Vice President Dick Cheney directed his then-chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on July 12, 2003 to leak to the media portions of a then-highly classified CIA report that Cheney hoped would undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, according to Libby's grand jury testimony in the CIA leak case and sources who have read the classified report.
There is a growing body of information showing that at the time Plame was outed the vice president was deeply involved in the effort to undermine her husband.
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The March 2002 intelligence report was a debriefing of Wilson by the CIA's Directorate of Operations after Wilson returned from a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger to investigate claims, later proved to be unfounded, that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation, according to government records.
The debriefing report made no mention of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, then a covert CIA officer, or any role she may have played in her husband's selection by the CIA to go to Niger, according to two people who have read the report.
The previously unreported grand jury testimony is significant because only hours after Cheney reportedly instructed Libby to disclose information from the CIA report, Libby divulged to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper that Plame was a CIA officer, and that she been involved in selecting her husband for the Niger mission.
Both Libby and Cheney have repeatedly insisted that the vice president never encouraged, directed, or authorized Libby to disclose Plame's identity. In a court filing on April 12, Libby's attorneys reiterated: "Consistent with his grand jury testimony, Mr. Libby does not contend that he was instructed to make any disclosures concerning Ms. Wilson [Plame] by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or anyone else."
But the disclosure that Cheney instructed Libby to leak portions of a classified CIA report on Joseph Wilson adds to a growing body of information showing that at the time Plame was outed as a covert CIA officer the vice president was deeply involved in the White House effort to undermine her husband.
A spokesman for the vice president declined to comment.
On April 5, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, asserted in a court filing that Joseph Wilson's July 6, 2003 op-ed piece in The New York Times criticizing the Bush administration's Iraq policies "was viewed in the office of Vice President as a direct attack on the credibility of the Vice President (and the President) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq."
Moreover, on July 12, 2003, the same day that Libby spoke to both Cooper and Miller, Libby and Cheney traveled aboard Air Force Two for the dedication of a new aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Va. During the flight either to or from Norfolk, Cheney, Libby, and Cathie Martin, then-assistant to the vice president for public affairs, discussed how they might rebut Wilson's charges and discredit him, according to federal court records, and interviews with people with first-hand knowledge of accounts that all three provided to federal investigators.
It has long been known that Cheney was among the first people in the government to tell Libby that Plame worked for the CIA. The federal indictment of Libby -- who has been charged with five counts of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements to federal investigators in the CIA leak case -- states: "On or about June 12, 2003, Libby was advised by the Vice President of the United States that Wilson's wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division. Libby understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA."
Fitzgerald further asserted that just days before Libby divulged Plame's identity to Miller and Cooper on July 12, "Vice President Cheney, [Libby's] immediate superior, expressed concerns to [Libby] regarding whether Mr. Wilson's trip was legitimate or whether it was a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife." Although contained in a public court filing, this second conversation between Cheney and Libby had gone unreported.
The new disclosure about the CIA report further raises questions about the vice president's role in directly authorizing the leak of classified information outside the formal declassification process. Last week it was reported that Libby also testified to the grand jury that Cheney told him that as part of the effort to rebut Wilson's criticism, President Bush had authorized the leaking of portions of a then-classified National Intelligence Estimate concerning purported attempts by Iraq to develop nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration has asserted that presidents have the constitutional right to declassify information. Although vice presidents haven't shared such authority, President Bush issued an executive order in March 2003 allowing Cheney to share such authority with him. According to Fitzgerald's April 5 filing, Libby has also testified that in July 2003, then-Counsel to the Vice President David Addington "opined that Presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amount to a declassification of the document."
Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel for the CIA, said in an interview, however, that while there are executive orders that apparently allow the vice president "on his own to determine what to declassify and to whom," that authority should "not exempt him or anyone from exercising prudence or good judgment" in doing so. "You would want the president or the vice president to seek the views of the CIA or any other intelligence agencies... to make sure that there is no potential disclosing an intelligence source" or some other sensitive information.
Criticizing the decision to leak portions of the NIE, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said last week: "Leaking classified information to the press when you want to get your side out or silence your critics is not appropriate. If I had leaked the information, I'd be in jail. Why should the president be above the law? I am stunned."
In his grand jury testimony, according to Fitzgerald's filing, Libby portrayed himself as a reluctant subordinate in July 2003 who took orders from higher ups. Libby "testified that he at first advised the Vice President that he could not have this conversation with [Judith] Miller because of the classified nature of the NIE," said the special counsel's filing. "[Libby] testified that the Vice President later advised him that the President had authorized [Libby] to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE." It was during this time that Libby says he spoke to Addington on the matter.
Steve Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, who tracks government secrecy and classification issues, said that Libby "presents himself in this instance and others as being very scrupulous in adhering to the rules. He is not someone carried on by the rush of events. If you take his account before the grand jury on face value, he is cautious and deliberative in his behavior.
"That is almost the exact opposite as to how he behaves when it comes to disclosing Plame's identity," Aftergood said. "All of a sudden he doesn't play within the rules. He doesn't seek authorization. If you believe his account, he almost acts capriciously. You have to ask yourself why his behavior changes so dramatically, if he is telling the truth that this was not authorized and that he did not talk to higher-ups."
