April 7, 2006
Libby’s testimony identifying George W. Bush as the top official who
authorized the leaking of intelligence about Iraq’s alleged nuclear
weapons program raises two key questions: What did the President tell
the special prosecutor about this issue in 2004 and what is Bush’s legal
status in the federal criminal probe?
Bush’s legal danger came into clearer focus with
the release of a court document citing testimony from Libby, Vice
President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff who claimed that Bush
approved the selective release of intelligence in July 2003 to counter
growing complaints that Bush had hyped evidence on Iraq’s pursuit of
Libby, who is facing a five-count federal
indictment, testified that he was told by Cheney that Bush had approved
a plan in which Libby would tell a specific New York Times reporter
about the CIA’s secret analysis, according to a court filing by special
prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald dated April 5.
"Defendant’s (Libby’s) participation in a critical
conversation with Judith Miller on July 8 (2003) occurred only after the
Vice President advised defendant that the President specifically had
authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE," the
highly classified National Intelligence Estimate, the filing said.
While some experts believe Bush has the legal
authority to unilaterally declassify secrets, Libby’s testimony – along
with other evidence from this so-called Valerie Plame leak investigation
– leaves little doubt that Bush and White House aides repeatedly misled
the public about the role of senior officials in disseminating secret
information to deflect criticism about the Iraq invasion.
Bush even vowed to fire anyone who leaked
classified material. "The President has set high standards, the highest
of standards, for people in his administration," White House press
secretary Scott McClellan said on Sept. 29, 2003. "If anyone in this
administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this
Yet, Bush never disclosed that he himself had a
hand in planting information to discredit former Ambassador Joseph
Wilson for accusing the administration of having "twisted" the pre-war
intelligence to justify invading Iraq.
During a series of contacts with reporters in
June/July 2003, Libby and other administration officials also allegedly
informed reporters that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer,
a revelation that soon appeared in the press, destroyed her cover and
prompted the leak investigation.
Though the new court document does not say Bush
ordered his subordinates to leak Plame’s identity, the President’s
alleged initiative to have Libby disclose the secret CIA analysis
appears to have set the stage for the Plame disclosure as well.
Despite Bush’s deceptive public pronouncements, the
more important legal question is what Bush told Fitzgerald when the
President submitted to a 70-minute interview – not under oath – on June
If Bush misled the prosecutor about authorizing
Libby to brief a reporter, then Bush himself could be open to charges of
making false statements or obstructing justice, potential felonies and
possibly impeachable offenses.
Also deserving an explanation is the curious trip
that Fitzgerald reportedly made to the office of Bush’s personal
criminal attorney, James Sharp, on the morning of Oct. 28, 2005, just
before announcing the indictment of Libby on charges of obstruction,
perjury and false statements. [NYT, Oct. 29, 2005]
It’s unclear why Fitzgerald would take time out of
his very busy schedule that day to visit Bush’s personal lawyer unless
Fitzgerald had to pass on sensitive information about Bush’s status in
the investigation. Possibilities range from telling Bush that he would
not be named in the Libby indictment to saying he had become an
Attorney Sharp accompanied Bush on June 24, 2004,
when the President was questioned about the Plame case,
Bush "was pleased to do his part to help the
investigation move forward," spokesman McClellan said after the
interview. "No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than
the President does." But McClellan declined to comment about the
substance of what Bush told Fitzgerald or whether Bush was a target of
At the time, some Democrats questioned why Bush would need a criminal
attorney at his side if he had nothing to hide.
"White House claims that they are fully cooperating with this
investigation seem at odds with the President feeling the need to hire a
private lawyer," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Jano
Despite such touchy moments, Bush did succeed in keeping the lid on
the Plame case before the November 2004 elections.
Now with Bush more than a year into his second term, the options for
the American people are far more limited. They include possibly voting
Bush’s Republican Party out of congressional control in November 2006,
thus opening Bush to greater accountability.
The history of the Wilson-Plame case goes back to
2002 when Vice President Cheney expressed interest in a dubious report
about Iraq seeking processed uranium from Africa. In response, CIA
officials decided to send Wilson to Niger to check out the reports.
