The Bush administration, stung by Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s report that discounted Iraq efforts to secure weapons-grade uranium — a key argument to justify an invasion of Iraq — launched a concerted effort to discredit Wilson with planted leaks to reporters.
Reports Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer in The Washington Post:
As he drew back the curtain this week on the evidence against Vice President Cheney’s former top aide, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald for the first time described a “concerted action” by “multiple people in the White House” — using classified information — to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” a critic of President Bush’s war in Iraq.
Bluntly and repeatedly, Fitzgerald placed Cheney at the center of that campaign. Citing grand jury testimony from the vice president’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Fitzgerald fingered Cheney as the first to voice a line of attack that at least three White House officials would soon deploy against former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Cheney, in a conversation with Libby in early July 2003, was said to describe Wilson’s CIA-sponsored trip to Niger the previous year — in which the envoy found no support for charges that Iraq tried to buy uranium there — as “a junket set up by Mr. Wilson’s wife,” CIA case officer Valerie Plame.
Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for denying under oath that he disclosed Plame’s CIA employment to journalists. There is no public evidence to suggest Libby made any such disclosure with Cheney’s knowledge. But according to Libby’s grand jury testimony, described for the first time in legal papers filed this week, Cheney “specifically directed” Libby in late June or early July 2003 to pass information to reporters from two classified CIA documents: an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and a March 2002 summary of Wilson’s visit to Niger.
One striking feature of that decision — unremarked until now, in part because Fitzgerald did not mention it — is that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before.
United Nations inspectors had exposed the main evidence for the uranium charge as crude forgeries in March 2003, but the Bush administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained they had additional, secret evidence they could not disclose. In June, a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair’s role in promoting the story. With no ally left, the White House debated whether to abandon the uranium claim and became embroiled in bitter finger-pointing about whom to fault for the error. A legal brief filed for Libby last month said that “certain officials at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department each sought to avoid or assign blame for intelligence failures relating to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”
It was at that moment that Libby, allegedly at Cheney’s direction, sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation. Libby made careful selections of language from the 2002 estimate, quoting a passage that said Iraq was “vigorously trying to procure uranium” in Africa.
The case, as laid out by Fitzgerald, exposes the extraordinary lengths President George W. Bush was willing to go to justify his controversial war with Iraq at any cost, even though doubts were already being raised in other parts of the intelligence community on whether or not the Iraq-Niger connection was valid.