Feb 3, 2006 - "National Journal" -- -- Vice President Cheney and his then-Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were personally informed in June 2003 that the CIA no longer considered credible the allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials. The new CIA assessment came just as Libby and other senior administration officials were embarking on an effort to discredit an administration critic who had also been saying that the allegations were untrue.
CIA analysts wrote then-CIA Director George Tenet in a highly classified memo on June 17, 2003, "We no longer believe there is sufficient" credible information to "conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad." The memo was titled: "In Response to Your Questions for Our Current Assessment and Additional Details on Iraq's Alleged Pursuits of Uranium From Abroad."
Despite the CIA's findings, Libby attempted to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent on a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger the previous year to investigate the claims, which he concluded were baseless.
The campaign against Wilson led to the outing of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA officer -- less than a month after the CIA assessment was completed. Libby resigned as Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser on October 28, 2005, after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice for concealing his role in leaking Plame's identity to the media.
Tenet requested the previously undisclosed intelligence assessment in large part because of repeated inquiries from Cheney and Libby regarding the Niger matter and Wilson's mission, although neither Cheney nor Libby specifically asked that the new review be conducted, according to government records and to current and former government officials. Tenet also asked for the assessment because information about Wilson's mission to Niger had begun to appear in the media, and Tenet thought that the press or Capitol Hill might raise additional questions about the matter.
The new disclosures raise questions as to why Libby and other Bush administration officials continued their efforts to discredit Wilson -- even as they were told that claims about Iraq's having procured uranium from Niger were most likely a hoax.
The answer may lie in part with the already well-known misgivings about the CIA by Cheney, Libby, and other senior Bush administration officials. At one point during that period -- the summer of 2003 -- Libby confronted a senior intelligence analyst briefing him and the vice president and accused the CIA of willfully misleading him and the administration on Niger. Libby was said to be upset that the CIA, in his view, had routinely minimized the extent to which Iraq was pursuing weapons of mass destruction and was now prematurely attempting to distance itself from the Niger allegations.
Libby had also complained about the CIA's Center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control. WINPAC, as the center is known, scrutinizes unconventional-weapons threats to the United States, including the pursuit by both foreign nations and terrorist groups of nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological weapons.
Libby, according to people with knowledge of the events, said that he and Cheney had come to believe that WINPAC was presenting Saddam Hussein's pursuit of such weapons in a far more benign light than Iraq's intents and capabilities reflected. Libby cited CIA bureaucratic inertia and caution and his view that many of WINPAC's analysts were aligned with foreign-policy elites who did not support the war with Iraq.
Libby and others in the office of the vice president apparently were even more suspicious because they mistakenly believed that Plame worked for WINPAC, according to these sources. When they also learned that Plame possibly played a role in Wilson's selection for the Niger mission, their suspicions only intensified.
One indication of Cheney's personal interest in the subject was that some of Libby's earliest and most detailed information regarding Plame's CIA employment came directly from the vice president, according to information contained in Libby's grand jury indictment.
"On or about June 12, 2003," the indictment stated, "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."
It would not have been improper or illegal for Cheney to discuss Plame's CIA employment with Libby or other government officials with high security clearances. No public evidence has emerged during the two-year grand jury probe by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that Libby acted at the vice president's behest in leaking details of Plame's CIA employment to the press, or that Cheney even knew that Libby was doing so.
Contemporaneous notes of Libby's that were obtained by federal investigators in the CIA leak case indicate that Cheney had originally learned about Plame from then-CIA Director Tenet. Tenet has confirmed that Fitzgerald interviewed him, but Tenet has refused to make public any details of what he told investigators. He declined to comment for this story.
Sources said that Tenet may have discussed Plame with Cheney because of requests from Cheney, Libby, and other administration officials for more information about the Niger matter and Wilson's mission. Cheney's and Libby's interest in Niger was apparently rekindled after New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote on May 6, 2003, that the CIA had sent an unnamed former ambassador to the African nation in February 2002 to investigate allegations that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. Kristof wrote that the ex-ambassador reported back to the CIA and the State Department that the allegations were "unequivocally wrong" and "based on forged documents."
The column led Cheney and Libby to inquire about the then-still-unnamed ambassador and his trip to Niger. On May 29, 2003, Libby asked then-Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman for information about the mission. Grossman in turn assigned the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research to prepare a report on the matter. Cheney's and Libby's interest in the issue led Tenet to seek more information as well.
On June 11 or 12, according to the grand jury indictment of Libby, Grossman reported back that "in sum and substance Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, and the State Department personnel were saying that Wilson's wife was involved in the planning of his trip."
