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A Leak, Then a Deluge
A Leak, Then a Deluge
Did a Bush loyalist, trying to protect the case for war in Iraq, obstruct an investigation into who blew the cover of a covert CIA operative?
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005; A01
Air Force Two arrived in Norfolk on Saturday morning, July 12, 2003, with Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff aboard. They had come "to send forth a great American ship bearing a great American name," as Cheney said from the flag-draped flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
As Cheney returned to Washington with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the two men spoke of the news on Iraq -- the most ambitious use of the war machine Reagan built two decades before. A troublesome critic was undermining a principal rationale for the war: the depiction of Baghdad, most urgently by Cheney, as a nuclear threat to the United States.
Defending the war became the animating priority aboard Air Force Two that day. According to his indictment on Friday, Libby "discussed with other officials aboard the plane" how he should respond to "pending media inquiries" about the critic, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Apart from Libby, only press aide Catherine Martin is known to have accompanied Cheney on that flight.
The crimes alleged in Libby's indictment would come later. But the flight from Norfolk marked a transition in the four-month slide from politics as usual -- close combat in defense of the president's policies -- to what a special prosecutor described as perjury and obstruction of justice. Summer would give way to fall before Libby reached the point of no return, with his first alleged lies to the FBI. But he skirted the line soon after stepping off the aircraft.
That Saturday afternoon, the indictment states, is when Libby confirmed for Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and disclosed to Judith Miller of the New York Times the classified fact that Wilson's wife, who was known as Valerie Plame, "worked at the CIA." Just over two weeks earlier, after a previous conversation with Cheney, Libby had told Miller more tentatively that Plame "might work at a bureau of the CIA."
It may never be clear what drove Libby, the most cautious of Washington insiders, to take such risks, ostensibly to protect the administration. In a news conference Friday, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald described the question as unanswerable so far. "If you're asking me what his motives were, I can't tell you; we haven't charged it," Fitzgerald said. The obstruction of his inquiry, he said, "prevents us from making the fine judgments we want to make."
Libby's possible motive is only one of many unknowns left in the aftermath of Friday's indictment, which prompted the resignation of one of the most powerful figures in the White House and left the Bush administration reeling politically. Still to be determined is who first leaked Plame's name to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak -- the original act that led to Fitzgerald's investigation -- and the roles of many other administration officials, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
Even so, the grand jury's 22-page indictment fleshes out a saga that has been largely shrouded for almost two years by grand jury secrecy. While Friday's disclosures allege no wrongdoing by Cheney, they place the vice president closer than has been known before to events at the heart of the case.
One notable disclosure is that Libby and Cheney made separate inquiries to the CIA about Wilson's wife, and each confirmed independently that she worked there. It was Cheney, the indictment states, who supplied Libby the detail "that Wilson's wife worked . . . in the Counterproliferation Division" -- an unambiguous declaration that her position was among the case officers of the operations directorate. That conversation took place on June 12, 2003, a month before the Norfolk flight and nearly two weeks before Libby first told a reporter about Plame's CIA affiliation.
Wilson was a former ambassador who traveled to Niger in February 2002 after Cheney requested elaboration on a Defense Department report -- based on erroneous information originating from the Italian security service -- that Iraq had an agreement to buy processed uranium ore, or "yellowcake." Upon his return, Wilson reported to CIA and State Department analysts that he had found no support for the allegation and had reasons to believe it was untrue. When the Bush administration nonetheless launched a public relations campaign that highlighted the uranium report -- most prominently in the president's State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, 2003 -- Wilson began raising questions among friends in government. In March, when the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the documents as forged, a fact Wilson had not discovered, he began telling journalists in not-for-quotation interviews that the White House propounded a deliberate lie.
Wilson pressed himself fully into the spotlight in the late spring and early summer, a vulnerable moment for the president. The occupation of Iraq had turned unpredictably perilous, with casualties rising in an as-yet-unacknowledged insurgency and strong signs emerging that search teams were at a loss to discover evidence of "weapons of mass destruction."
The uranium claims had never been significant to career analysts -- Iraq had plenty already and lacked the means to enrich it. But the allegations proved irresistible to the White House Iraq Group, which devised the war's communications strategy and included Libby among its members. Every layman understood the connection between uranium and the bomb, participants in the group said in interviews at the time, and it was the easiest way for the Bush administration to raise alarms.
The threat Wilson posed was that his charges were equally simple and marketable. He charged that Cheney asked a question and then disregarded, as did the president and his staff, an answer he did not like.
Why some White House officials -- Rove among them -- used Wilson's wife in their counterattack has yet to be made entirely clear. Wilson himself described the outing as punishment, a threat to his family's safety meant to deter future whistle-blowers. Fragments of testimony unveiled Friday, and in published accounts by journalists who testified, suggest that the White House intended to challenge Wilson's competence by asserting that his wife selected him for the mission to Niger.
Novak, whose July 14 column was the first to expose Plame, wrote three months later that nepotism provided "the missing explanation of an otherwise incredible choice by the CIA."
Burglary, Forgery, Delivery
The chain of events that led to Friday's indictment can be traced as far back as 1991, when an unremarkable burglary took place at the embassy of Niger in Rome. All that turned up missing was a quantity of official letterhead with "Republique du Niger" at its top.
More than 10 years later, according to a retired high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, a businessman named Rocco Martino approached the CIA station chief in Rome. An occasional informant for U.S., British, French and Italian intelligence services, Martino brought documents on Niger government letterhead describing secret plans for the sale of uranium to Iraq.
The station chief "saw they were fakes and threw [Martino] out," the former CIA official said. But Italy shared a similar report with the Americans in October 2001, he said, and the CIA gave it circulation because it did not know the Italians relied on the same source.
On Feb. 12, 2002, Cheney received an expanded version of the unconfirmed Italian report. It said Iraq's then-ambassador to the Vatican had led a mission to Niger in 1999 and sealed a deal for the purchase of 500 tons of uranium in July 2000. Cheney asked for more information.
The same day, Plame wrote to her superior in the CIA's Counterproliferation Division that "my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." Wilson -- who had undertaken a similar mission three years before -- soon departed for Niamey, the Niger capital. He said he found no support for the uranium report and said so when he returned.
Martino continued to peddle his documents, with an asking price of more than 10,000 euros -- this time to Panorama, an Italian magazine owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Panorama editor Carlo Rossella said his staff concluded the letters were bogus but in the interim sent copies to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October 2002. "I believed the Americans were the best source for verifying authenticity," he said. When the documents reached the State Department, according to a commission that investigated prewar intelligence this year, analysts there said they had "serious doubts about the authenticity" of the "transparently forged" documents.
By summer 2002, the White House Iraq Group assigned Communications Director James R. Wilkinson to prepare a white paper for public release, describing the "grave and gathering danger" of Iraq's allegedly "reconstituted" nuclear weapons program. Wilkinson gave prominent place to the claim that Iraq "sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa." That claim, along with repeated use of the "mushroom cloud" image by top officials beginning in September, became the emotional heart of the case against Iraq.
President Bush invoked the mushroom cloud in an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati. References to African uranium remained in his speech until its fifth draft, but a last-minute intervention by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet excised them.
Tenet's success was short-lived. The uranium returned repeatedly to Bush administration rhetoric in December and January. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice cited the report in a Jan. 23 newspaper column, and three days later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell demanded, "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for a nuclear weapon?"
16 Words and Wilson Strikes Back
By the time Bush stated the case personally -- in the notorious "16 words" of his Jan. 28 State of the Union address -- the uranium had been thoroughly integrated into his government's case for impending war with Iraq.
The IAEA exposed the documents as forgeries on March 7, 2003. The Bush administration, while acknowledging uncertainty, did not admit its primary evidence had been faked.
Late April and early May saw a succession of Bush administration assertions that the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had just begun. By then, The Washington Post was reporting that teams looking for weapons in Iraq were departing in frustration, making way for a new Iraq Survey Group that became an 18-month forensic examination of where U.S. intelligence had gone wrong.
Wilson spoke anonymously about his trip to Niger to New York Times opinion writer Nicholas D. Kristof, whose May 6 column accused Cheney of permitting truth to go "missing in action." The failure of the weapons hunt, and alleged deception of the public, had been laid at Cheney's feet.
In the vice president's office, Libby had long since come to believe that the CIA was undermining Cheney and the president's conduct of the war. One undercurrent of the events to come was a venerable form of Washington institutional combat, between the White House and the executive agencies ostensibly under its command.
Miller of the New York Times wrote later that Libby believed the CIA was hedging against accusations of failure by blaming Cheney and Bush for its mistakes. Another top official, a longtime ally of Libby's, told a reporter at the time that the CIA was working actively to conceal evidence favorable to the White House.