Libby has insisted that the vice president never authorized or told him to discuss Plame's identity. Although Libby discussed Plame with Miller and Cooper on July 12, 2003 -- the same day he says he was authorized by Cheney to leak portions of the NIE and the CIA report -- Libby insists the two actions are unrelated.
The new disclosure also raises the question whether President Bush or his aides knew that Cheney may have been deciding on his own to authorize the leaking of classified information. Senior government officials said that top Bush aides -- including then-deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett -- were not aware that Cheney had authorized the disclosure of the CIA report on Wilson's Niger mission. These officials raised the possibility that Bush himself was unaware at the time of Cheney's action.
Regarding the release of Plame's name and CIA employment, a senior administration official said that even if Cheney did not directly authorize Libby to leak the information to the press, the vice president might have set a climate in which his aides viewed it as routine to release classified information whenever it served their purposes.
The administration was interested in discrediting Wilson because the former ambassador asserted in his op-ed piece that he found no evidence in Niger to substantiate Bush administration claims that Saddam had attempted to purchase uranium from that country. Wilson alleged that the administration had misrepresented intelligence by making that claim in its case to go to war with Iraq. Six days after the Times published Wilson's piece, Libby leaked Plame's identity to Miller and Cooper.
Cheney and other Bush administration officials also believed that the CIA debriefing report might undermine Wilson's claims because it showed that Wilson's Niger probe was inconclusive on the uranium questions. Wilson was restricted on the persons he was able to interview in Niger, and he was denied some intelligence information before undertaking the trip.
In reportedly directing Libby to disclose portions of the March 2002 CIA report on Wilson's mission, Cheney apparently kept in the dark a number of administration officials who were working to declassify that very same document.
According to Fitzgerald's recent filing, Libby "testified that on July 12, 2003, he was specifically directed by the Vice President to speak to the press in the place of Cathie Martin (then the communications person for the Vice President) regarding the NIE and Wilson. [Libby] was instructed... to [also] provide information contained in a document [he] understood to be the cable authored by Mr. Wilson. During the conversations that followed on July 12 [Libby] discussed Ms. Wilson's [CIA] employment with both Matthew Cooper (for the first time) and Judith Miller (for the third time)."
The purported Wilson cable refers to the classified CIA debriefing of Wilson, according to sources who have read the document. Wilson never himself authored a cable on his Niger mission. Rather, the CIA Directorate of Operations, which sent Wilson to Niger in February 2002, produced a March 8, 2002 report based on Wilson's debriefing by intelligence officers. The report did not name Wilson, or even describe him as a former ambassador, but rather as a "contact with excellent access who does not have an established reporting record" to protect the-then covert nature of the trip.
The report was then "widely distributed in routine channels," according to a 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's prewar intelligence on Iraq. It is unclear whether Cheney or his office received the report at the time it was distributed, or sometime later.
But two government officials with first-hand knowledge of events said during the summer of 2003, Libby and other White House officials sought any reports and other classified information regarding Wilson's Niger trip, and it was provided at that time.
A relatively small amount of information derived from the March 2002 report was revealed on July 11, 2003, when then-CIA Director George Tenet released a statement regarding Wilson's trip to Niger in which he disclosed some aspects of the debriefing described in the document. But other portions remained highly classified at the time that Cheney directed Libby to leak portions of the report, two senior government officials said in interviews. These officials say the White House abandoned its attempt to declassify all or part of the March 2002 report when Tenet released his statement.
The federal indictment of Libby states: "On or about June 9, 2003, a number of classified documents were faxed to the Office of the Vice President to the personal attention of Libby and another person in the Office of the Vice President. The faxed documents, which were marked as classified, discussed, among other things, Wilson and his trip to Niger, but did not mention Wilson by name. After receiving these documents, Libby and one or more persons in the Office of the Vice President handwrote the names 'Wilson' and 'Joe Wilson' on the documents."
It is unclear if one of the documents in question, or the one with Wilson's name handwritten on it by someone in the Vice President's office, was the March 2002 CIA report, but the fact that it did not mention Wilson by name suggests that it possibly was indeed the one with the handwriting.
Cheney, Libby, and others wanted to leak and declassify portions of the report because they believed that it would undercut the perception that Wilson's mission had disproved the allegations definitively that Iraq had attempted to procure uranium from Niger, two senior government officials said in interviews.
Among other things, Wilson had agreed only to interview former Nigerien officials, instead of current ones, so as not to step on the toes of the State Department or its then-ambassador to Niger, and he was disadvantaged in his inquiries, the two senior government officials said.
In an interview, Wilson said it was unnecessary to interview current Nigerien officials because the then-U.S. ambassador was conducting her own inquiry, and a decision was made for him to speak to former Nigerien officials while the ambassador made her inquiries of the current government.
"When I arrived in Niger, I spoke to the ambassador who thought that she had already debunked the allegations with current Niger officials," Wilson said. "We agreed then that I would speak to former government officials, who I knew better than she did because I worked with them while I was on the NSC staff at the White House, and thereafter. So that was the division of labor."
Wilson also said that the ambassador told her that a "four-star Marine general had also already talked to current officials, and that he too had concluded and reported that she believed there was nothing to the allegations."
-- National Journal correspondent Shane Harris also contributed to this report.
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