Traitors In the White House

Random Lengths News | November 14, 2005
On July 14, 2003, conservative columnist Robert Novak exposed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in his column about her husband’s trip to Niger, where he found no evidence of Iraqi efforts to buy yellowcake uranium—a major Bush Administration claim used to justify the invasion of Iraq that was included in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech. Just four years earlier, former President George H.W. Bush had denounced those who expose people like Plame as “the most insidious of traitors.”

Under the law, however, Novak was in the clear. Whoever leaked to him was not. Attention swiftly turned to the Bush Jr. White House. The clash between Bush Sr.’s hardline rhetoric and his son’s cavalier conduct could not have been more stark, critics charged, particularly when Bush Jr. failed to instigate a quick and vigorous internal investigation to fire the leakers as quickly as possible.

Indeed, it looked as if no one would be held accountable, until the CIA itself demanded a criminal investigation, which lead to the appointment of Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald later that year. On October 31, 2005, a grand jury indicted Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on five counts of obstruction of justice, false statement and perjury—the first time in 135 years that a White House staffer had been indicted. Libby is charged with lying to FBI Agents and to the grand jury, attempting to portray reporters as the source of Plame’s identity, and hiding the Administration’s investigation of Wilson, which began at least six weeks before Novak’s column.

Fitzgerald has yet to seek indictments on the leak itself, but he has a reputation as a patient, relentlessly thorough prosecutor. In December 2003, he announced the indictment of former Illinois Governor George Ryan on corruption charges in Operation Safe Road, the 66th defendant in a case that began in 1998.

Republican talking points have it that there is no underlying crime, since Fitzgerald has yet to indict on the crime of “outing” a CIA agent. But others see things quite differently—as part of a much larger pattern of deception. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is now one of them.

“The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really about: how the Administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions,” Reid said in a statement on November 1, the day he forced the Senate into closed session until the Republicans agreed to restart an investigation into White House manipulation of intelligence.

“[I]n the months and years after 9/11, the Administration engaged in a pattern of manipulation of the facts and retribution against anyone who got in its way as it made the case for attacking Iraq.” Reid said.

“For example, when General Shinseki indicated several hundred thousand troops would be needed in Iraq, his military career came to an end. When then OMB Director Larry Lindsay suggested the cost of this war would approach $200 billion, his career in the Administration came to an end. When U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix challenged conclusions about Saddam’s WMD capabilities, the Administration pulled out his inspectors. When Nobel Prize winner and IAEA head Mohammed el-Baridei raised questions about the Administration’s claims of Saddam’s nuclear capabilities, the Administration attempted to remove him from his post. When Joe Wilson stated that there was no attempt by Saddam to acquire uranium from Niger, the Administration launched a vicious and coordinated campaign to demean and discredit him, going so far as to expose the fact that his wife worked as a CIA agent.” Senator Reid continued.

Writing in The Nation magazine, retired federal prosecutor Elizabeth De La Vega, who served as Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said, “Legally, there are no significant differences between the investor fraud perpetrated by Enron CEO Ken Lay and the prewar intelligence fraud perpetrated by George W. Bush.... The President's deceit is not only an abuse of power; it is a federal crime. Specifically, it is a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371, which prohibits conspiracies to defraud the United States.” De La Vega also noted that, “In an Ipsos Public Affairs poll, commissioned by and completed October 9, 50 percent said that if Bush lied about his reasons for going to war Congress should consider impeaching him.”

Without this context, both the outing of Plame and Fitzgerald’s prosecution seem strange.

“Everyone knew it was difficult to prosecute,” said Scott Armstrong, an author and journalist covering national security issues for over three decades and founder of the National Security Archive. Proving intent is always hard. Cover up crimes are much more straightforward. “He’s going after perjury first, which is logical,” Armstrong added. If Libby had come clean, he would have lost his clearance, and had to step down, Armstrong explained. But jail was a remote possibility. Not now.

The attack on Wilson’s wife seemed a bit quixotic, since the Administration quickly disavowed the mention of Niger in the State of the Union. The claim itself was bizarre, since Iraq already had 500 tons of yellowcake uranium, which was inspected yearly to ensure it had not been used. This was deemed sufficient because yellowcake needs extensive refinement to produce bomb-grade material, and Iraq lacked the capacity to refine it—or to attack anyone with it, Armstrong pointed out.

“Remember, this was always about a mushroom cloud. You don’t have a mushroom cloud if you can’t deploy,” he said. There’s not one word about the deployability of a nuclear weapon,” Armstrong concluded.

But the attack made perfect sense as an act of intimidation—in line with all the others Reid cited—while damaging national security as well. As the indictment states, outing agents like Plame, holds the danger of “compromising intelligence-gathering methods and operations, and endangering the safety of CIA employees and those who dealt with them.”

[Please see for the complete indictment.]

The story has five parts (see sidebar): First, the idea that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger appears to have started with agents and associates of the Italian intelligence agency, SIMSI, resulting in the production of crudely-forged documents. Various ruses made it seem like there was more than one source for this story. The CIA, however, did not credit these reports. When Vice President Cheney asked them to take a closer look, this led to Wilson’s trip to Niger—the story’s second part.

Despite his further discrediting the story, Administration officials repeatedly revived it, while the CIA repeatedly batted it back—part three of the story. It was kept out of Bush’s major speech in October 7, 2002, shortly before Congress voted to authorize the use of force, but it crept back into the State of Union in sixteen words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Part four of the story was Wilson’s gradual move to go public, revealing the lack of support for the claim, and Administration’s mounting a counter-attack, culminating in the leak of Plame’s identity as a CIA agent. Part five was the cover-up, in which Libby, Rove and possibly others sought to shift blame to Tim Russert and other unnamed reporters, fingering them as the source of the information about Plame’s identity.

A Story in Five Parts

The story can be seen in five parts. It began with the still-murky invention of the non-existent Niger-Iraq uranium transaction, complete with crudely-forged documents. It appears to have started with agents and associates of the Italian intelligence agency, SIMSI, and Italian officials insist it was simply a rouge money-making scheme, with no higher-ups wittingly involved. But possible links back to US neo-con circles have also been alleged. Various ruses made it seem like there was more than one source for this story. The CIA, however, did not credit these reports. When Vice President Cheney asked them to take a closer look, this led to Wilson’s trip to Niger—the story’s second part.

Plame offered her husband’s name as someone who’s background suggested he could be helpful. Wilson had been the top US official in Iraq (chargé d'affaires—we had no ambassador) in the run-up to the first Gulf War, and served as ambassador to two West African countries under Bush Sr. He then helped direct Africa policy for Clinton’s National Security Council. Plame introduced him to those looking into the issue, but played no further role. The trip was suggested as a result of the meeting, and Wilson went to Niger in late February 2002.

He first met with Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, who told him she felt she had already debunked the reports, according to Wilson’s later account of his trip in the New York Times.

“I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place,” Wilson wrote.

But the Niger allegations remained alive—part three of the story. In September 2002, the British government published a "white paper" citing the allegations, and Bush advisors tried to put the claims into Bush’s October 7 , 2002 speech urging Congress to give him power to invade. They were beaten back by the CIA, but they tried again with the State of the Union in January 2003. This time, the CIA finally acquiesced to the “sixteen words” using British intelligence as a fig leaf.

Genesis of the Crime

Part four of the story is the outing of Wilson’s wife, which was triggered by his gradual emergence to challenge the Niger claim. Wilson’s trip first surfaced in a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof on May 6, 2003, disputing the accuracy of the “sixteen words” in the State of the Union address.

The indictment against Libby explains his involvement beginning around May 29, when he began seeking information about the unnamed ambassador from the State Department; he received oral reports in late May and early June 2003, which provided Wilson’s name. On June 9, classified documents about the trip from the CIA were faxed to Cheney’s office to the personal attention of Libby and a fellow staffer. In the next few days Libby heard from both the CIA and the State Department that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.

On June 19, 2003, an article in The New Republic magazine online, “The First Casualty: The Selling of the Iraq War,” quoted Wilson anonymously alleging that administration officials “knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie.” Four days later, Libby met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and said that Wilson’s wife might work at a CIA bureau.

Finally, on July 6, 2003, Wilson went public with a New York Times Op-Ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” In it, he wrote “chargé d'affaires

The same day the Washington Post published an article about his trip to Niger, based partly on an interview with him, and he appeared as a guest on the television interview show Meet the Press. In the next two days, Libby had at least three conversations where he mentioned Wilson’s wife working at the CIA—twice directly (with Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Judith Miller), and once by implication (Cheney’s counsel, David Addington).

On July 10, Libby had a conversation with Tim Russert, which he later lied about to the FBI, according to the indictment, claiming that Russert told him about Valerie Plame, and claiming to be surprised by the news. He also claimed Russert told him that “all the reporters knew it.”

This is crucial, since Libby would have been in the clear if he learned of Plame from non-classified, non-governmental sources.

