By TOM RAUM
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald rested his case against Cheney’s former chief of staff on Thursday in a trial that has so far lasted 11 days. The defense planned to begin its presentation Monday.
The drama being played out in a Washington courtroom goes back in time to the early summer of 2003. The Bush administration was struggling to overcome growing evidence the mission in Iraq was anything but accomplished.
The claim about weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 had not been supported. Insurgent attacks were on the rise. Accusations were growing that the White House had distorted intelligence to rationalize the invasion.
Trial testimony so far Ã¢â‚¬â€ including eight hours of Libby’s own audio-recordedd testimony to a grand jury in 2004 Ã¢â‚¬â€ suggest that a White House known as disciplined was anything but that.
What has emerged, instead, is:
- a vice president fixated on finding ways to debunk a former diplomat’s claims that Bush misled the U.S. people in going to war and his suggestion Cheney might have played a role in suppressing contrary intelligence.
- a presidential press secretary kept in the dark on Iraq policy.
- top White House officials meeting daily to discuss the diplomat, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, and sometimes even his CIA-officer wife Valerie Plame.
Libby is accused of lying to the FBI and the grand jury about his talks with reporters concerning Plame. Libby got the White House press secretary to deny he was the source of the leak. He says he thought he first heard about Plame’s CIA job from NBC’s Tim Russert.
But after checking his own notes, he told the FBI and the grand jury Cheney himself told him Plame worked at CIA a month before the talk with Russert, but Libby says he forgot that in the crush of business.
Cheney already was helping manage the administration’s response to allegations that it twisted intelligence to bolster its case on Iraq when Wilson’s allegation Ã¢â‚¬â€ in a New York Times op-ed piece on July 6, 2003 Ã¢â‚¬â€ came into his cross hairs.
Cheney told Libby to speak with selected reporters to counter bad news. He developed talking points on the matter for the White House press office. He helped draft a statement by then-CIA Director George Tenet. He moved to declassify some intelligence material to bolster the case against Wilson.
Cheney even clipped Wilson’s column out of the newspapers and scrawled by hand on it: “Have they done this sort of thing before? Send an ambassador to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?”
Cheney and Libby discussed the matter multiple times each day, according to Libby’s grand jury testimony.
A former Cheney press aide, Cathie Martin, testified she proposed leaking some news exclusives but was kept partly in the dark when Cheney ordered Libby to leak part of a classified intelligence report. Later she arranged a luncheon for conservative columnists with Cheney to help bolster the administration’s case.
“What didn’t he touch? It’s almost like there was almost nothing too trivial for the vice president to handle,” said New York University professor Paul Light, an expert in the bureaucracy of the executive branch.
“The details suggest Cheney was almost a deputy president with a shadow operation. He had his own source of advice. He had his own source of access. He was making his own decisions,” Light said.
Wilson had written that he had not discovered any evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa. Wilson also asserted that the administration willfully ignored his findings.
Bush mentioned the unsubstantiated Africa connection in his State of the Union address in 2003. The White House and the CIA disavowed the 16-word assertion shortly after Wilson’s criticism appeared in print.
A week after Wilson’s article, his wife’s CIA employment was disclosed in a column by Robert Novak, who wrote that two administration officials told him she suggested sending the former ambassador on the trip.
The disclosure led to a federal investigation into whether administration officials deliberately leaked her identity. Her job was classified and it is a crime to knowingly disclose classified information to unauthorized recipients.
Libby, 56, is not charged with that. He is charged with lying to the FBI and obstructing a grand jury investigation into the leak of Plame’s identity. Libby is the only one charged in the case.
Cheney was upset by Wilson’s suggestion that his trip was done at the vice president’s behest and that the vice president had surely heard his conclusions well before Bush repeated the Niger story in his speech.
The CIA later said Wilson’s mission was suggested by his wife but authorized by others. The agency said Wilson’s fact-finding trip was in response to inquiries made by Cheney’s office, the State Department and the Pentagon.
Testifying for the prosecution, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said he was surprised to find the administration was backing off the 16 words that he had been defending. He said it wasn’t the first time he spoke of the administration’s position with great certainty, only to find it had changed and nobody had bothered to let him know.
Fleischer acknowledged passing along Plame’s identity to two reporters. But he testified he did not know at the time that her CIA job was classified.
According to prosecution testimony, Libby had conversations about Plame’s identity with Cheney as well as with a Cheney spokeswoman, a undersecretary of state and two CIA officials before he talked to Russert. In addition, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper testified that Libby discussed Plame’s CIA employment with them.
Russert, the final witness for the prosecution, flatly denied Libby’s assertion that the two had discussed Plame before Novak’s column appeared.
On the grand jury tapes, Libby also described steps that Cheney took to use parts of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified assessment of Iraq’s weapons capabilities, to rebut Wilson.
Among those not informed about this Cheney maneuver, according to the Libby tapes, were then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., then-CIA Director George J. Tenet and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
“What was interesting to me was what appears to be the total involvement of the vice president,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses. “If he’s down to micromanaging news leaks and responses at that level, I found that quite astounding.”
Meantime, it’s become clear that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first to disclose Plame’s work to reporters Ã¢â‚¬â€ Washington Post editor Bob Woodward and then Novak. Armitage says it was a mistake, claiming he didn’t know her job was classified.
Ultimately, he, Fleischer and special presidential adviser Karl Rove all have acknowledged talking to reporters about her. According to testimony, at least six reporters were privately told by top administration officials of Plame’s connection with the CIA.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 The Associated Press