Also on June 11, 2003, according to the indictment, "Libby spoke with a senior officer of the CIA to ask about the origin and circumstances of Wilson's trip, and was advised by the CIA officer that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and was believed to be responsible for sending Wilson on the trip." On the very next day, June 12, the indictment said, Cheney more specifically informed Libby that Plame worked at the CIA's "Counterproliferation Division."
Tenet received the highly classified memo on Niger from his analysts on June 17, 2003, five days after Cheney and Libby spoke with each other about Plame's working for the CIA. Sources familiar with the matter say that both Cheney and Libby were informed of the findings in the June 17 memo only days after Tenet himself read and reviewed it.
In the memo, the CIA analysts wrote: "Since learning that the Iraqi-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq purchased uranium from abroad."
The memo also related that there had been other, earlier claims that Saddam's regime had attempted to purchase uranium from private interests in Somalia and Benin; these claims predated the Niger allegations. It was that past intelligence that had led CIA analysts, in part, to consider the Niger claims as plausible.
But the memo said that after a thorough review of those earlier reports, the CIA had concluded that they were no longer credible. Indeed, the previous intelligence reports citing those claims had long since been "recalled" -- meaning that the CIA had formally repudiated them.
The memo's findings were considered so significant that they were not only quickly shared with Cheney and Libby but also with Congress, albeit on a classified basis, according to government records and interviews.
On June 18, 2003, the day after the new Niger assessment was sent to Tenet, Robert D. Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, briefed members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the findings. And on the following day, June 19, 2003, Walpole briefed members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence as well.
Six days after the memo was sent to Tenet, on June 23, 2003, Libby met with then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller and -- as part of an effort to discredit Wilson -- passed along to her what prosecutors have said was classified information that Wilson's wife, Plame, worked for the CIA, according to allegations contained in Libby's indictment.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson himself went public with his allegations that the Bush administration had misused the Niger claims to make the case to go to war. Wilson made his arguments in an op-ed in The New York Times and an appearance that same morning on NBC's Meet the Press.
On July 8, 2003, Libby and Miller met again. During a two-hour breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, according to testimony Miller gave to the federal grand jury hearing evidence in the CIA leak case, Libby first told her that Plame worked for the CIA's Weapons, Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Office.
Around the same time, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and at least one other senior Bush administration official leaked information to a number of journalists about Plame's CIA employment and her role in recommending her husband for the Niger mission.
Columnist Robert Novak, on July 14, 2003, published his now-famous column identifying Plame as a CIA "operative" and alleging that she had been responsible for sending her husband to Niger.
The disclosure did little to discredit Wilson. Instead, it had unintended and unforeseen consequences for Libby and the Bush administration: A special prosecutor would be named to investigate the leak; Judith Miller would spend 85 days in jail for refusing to testify regarding her conversations with Libby before ultimately relenting; and a federal grand jury would indict Libby on charges that he obstructed justice and committed perjury to conceal his own role in the leak of Plame's CIA status to the press.
As Libby awaits trial, one of the unresolved mysteries is why Libby insisted in interviews with the FBI and during his grand jury testimony that he learned about Plame's employment from journalists, when investigators already had Libby's own copious notes indicating that he had first learned many of the details of Plame's CIA employment from Cheney and other senior government officials.
One possibility examined by investigators is that Libby was attempting to cover for Cheney because of the political or legal fallout that might occur if it was determined that the vice president had been involved in the effort to discredit Wilson.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said, "The prosecutor's implicit inference before the jury may well likely be that Libby lied to protect the vice president. Even in a plain vanilla case, a prosecutor always wants to be able to demonstrate a motive."
That Cheney was one of the first people to tell Libby about Plame, and that Libby had written in his notes that Cheney had heard the information from the CIA director, Gillers said, might make it more difficult for Libby to mount a credible defense of a faulty memory. "From a prosecutor's point of view, and perhaps a jury's as well, the conversation [during which Libby learned about Plame] is the more dramatic and the more memorable because the conversation was with the vice president" and because the CIA director's name also came up, Gillers said.
The disclosure that Cheney and Libby were told of a CIA assessment that the agency considered the Niger allegations to be untrue, and that Tenet requested the assessment as a result of the personal interest of Cheney and Libby, would "demonstrate even further that Niger was a central issue for Libby," said Gillers, and would "make it even harder, although not impossible, to claim a faulty memory."
-- Murray Waas is a Washington-based journalist.
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Previous coverage of the CIA leak investigation from Murray Waas: