By PETE YOST
David Addington, chief legal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, says he was taken aback when the White House started making public pronouncements about the CIA leak investigation.
In the fall of 2003, President Bush’s press secretary was categorically denying that either Karl Rove or I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was involved in exposing the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA employee married to a critic of the war in Iraq.
“Why are you making these statements?” Addington asked White House communications director Dan Bartlett.
“Your boss is the one who wanted” them, Bartlett replied, referring to Cheney.
With that, “I shut up,” Addington recalled recently for jurors in Libby’s CIA leak trial, which begins its fourth week on Monday with Libby’s lawyers calling their first witnesses.
So far, the testimony of Addington and other administration aides, along with documents and Libby’s audiotaped grand jury testimony, have provided a rare glimpse of how the Bush White House scrambled to respond to a political crisis as it intersected a criminal investigation.
At the intersection was Cheney, along with Rove and Libby, who were working in the summer of 2003 to rebut claims by Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, that Bush had misled the nation about prewar intelligence on Iraq.
The White House denials on behalf of Rove and Libby came just before Rove secretly began acknowledging to the FBI that he had confirmed Plame’s identity for conservative columnist Bob Novak, who first published her name and relationship to Wilson.
About the same time, Libby came under suspicion because NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert had talked to the FBI, contradicting Libby’s version of a conversation between the two men that would become the heart of the perjury and obstruction charges against Libby.
Bush and Cheney made a common mistake in their public handling of the Plame affair, says presidential scholar and University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan, who has watched Bush’s career since his days as Texas governor.
“They’re in a high-stakes game of poker, the immediate pressure is political and the people in charge are political people,” Buchanan said. “If there is a legal issue it will dawn, but by then someone is out on a limb.”
Testimony and documents in the trial show Rove joining Cheney in trying to undercut Wilson’s claim that the administration had twisted prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
“We’re a day late in getting responses to the story,” Rove told a staff meeting, according to Libby’s notes.
“Get the full story out,” Cheney told aides, according to Libby’s grand jury testimony.
There were glitches in the leak campaign against Wilson.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller never wrote a story about it, even after Cheney persuaded Bush to declassify prewar intelligence so it could be shared with Miller. The intelligence report said Iraq was vigorously trying to acquire uranium from the African nation of Niger.
“It was a totally failed effort,” Libby told the grand jury of his meetings with Miller.
But there were successes too.
Libby recalled asking Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to reach out to The Wall Street Journal.
“I don’t have as good a relationship with The Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did,” Libby told the grand jury. “I talked to Secretary Wolfowitz about trying to get that point across, and he undertook to do so.”
The Journal ran an editorial focusing on the theme Libby wanted. The editorial stated that the prewar intelligence the newspaper was describing had not come from the White House, “which to our mind has handled this story in a hamhanded fashion.”
In the Libby trial, Bush comes across mostly as an interested observer.
According to Libby’s notes, some of which surfaced at the trial, Bush expressed interest in a May 6, 2003 New York Times column critical of the administration and referencing an unnamed former ambassador, who turned out to be Wilson.
In questioning Libby before the grand jury, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald juxtaposed Bush’s public statements condemning leakers and Libby’s contacts with reporters, some of whom have testified against him.
“Were you at all concerned that while the president was stating that there’s no White House involvement in any leaks whatsoever, that you were one of the people who may have been referred to” in press reports about possible White House leakers? asked Fitzgerald.
In the grand jury recordings, the prosecutor also asked Libby about his interaction with Rove a few days before Novak exposed Plame’s CIA identity. Libby said Rove “was animated that Novak was animated about this.” Libby added that Rove “thought it was a good thing that somebody was writing about” Wilson and his wife.
Cheney told Libby early in the effort to deal with Wilson that his wife worked at the CIA. And while the Cheney-Libby team worked in lockstep attacking Wilson in July 2003, Libby said he faced a somewhat distant vice president when the affair came under investigation, first by the Justice Department, then by Fitzgerald.
Regarding his discussions with reporters about Wilson’s wife, “I would have been happy to unburden myself” to Cheney, Libby told the grand jury, but “he didn’t want to hear it.”
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 The Associated Press