White House Effort To Discredit Critic Examined in Detail
By Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 27, 2005; A01
The special prosecutor in the CIA leak probe has interviewed a wider range of administration officials than was previously known, part of an effort to determine whether anyone broke laws during a White House effort two years ago to discredit allegations that President Bush used faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, according to several officials familiar with the case.
Prosecutors have questioned former CIA director George J. Tenet and deputy director John E. McLaughlin, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, State Department officials, and even a stranger who approached columnist Robert D. Novak on the street.
In doing so, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has asked not only about how CIA operative Valerie Plame's name was leaked but also how the administration went about shifting responsibility from the White House to the CIA for having included 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Africa, an assertion that was later disputed.
Most of the questioning of CIA and State Department officials took place in 2004, the sources said.
It remains unclear whether Fitzgerald uncovered any wrongdoing in this or any other portion of his nearly 18-month investigation. All that is known at this point are the names of some people he has interviewed, what questions he has asked and whom he has focused on.
Fitzgerald began his probe in December 2003 to determine whether any government official knowingly leaked Plame's identity as a CIA employee to the media. Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, has said his wife's career was ruined in retaliation for his public criticism of Bush. In a 2002 trip to Niger at the request of the CIA, Wilson found no evidence to support allegations that Iraq was seeking uranium from that African country and reported back to the agency in February 2002. But nearly a year later, Bush asserted in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa, attributing it to British, not U.S., intelligence.
Fitzgerald has said in court that he had completed most of his investigation at a time when he was pressing for New York Times reporter Judith Miller to testify about any conversations she had with a specific administration official about Plame during the week before Plame's identity was revealed.
Miller, who never wrote a story about the matter, is in jail for refusing to comply with a court order to testify. Court records show Fitzgerald is seeking information about communications she had with the Bush official between July 6 and July 13, 2003, when the White House was attempting to discredit Wilson and his allegations.
Fitzgerald appears to believe that Miller's conversations may help him get to the bottom of the leak and the damage-control campaign undertaken by senior Bush officials that week.
Using background conversations with at least three journalists and other means, Bush officials attacked Wilson's credibility. They said that his 2002 trip to Niger was a boondoggle arranged by his wife, but CIA officials say that is incorrect. One reason for the confusion about Plame's role is that she had arranged a trip for him to Niger three years earlier on an unrelated matter, CIA officials told The Washington Post.
Miller's role remains one of many mysteries in the leak probe. It is unclear whom, if anyone, she spoke to about Plame, and why she emerged as a central figure in the probe despite never having written a story about the case. Also murky is the role of Novak, who first publicly identified Plame in a syndicated column published July 14, 2003.
Lawyers have confirmed that Novak discussed Plame with White House senior adviser Karl Rove four or more days before the column identifying her ran. But the identity of another "administration" source cited in the column is still unknown. Rove's attorney has said Rove did not identify Plame to Novak.
In a strange twist in the investigation, the grand jury -- acting on a tip from Wilson -- has questioned a person who approached Novak on Pennsylvania Avenue on July 8, 2003, six days before his column appeared in The Post and other publications, Wilson said in an interview. The person, whom Wilson declined to identify to The Post, asked Novak about the "yellow cake" uranium matter and then about Wilson, Wilson said. He first revealed that conversation in a book he wrote last year. In the book, he said that he tried to reach Novak on July 8, and that they finally connected on July 10. In that conversation, Wilson said that he did not confirm his wife worked for the CIA but that Novak told him he had obtained the information from a "CIA source."
Novak told the person that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA as a specialist in weapons of mass destruction and had arranged her husband's trip to Niger, Wilson said. Unknown to Novak, the person was a friend of Wilson and reported the conversation to him, Wilson said.
Novak and his attorney, James Hamilton, have declined to discuss the investigation, as has Fitzgerald.
Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.
Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.
In a column published Oct. 1, 2003, Novak wrote that the CIA official he spoke to "asked me not to use her name, saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause 'difficulties' if she travels abroad. He never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered. If he had, I would not have used her name."
Harlow was also involved in the larger internal administration battle over who would be held responsible for Bush using the disputed charge about the Iraq-Niger connection as part of the war argument. Based on the questions they have been asked, people involved in the case believe that Fitzgerald looked into this bureaucratic fight because the effort to discredit Wilson was part of the larger campaign to distance Bush from the Niger controversy.
Wilson unleashed an attack on Bush's claim on July 6, 2003, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," in an interview in The Post and writing his own op-ed article in the New York Times, in which he accused the president of "twisting" intelligence.
Behind the scenes, the White House responded with twin attacks: one on Wilson and the other on the CIA, which it wanted to take the blame for allowing the 16 words to remain in Bush's speech. As part of this effort, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley spoke with Tenet during the week about clearing up CIA responsibility for the 16 words, even though both knew the agency did not think Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Tenet was interviewed by prosecutors, but it is not clear whether he appeared before the grand jury, a former CIA official said.
On July 9, Tenet and top aides began to draft a statement over two days that ultimately said it was "a mistake" for the CIA to have permitted the 16 words about uranium to remain in Bush's speech. He said the information "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed."
A former senior CIA official said yesterday that Tenet's statement was drafted within the agency and was shown only to Hadley on July 10 to get White House input. Only a few minor changes were accepted before it was released on July 11, this former official said. He took issue with a New York Times report last week that said Rove and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, had a role in Tenet's statement.
The prosecutors have talked to State Department officials to determine what role a classified memo including two sentences about Plame's role in Wilson's Niger trip played in the damage-control campaign.
People familiar with this part of the probe provided new details about the memo, including that it was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage who requested it the day Wilson went public and asked that a copy be sent to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to take with him on a trip to Africa the next day. Bush and several top aides were on that trip. Carl W. Ford Jr., who was director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time and who supervised the original production of the memo, has appeared before the grand jury, a former State Department official said.
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