Libby had known enemies inside government -- but an unknown enemy outside. It did not take him long to discover that the latter was Wilson.
'There Would Be Complications'
In late May and early June 2003, according to Fitzgerald's indictment, Libby asked for and received information about Wilson's trip from a senior State Department official, who is not named in the indictment but is identified by colleagues as then-Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman.
On June 9, the CIA faxed classified accounts of Wilson's assignment "to the personal attention of Libby and another person in the Office of the Vice President." Two or three days later, Grossman told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had been involved in planning Wilson's trip. An unidentified "senior officer of the CIA" confirmed Plame's employment for Libby on June 11, and Cheney told Libby the next day which part of the agency employed her.
For Libby, according to a senior official who worked with him at the time, "I think this just hit a nerve." By June, he said, "the blind, deaf and dumb had to be aware that something was wrong in Iraq." Uranium was "always a side issue," but it was also "the beginning of the unraveling of the big story . . . calling attention to a huge mistake he was part of. So it's no wonder he took this personally."
A senior intelligence officer who knew of Libby's inquiries about Wilson and Plame said in an interview yesterday, "It didn't occur to anyone that the reason why was so that her name would go out to reporters." That, the official said, is "the lesson you learn from this."
On June 12, The Post published a story challenging the uranium claims. Wilson has since said he was among the sources for that story.
A man identified by colleagues as John Hannah, described in the indictment as Libby's "then principal deputy," asked Libby soon afterward whether "information about Wilson's trip could be shared with the press." Libby replied, the indictment states, "that there would be complications at the CIA in disclosing that information publicly."
On June 23, Libby allegedly crossed his first big line. At a meeting in his office with Miller of the Times, he said Wilson's wife might be a CIA employee.
Attack and Counterattack
Wilson emerged from anonymity with a splash on July 6, telling his story in a New York Times opinion column, a lengthy on-the-record interview with The Post and an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The next day, Libby lunched with Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, according to the indictment. He told Fleischer that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and noted that the information was not widely known. The same day, the State Department sent Powell a classified memorandum written a month earlier identifying Wilson's wife as a CIA employee and saying it was believed she recommended Wilson for the Niger mission. Powell was traveling with Bush to Africa, and sources said the memorandum was widely circulated among officials with appropriate clearances aboard Air Force One.
On July 8, Libby met Miller, the reporter, for breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel at 16th and K streets. Asking that she attribute the information to a "former Hill staffer" -- he had once been legal adviser to a House select committee -- Libby criticized CIA reporting of Wilson's trip and "advised reporter Judith Miller of his belief that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA," the indictment states.
On July 12, the day Cheney and Libby flew together from Norfolk, Libby talked to Miller and Cooper. That same day, another administration official who has not been identified publicly returned a call from Walter Pincus of The Post. He "veered off the precise matter we were discussing" and said Wilson's trip was a boondoggle set up by Wilson's wife, Pincus has written in Nieman Reports.
Earlier that week Rove and another unknown source gave the information to Novak as well.
On July 14, for the first time, the name passed into the public domain in sixth paragraph of Novak's syndicated column: "his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative." For all its seismic importance now, that column provoked little immediate response.
Time magazine reported on its Web site shortly afterward -- based on sources that Cooper, the author, has since identified as Rove and Libby -- that "some government officials have noted to Time in interviews . . . that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
David Corn of the Nation was among the first to protest. Naming Wilson's wife, he wrote July 16, "would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated her entire career."
By the following week the story reached NBC's "Today Show," and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded an investigation. The administration replied without apology at first. According to Wilson, MSNBC's Chris Matthews told him off camera: "I just got off the phone with Karl Rove, who said your wife was 'fair game.' "
Out of view of the public, the CIA took the first steps towards a formal investigation. On July 30, it reported to the Justice Department a possible offense "concerning the unauthorized disclosure of classified information." In August the agency completed an 11-question form detailing the potential damage done. In September, Tenet followed up with a memo raising questions about whether the leakers had violated federal law.
On Sept. 26, 2003, the FBI launched an inquiry into who leaked Plame's name and occupation.
'If Only It Were True'
Justice Department lawyers notified then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales at about 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29, that the investigation had begun. Gonzales, now attorney general, has said he alerted Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. at once. But he did not tell anyone else -- or instruct White House employees to preserve all evidence -- until the following morning. According to Gonzales, lawyers at Justice said it would be fine to wait.
