leak, according to the transcript of the prosecutor's remarks.

The charges leveled against Libby stem from how and when he discovered the CIA-employed Plame and whether he shared the information with reporters. Libby told FBI investigators that NBC News reporter Tim Russert disclosed Plame's identity to him in July, 2003, but evidence presented at the trial shows Libby was told about Plame by Cheney nearly a month earlier and [Libby] divulged the information to several journalists on numerous occasions thereafter.

Libby's attorney, Theodore Wells, told jurors Tuesday that Libby innocently forgot about the conversation his client had with Cheney because he had been dealing with more pressing issues, such as the war in Iraq and national security. Wells added that Russert did not have any notes to back up his assertion that he did not tell Libby about Plame, and told jurors it boiled down to Libby's word against Russert's.

But Fitzgerald rejected Wells' argument saying Libby discussed Plame with reporters on a Monday and then claims to have forgotten the information and learned about her for the first time on a Thursday.

"This is not 'he said, she said,'" Fitzgerald said. "He [Libby] made up a story and he stuck to it. If Tim Russert were run over by a bus and had gone to the great news desk in the sky, you can still find plenty of evidence that the defendant lied."

Peter Zeidenberg, the deputy special prosecutor, told jurors earlier in the day Tuesday that Libby had "nine conversations about [Valerie Plame]. He remembers none of them. The one conversation he says he has, with Tim Russert, is a conversation we now know never happened."

Libby "lied to the FBI and the grand jury about how he learned about [former ambassador] Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie [Plame] Wilson, who he talked to about Mr. Wilson's wife and what he said when he discussed Mr. Wilson's wife with others," Zeidenberg added, according to the court transcript.

Wilson had traveled to Niger in February, 2002, to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium to build an atomic bomb. He reported back to the CIA that the allegations were baseless, but the claims were cited as fact in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address. Wilson spent months criticizing the White House's use of the Niger claims in background interviews with reporters before publishing an opinion column in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, saying he was the special envoy who was sent to Niger to check out the intelligence. He asserted that the administration knowingly misled the public and Congress into war.

Fitzgerald said Libby and Cheney were incensed at Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicly accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to win support for a US led invasion against Iraq. Fitzgerald said Cheney was "obsessed" with Wilson and had taken the former ambassador's attacks against the administration personally. "Cheney," Fitzgerald told jurors, "enlisted Libby to act as his surrogate and personally respond to reporters' queries about the veracity of Wilson's allegations by authorizing his chief of staff to leak classified information to journalists. The classified information that was leaked may have included Plame's covert status," Fitzgerald said, "in retaliation for her husband's stinging rebukes of the administration's Iraq policies."

Cheney had suspected that Plame set up her husband's trip to Niger, Fitzgerald said, and the prosecutor told jurors that in July 2003, "the number one question on the vice president's mind" had been to find out who was responsible for sending Wilson to Niger."

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.


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