That day or the next, Libby also learned that “Official A” (widely identified as Karl Rove) had a conversation “earlier that week with columnist Robert Novak in which Wilson’s wife was discussed as a CIA employee involved in Wilson’s trip,” the indictment continues. “Libby was advised by Official A that Novak would be writing a story about Wilson’s wife.”

Novak’s column appeared on July 14. Two days before that, the indictment states, Libby again spoke with Miller, this time by phone, “and discussed Wilson’s wife, and that she worked at the CIA.”

The Cover up

Part five of this story is the criminal cover up to hide the White House involvement in outing Plame. Fitzgerald cites two FBI interviews—October 14 and November 26, 2003—in which Libby claimed he learned of Plame’s identity from NBC’s Tim Russert, and was surprised. The cover-up continued with Libby’s grand jury testimony on March 5 and March 24, 2004.

In the FBI interviews, the indictment states, Libby claimed that on July 10 or 11, “Russert asked Libby if Libby was aware that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. Libby responded to Russert that he did not know that, and Russert replied that all the reporters knew it.” Furthermore, “Libby was surprised by this statement because, while speaking with Russert, Libby did not recall that he previously had learned about Wilson’s wife’s employment from the Vice President.” This was a lie as noted above, Libby had had at least three conversations in the previous two days where he showed knowledge that Wilson’s wife was CIA.

Libby also told the FBI that he didn’t discuss Wilson’s wife with Miller on July 8. He further claimed that on July 12, he told Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, “that reporters were telling the administration that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, but that Libby did not know if this was true,” the indictment states.

In his grand jury testimony, Libby repeated his account of his conversations with Russert and Cooper, and stated claimed to have told Miller—on July 12—the same thing he told Cooper: “that other reporters were saying that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA but Libby did not know whether that assertion was true.”

All these statements were “materially false and intentionally misleading,” according to the indictment, which includes the FBI interviews and the grand jury testimony in the first, overarching charge of obstruction of justice. The two false statement charges apply specifically to Libby’s claims about his conversations with Russert and Cooper. The first perjury applies to his testimony regarding his conversation with Russert. The second applies to his testimony regarding Cooper specifically and reporters in general, attributing his knowledge of Plames’ identity to other reporters.

Fitzgerald has a reputation for dogged investigation of government wrongdoing. He starts with low-level violations and works his way up. Whether he will follow this pattern in this case remains to be seen.

Wider Damage

Despite furious GOP spinning, the charges against Libby seem solid and straightforward—much more so than the crime itself, events leading up to it, and the various consequences for the Bush Administration, national security, and journalistic privilege. The role of SIMSI itself—as opposed to a few “rogue agents”—is murky and hotly disputed. The Administration’s repeated resurrection of the Niger claim undermines the credibility of the Silberman-Robb Commission Report, which claimed it "found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community's pre-war assessments of Iraq's weapons programs." And, of course, the crucial act—the outing of Valerie Plame via Robert Novak—has yet to be directly explained.

But the media—particularly the New York Times—has been deeply damaged as well. The treatment of WMDs before the war was not just factually mistaken, but logically flawed, Armstrong noted. “There was a lot of sloppiness—on all sides,” he said.

There was significant critical reporting, but it just didn’t get traction. Instead, Administration sources fed stories to Miller at the Times, and then used the Times to bolster their arguments.

“Judy [Miller] went to work for the Administration. She turned over the keys to the car and put Cheney and company behind the wheel. She allowed them into the New York Times. That’s the problem,” Armstrong explained.

But Fitzgerald’s approach—construing privilege very narrowly to compel reporters to testify—is also problematic, he warned. It’s impossible to do first-hand national security reporting without confidential sources violating security provisions. And the agencies themselves recognize this necessity.

“They [the intelligence community] know there are good leaks and bad leaks. They don’t like political leaks,” Armstrong said.

If reporters can’t protect sources, there will be much less news to report. In addition, Armstrong sees the Administration’s new “ethics” initiative as a further impediment. “They will say we punish leakers, but they really mean we punish dissenters,” he said. Pro-Administration leaks will continue as usual, he predicts.

If the problems and the damage involved reach far beyond the scope of Fitzgerald’s investigation, public awareness and pressure can play a crucial role in seeing that appropriate remedies are pursued. At least initially, the potential is there. A CBS poll conducted within days of the Libby’s indictment found that the public saw the leak of Plame’s identity as comparable to Watergate in importance: 51 percent said it had “Great importance” and 35 percent said “Some importance,” compared to 53 percent and 25 percent respectively for Watergate in May of 1973, roughly a year and a half before Nixon resigned. The same poll found Bush’s job approval at an all-time low of 35 percent.

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