Wilson, who had served as a diplomat in both Iraq
and Africa, returned with the conclusion that the reports were most
likely untrue. (The Niger allegations were later debunked by U.N.
However, in the State of Union address in January
2003, Bush cited the Niger allegations as part of his rationale for war
with Iraq. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq two months later, but U.S.
forces failed to discover any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction
or evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program.
By spring 2003, Wilson began talking privately to
journalists about his Niger findings and criticizing the administration
for hyping the WMD intelligence. Behind the scenes, the White House
began to hit back, collecting information about Wilson and his trip.
CIA Director George Tenet divulged to Cheney that
Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s
fact-finding trip to Niger – information that Cheney then passed on to
Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes as
described by lawyers in the case, the New York Times reported. [NYT,
Oct. 25, 2005]
Those two facts – Plame’s work for the CIA and her
role in Wilson’s Niger trip – then became the centerpieces of the
administration’s behind-the-scenes campaign in June/July 2003 to
disparage Wilson. Rove, Libby and possibly other administration
officials allegedly told journalists that Wilson’s wife had helped get
him the Niger assignment.
On June 23, 2003 – 11 days after the Cheney-Libby
conversation – Libby briefed New York Times reporter Miller about Wilson
and may then have passed on the tip that Wilson’s wife worked at the
The anti-Wilson campaign gained new urgency when
the ex-ambassador penned an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on July 6,
2003, describing his pursuit of the bogus Niger allegations.
In the July 8, 2003, meeting, Libby gave Miller
more details about the Iraq WMD intelligence and about the Wilsons. He
told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for
weapons intelligence and non-proliferation, the Times reported.
It was in the context in those July 8 notes where
Miller wrote down the words "Valerie Flame," an apparent misspelling of
Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name.
In a third conversation, by telephone on July 12,
2003, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes
contain a reference to a "Victoria Wilson," another misspelled reference
to Wilson’s wife, Miller said. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]
Two days later, on July 14, 2003, conservative
columnist Robert Novak published a column, citing two administration
sources outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilson’s Niger trip
as a case of nepotism.
Furious that Plame’s covert identity had been
blown, CIA officers pressed Tenet to refer the case to the Justice
Department to determine whether the disclosure violated a law barring
the willful exposure of a CIA officer. An investigation ensued.
Privately, some administration officials
acknowledged that the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against
Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge
Bush on the WMD intelligence.
In September 2003, a White House official told the
Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about
Plame before Novak’s column. The official said the disclosure was
"purely and simply out of revenge."
At that time, Libby was privately lobbying the
White House press office to issue a statement exonerating him from
suspicion in the leak case, according to the new court filing. So, on
Oct. 4, 2003, McClellan added Libby to a prior list of officials who
have "assured me that they were not involved in this."
The White House statement also gave Libby more of a
motive to concoct his false claim that he had first heard about Plame’s
CIA identity from NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and had
simply recycled the rumor to other reporters, the April 5, 2006, court
"As defendant (Libby) approached his first FBI
interview he knew that the White House had staked its credibility on
there being no White House involvement in the leaking of information
about Ms. Wilson," according to the court filing.
Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2005, with the Plame case
growing into a political embarrassment for Bush, Republican operatives
and their right-wing media allies worked to transform Wilson – a private
citizen – into a bete noire.
The Republican National Committee even posted an
article entitled "Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and
Misstatements," which itself used glaring inaccuracies and misstatements
to discredit Wilson. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Novak
Recycles Gannon on 'Plame-gate.’"]
On Oct. 28, 2005, in indicting Libby on five counts
of making false statements, perjury and obstructing justice, Fitzgerald
added a few new details to the overall story and confirmed some facts
that had appeared in press accounts.
The indictment alleged that Libby – who also served
as a national security aide to President Bush – learned of Plame’s
identity from a CIA official and from Vice President Cheney, before
passing the information to at least two journalists, New York Times
reporter Miller and Time correspondent Matthew Cooper.
While denouncing Libby’s alleged deceptions as a
serious crime, Fitzgerald splashed cold water on the notion that his
investigation might unravel a larger government conspiracy into how
Plame’s identity was exposed.
Still, the larger question has now become whether
Fitzgerald will address what Bush and Cheney may have done to aid and
abet the Plame leak and the subsequent cover-up.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'