In the top right corner of The New York Times front-page — where the biggest news happens daily — a news scoop has placed Vice President Cheney atop the CIA leak scandal pyramid.
The revelation was discovered in Lewis (Scooter) Libby’s own notepad, according to sources identified by the Times only as “lawyers involved in the case.” The new evidence sheds bright light on the vice president’s role, at last. And it sheds dark light on the past statements of the loyal vice presidential chief-of-staff. Libby had maintained, publicly and under oath that he just couldn’t remember who told him the key info that became the centerpiece of his effort to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had emerged as Bush-Cheney Iraq policy critic. Libby’s notes show it was his boss who told him it was Wilson’s wife, a CIA officer, who suggested her husband for the controversial mission to Niger.
Cheney’s outing comes some two years after President Bush, Cheney and their spokespeople promised they would urge everyone connected with the incident to be candid and forthcoming with the public and the prosecutor. Straight truth has been hard to come by for the prosecutor and for the press _ the latter sadly often knew more than it reported publicly. No evidence has surfaced that Cheney knew Valerie Plame was a secret agent, so his actions so far seem political but not illegal. But Cheney apparently touched off the chain of events that began as a political-getting-even-as-usual but wound up as a special prosecutor’s probe that has shaken the Bush-Cheney White House to its foundation.
On June 12, 2003, reportedly according to Libby’s notes, Cheney told him that it was Wilson’s wife who suggested her husband for the mission Niger. That mission ultimately led to Wilson’s report that he found no evidence to support Bush’s 2003 State of the Union claim that Iraq sought yellow-cake uranium from Niger. Libby’s notes reportedly also show that Cheney got his info from then-CIA director George Tenet, who apparently answered a direct question from the veep.
Libby and Bush strategist Karl Rove, in talks with journalists, then used the info about Wilson needing a boost from his wife to land his job to discredit his credentials in talks with journalists. But their zeal became their problem _ for Plame, Wilson’s wife, was a CIA secret agent, and it is a federal felony to intentionally disclose a covert agent’s identity. Columnist Robert Novak’s disclosure of her role triggered special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s two-year probe.
The revelation of Cheney’s pyramid-topping role and Libby’s real intent should shock no one who thought about how Washington and the Bush-Cheney White House really operate. Yet here in the ever-competitive capital city, the scoop became a source of both revelation and frustration. Including right here in this corner.
There is no professional pride in gut-guessing right and still not nailing down a getable scoop. It’s worse than frustrating. But this is one where a few of us had understood where this secret agent fandango would wind up, even though we couldn’t find the so-called smoking gun proof.
Consider Libby: First, Libby testified he learned of Plame’s role from NBC News’ Tim Russert, but Russert swore it wasn’t so. Then Libby said maybe it some other reporter. But wait _ Libby, a loyal Cheney man, always stayed cautiously in the background. Why would he put his aspirations on the chopping block on now? Only to protect one person: his boss.
So who told the Veep? Months ago, I began checking my gut-guessing with sources. Later I told a Washington bureau chief for a major newspaper and we pressed on, reporting separately. My supposition, based just on my sense of how Cheney (whom I’ve known for decades) operates, was that Cheney’s style would be to ask Tenet directly how a policy critic like Wilson got that CIA gig.
None of us knew that Libby took _ and kept _ notes of his meeting with his boss. Apparently the special prosecutor learned of them rather recently. A thumbs up to the Times for breaking a scoop in this saga, where it previously had hid the scoops it knew first hand. Attention Judy Miller: Don’t call your office!
This much is clear: This work-in-progress has already provided an important yet often-forgotten instruction into how we must pay attention to how things really work in Washington, and often don’t.
Cheney’s concealed role at the top of this pyramid was a scoop that some sensed and chased for months, but never got. The Times nailed it, big time, thanks to Scooter Libby’s smoking notepad.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)