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Vice President Lied as White House Sought to Defuse Leak Inquiry
That’s one of the questions Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is likely trying to figure out. It’s unclear what Cheney said to investigators back in 2004 when he was questioned—not under oath—about the leak, particularly what he knew and when he knew it.
The five-count criminal indictment handed up by a grand jury last month against Cheney’s former Chief of Staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, sheds new light on a pattern of strategic deception by the Vice President and the White House to defuse an inquiry into who leaked the name of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to the press. Months after Plame’s identity was disclosed by conservative columnist Robert Novak, Cheney continued to hide the fact that he and his aides were intimately involved in disseminating classified information about her to journalists.
What the Vice President denied knowing
The indictment against Cheney’s Chief of Staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, clearly states that Cheney and Libby discussed Plame’s undercover CIA status and the fact that her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, traveled to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq tried to acquire yellowcake uranium from the African country in early June of 2003.
Yet the following month, Cheney and then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer asserted that the vice president was unaware of Wilson’s Niger trip, who the ambassador was, or a classified report Wilson wrote about his findings prior to the ambassador’s July 6, 2003 op-ed in the New York Times.
We now know, courtesy of the 22-page Libby indictment, that Cheney wasn’t being truthful. Cheney did see the report; he knew full well who Wilson was. He also knew that the CIA arranged for Wilson to travel to Niger, and he personally sought out information about Wilson’s trip to Niger, was briefed about the fact-finding mission, and even obtained classified information about Plame’s covert CIA status. He also came to know one other important nugget: that Plame may have recommended her husband for the trip.
Cheney’s public campaign and that of other White House officials to discredit Wilson and strategically lie about the Plame leak started on Sept. 14, 2003, during an interview with Tim Russert of NBC's “Meet the Press.”
During the interview, Cheney maintained that he didn’t know Wilson or anything about his trip.
“I don’t know Joe Wilson,” Cheney said, in response to Russert who quoted Wilson as saying there was no truth to the Niger uranium claims. “I’ve never met Joe Wilson. And Joe Wilson—I don’t know who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back... I don’t know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him and it never came...”
“The CIA did,” Russert said, interjecting.
“Who at the CIA? I don’t know,” Cheney said. “He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.”
What happened once Cheney received information on Plame and Wilson in June 2003 remains unclear. But the indictment illustrates—in no uncertain terms—that the vice president’s office staged a concerted effort to undermine Wilson for questioning the veracity of the Niger claims.
Fitzgerald has eyed Cheney in seeking to ascertain who ordered the leak, as previously reported. While the Vice President stands accused of no wrongdoing, his role may come into greater focus during a trial.
In an interview with the syndicated radio program “Democracy Now,” Wilson argued that Cheney may have been lying to Russert when he said he didn’t know about the ambassador’s Niger trip.
“While we've never met, he certainly knows who I am and should know unless his memory is flawed and faulty,” Wilson said during the Sept. 16, 2003 interview. “There were at a minimum three reports that had been generated shortly after the Vice President had asked the question, ‘what do we know about this?’”
The Vice President certainly must have known Wilson during his tenure as secretary of defense during the first President Bush’s administration. In the weeks leading up to the first Gulf War, Wilson served as the acting U.S ambassador on the ground in Baghdad. In fact, Wilson was the only line of communication between Washington and Saddam Hussein. The White House held daily briefings with Wilson, and Cheney sat in on a majority of those briefings.
White House suggested investigation was waste of time
In hindsight, it now seems that the White House, including President Bush, attempted to steer reporters away from covering the Plame leak by saying the “leaker” would never be found.
On October 7, 2003, Bush and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that the White House ruled out three administration officials—Rove, Libby and Elliot Abrams, a senior official on the National Security Council—as sources of the leak a day before FBI questioned the three of them, based on questions McClellan said he asked the men.
The very next day, however, Rove was questioned by FBI investigators and said that he spoke to journalists about Plame for the first time after Novak’s column was published—a lie, it appears, based on Time reporter Matthew Cooper’s emails which stated that Rove told Cooper about Plame.
Bush told reporters the same day he doubted that a Justice Department investigation would ever turn up the source of the leak, suggesting that it was a waste of time for lawmakers to question the administration and for reporters to follow up on the story.
"I mean this is a town full of people who like to leak information," Bush said. "And I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there's lots of senior officials. I don't have any idea.”
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) responded to the president’s statement in the New York Times. “If the president says, 'I don't know if we're going to find this person,' what kind of a statement is that for the president of the United States to make?” Lautenberg asked. “Would he say that about a bank robbery investigation?”
Facing a deadline on turning over documents, emails and phone logs to Justice Department officials, Bush said that the White House could invoke executive privilege and withhold some “sensitive” documents related to the leak case. Democrats speculated that the White House had something to hide.
Classified leak or truthful rebuttal?
Unable to keep emails from investigators, the White House mounted a defense. They would seek to distinguish between “unauthorized leaks” and something perfectly legal: “setting the record straight.”
On Oct. 6, 2003, in response to questions about whether Rove was Novak’s source, McClellan tried to explain the difference between unauthorized disclosure of classified information and "setting the record straight" about Wilson’s public criticism of the Administration’s handling of intelligence on Iraq.
“There is a difference between setting the record straight and doing something to punish someone for speaking out,” McClellan said.
"There were some statements made [by Wilson] and those statements were not based on facts," McClellan said. "And we pointed out that it was not the vice president's office that sent Mr. Wilson to Niger.”
Wilson, it turned out, had never said that the vice president’s office had sent him to Niger.
Jason Leopold is the author of an explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold's website at www.jasonleopold.com for updates.
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This story was published on November 12, 2005.