I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s indictment on charges stemming from the leaking of an undercover CIA operative’s identity is once again shifting focus to the hardball tactics employed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney in defense of the war in Iraq.
Cheney, who served as secretary of defense under the elder President Bush during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of war with Iraq, aligning himself with neo-conservatives in the Pentagon.
As recently as Oct. 5, Cheney was spearheading the defense of the administration’s military action, telling the Association of the United States Army meeting in Washington that “by staying in this fight, we honor both the ideals and the security interests of the United States.”
Cheney’s aggressiveness sometimes put him at odds with former CIA Director George Tenet and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who often counseled a more measured response. But he found a soul mate in Libby, his chief of staff, who was aligned so closely to the vice president that he often was described as “Cheney’s Cheney.”
“Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known,” Cheney said in a statement. “He has given many years of his life to public service and has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction.”
It was Cheney, ironically, who set events in motion leading to the CIA leak investigation. Sometime in early 2002, the vice president and other administration officials learned that British intelligence had gained information indicating Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999 for the purpose of acquiring yellowcake _ processed uranium _ leading to speculation that the government of Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons.
The claim, if proven true, could have gone a long way toward validating President Bush’s claim that war in Iraq was necessary.
Cheney sought confirmation and contacted the Central Intelligence Agency, which in turn contacted Joseph Wilson, a veteran diplomat. Wilson was dispatched to Niger to check out the story so, Wilson said, “they could provide a response to the vice president’s office.” After an eight-day visit, Wilson reported back that “it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”
Still, over the next year, Bush referred to the incident obliquely, telling an audience in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, that Iraq “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.”
It was in his State of the Union address, on Jan. 28, 2003, that Bush finally uttered what has come to be known as the famous 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Questions about the claim were raised almost immediately.
On May 6, 2003, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times published a column debunking the 16 words, citing comments from an unidentified former ambassador who was dispatched to Niger in 2002 to investigate the allegations. The ambassador, obviously, was Wilson.
That, according to the Libby indictment, kicked off a lot of activity in the vice president’s office. On May 29, 2003, Libby contacted an undersecretary of state, who directed the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research to prepare a report about the ambassador and his trip. In late May and early June, Libby was advised that Wilson was the ambassador in question.
On June 11, 2003, according to the indictment, Libby first learned that Wilson was married to Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA employee who may have been responsible for sending him to Niger. On June 12, 2003, Cheney personally advised Libby that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA in the Counterproliferation Division. Libby understood that Cheney had received the word from the CIA.
Cheney, apparently, didn’t want to reveal how much he knew. On Sept. 14, 2003 _ three months after imparting his knowledge to Libby _ Cheney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he didn’t know anything about who sent Wilson to Niger.
Wilson ultimately, on July 6, 2003, revealed his role in the Niger affair in an article appearing in the New York Times, again asserting a yellowcake sale likely never took place. Over the next few days, the administration sought to debunk Wilson’s claims, telling several reporters, including Tim Russert of NBC, Matt Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times, that he was a lightweight who benefited from nepotism _ that his wife employed by the CIA was partly responsible.
Libby denied to the FBI and the federal grand jury that he told reporters about Wilson’s CIA ties, leading to the indictment.
“Mr. Libby’s story that he was at the tail end of a chain of phone calls, passing on from one reporter what he heard from another, was not true. It was false,” said special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. “He was at the beginning of the chain of the phone calls, the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter. And he lied about it afterward, under oath, repeatedly.”
The indictment sheds little light on Cheney’s activities, other than the fact that he imparted information about Wilson to Libby.
“The full facts of the case, including the role of Vice President Cheney, will come out at Libby’s trial,” said Rep. Jame Harmon, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.” “But one thing is beyond dispute _ senior officials at the White House set out to discredit Ambassador Wilson, who contradicted the administration’s claim that Iraq was acquiring nuclear material. They did this in an insidious way, by exposing the identity of his wife, who served courageously overseas and took enormous risks for the security of the United States.”
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)