John Dion, a veteran counter-espionage prosecutor, ran the initial investigation with a team of FBI agents at his disposal. They soon brought in Rove and other top aides for questioning.
But early signals from the White House suggested the probe might come to nothing. Bush expressed doubts on Oct. 7. "I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official," he said. "Now, this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials."
Three days later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters he had talked to three officials -- Libby, Rove and Elliot Abrams -- and "those individuals assured me they were not involved in this."
The following Tuesday, Oct. 14, Libby reached a decision point. The FBI asked whether he had disclosed Plame's job or identity to any reporter, and he said he had not even known those details until July 10 or 11. His source, he asserted, was NBC's Tim Russert. According to the indictment, he said he passed along Russert's information as gossip to Cooper of Time. He told the FBI that he did not discuss Plame with Miller at all when they met on July 8.
Current and former officials said they did not know why Libby made those statements. Perhaps, they said, Libby believed the reporters would never be forced to testify, or that the statements from Bush and McClellan encouraged him to believe the inquiry would reach no result. Whatever his reasons, Libby had committed himself. He would give much the same account to agents again in November, and repeated them twice in sworn testimony before a grand jury.
"It would be a compelling story that will lead the FBI to go away, if only it were true," Fitzgerald said in his Friday news conference. "It is not true, according to the indictment."
Libby's attorney, Joseph Tate, has said Libby testified to the best of his recollection. "We are quite distressed the special counsel has now sought to pursue alleged inconsistencies in Mr. Libby's recollection and those of others and to charge such inconsistencies as false statements," Tate said in a statement Friday.
'Eliot Ness With a Harvard Law Degree'
On the next to last day of 2003, John D. Ashcroft, then attorney general, abruptly recused himself from the case. He had ignored months of complaints from Democrats that his political ties to potential suspects should disqualify him from supervising the investigation. Rove, in particular, was a longtime friend and paid adviser to Ashcroft's campaigns for Missouri governor and the U.S. Senate.
Through the fall and winter, officials said, Ashcroft received periodic briefings on the case. In the last week of December, about a month after Libby's second interview with the FBI, then-Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey had multiple discussions with Ashcroft about whether it was time for a change, Comey has said.
Comey told reporters on Dec. 30 that an "accumulation of facts" in the investigation had brought about Ashcroft's recusal. Details of their conversations have not been made public, and it is not known who initiated them.
"The issue surrounding the attorney general's recusal is not one of actual conflict of interest," Comey said, but "one of appearance."
Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokesman for Ashcroft's Washington consulting firm, said yesterday that the former attorney general would not discuss the decision.
Republican officials expressed the hope at that time that Ashcroft's recusal would provide political cover for the White House if no indictment resulted. One said the move would "depoliticize" the case on the eve of presidential campaign season.
Ashcroft's departure brought to the probe a man Comey described as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree." Fitzgerald, an old colleague of Comey who had recently become U.S. attorney in Chicago, asked for and received the full delegated powers of the attorney general. A month later, Comey clarified in writing that Fitzgerald could pursue any violation of criminal law associated with the case -- including perjury and obstruction of justice, the heart of the indictment handed up Friday against the vice president's chief of staff.
Indictment and Resignation
After a year-long struggle with journalists, who resisted demands to disclose their sources, Fitzgerald persuaded Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan -- and the appellate judges above him -- that reporters were the only available "eyewitness[es] to the crime." Pincus, Cooper and Russert gave testimony under negotiated limits after receiving the consent of their sources. Miller went to jail for 85 days, then testified after Libby gave her his direct consent, by letter and telephone. Novak has never disclosed whether he spoke to Fitzgerald's grand jury.
The denouement came Friday. Just after noon, six men and 13 women filed silently into Courtroom Four in the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse. They had served on Fitzgerald's grand jury for two years. Now they sat silently before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson. Calling the courtroom to order, Robinson asked whether the grand jury had something to present. The forewoman, wearing a black cardigan, rose and walked a few steps with a sheaf of papers. She handed them up to the magistrate's clerk. Robinson declared them in order and adjourned.
Charged with five felony counts, Libby resigned from the vice president's office that day.
Fitzgerald, in his news conference, said he could not speculate on whether anyone else would be charged. He said "the substantial bulk of the work of this investigation has concluded," but not all of it.
"I will not end the investigation," he said, "until I can look anyone in the eye and tell them that we have carried out our responsibility."
Staff writers Dan Eggen, Dafna Linzer, Dana Milbank and Christopher Lee, and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.