Libby Links Cheney to Plame Leak

FBI documents obtained by a congressional committee indicate that Vice President Dick Cheney may have authorized his former deputy to leak the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.

In a June 3 letter sent to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Rep. Henry Waxman, Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on the Justice Department to release transcripts of interviews that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald conducted with President George W. Bush and Cheney about the leak of Plame’s identity.

Waxman said the Justice Department has turned over to his committee redacted transcripts of interviews that federal investigators conducted with former White House political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

According to those transcripts, Libby told federal investigators that Cheney may have told him to leak Plame’s association with the CIA to reporters, Waxman said in the letter to Mukasey.

“In his interview with the FBI, Mr. Libby stated that it was ‘possible’ that Vice President Cheney instructed him to disseminate information about Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson’s wife to the press. This is a significant revelation and, if true, a serious matter. It cannot be responsibly investigated without access to the Vice President’s FBI interview,” Waxman wrote.

Waxman’s office would not release copies of the Libby-Rove transcripts or describe the contents in any detail. Fitzgerald’s investigative interviews with Bush and Cheney — asking how much knowledge the President and Vice President had about the Plame leak — have not been disclosed.

The scandal revolves around actions taken in June and July of 2003 when Rove, Libby and other administration officials leaked information to reporters aimed at discrediting Ambassador Wilson, who had challenged the truthfulness of Bush’s pre-invasion claims that Iraq had purchased yellowcake uranium from Niger.

During the investigation, it was revealed that Bush authorized portions of a classified National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s alleged WMD to be disseminated to select reporters as part of the anti-Wilson campaign. Cheney dispatched Libby on that mission.

However, it is still unknown whether Libby was authorized to pass on information about Plame’s work at the CIA or whether he did that on his own. Other administration officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Rove, also served as sources for journalists on Plame’s identity as a CIA officer.

Right-wing columnist Robert Novak blew Plame’s cover on July 14, 2003, in an article suggesting that Plame had helped arrange her husband’s trip to Africa as some kind of junket.

Wilson, a diplomat who had served in Iraq and Africa, was selected by the CIA’s non-proliferation office, where Plame worked, to travel to Niger in early 2002 to examine the Iraq-yellowcake allegations. Wilson returned to the United States and reported to CIA officials that the claims appeared to have no merit, a finding that matched with inquiries from other U.S. officials.

Nevertheless, in January 2003, seeking to dramatize the need for invading Iraq, President Bush cited the Niger claims in his State of the Union speech. That set the stage for Wilson to begin criticizing the misuse of this intelligence. Initially, Wilson avoided giving all the details about his role but finally went fully public in a New York Times op-ed on July 6, 2003.

That, in turn, prompted an intensified White House campaign against Wilson leading to Novak’s article. With Plame’s cover blown and her spy network endangered, the CIA sought a criminal investigation into the leak.

Knowing Nothing

As the probe got underway In September 2003, Bush professed to know nothing about the controversy and publicly called on anyone with information to step forward. At the time, however, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters to undermine Wilson’s criticism.

In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started -–- since he was involved in starting it — he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role. That was followed by denials of involvement from Rove and Libby –- issued through then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Fitzgerald indicted Libby in October 2005 on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. In October 2005, I first reported that Fitzgerald also was investigating whether Cheney played a role in the leak. I reported, too, that Bush and Cheney discussed Plame prior to the leak, undercutting Bush’s claims some three months later that he was unaware of nuances of the case.

In February 2007, during closing arguments at Libby’s trial, defense attorney Theodore Wells told jurors that the prosecutors had been attempting to build a case of conspiracy against the Vice President and Libby, and that the prosecutors believed Libby may have lied to federal investigators and to a grand jury to protect Cheney.

In his rebuttal, Fitzgerald told jurors:

“You know what? [Wells] said something here that we’re trying to put a cloud on the Vice President. We’ll talk straight. There is a cloud over the Vice President. He sent Libby off to [meet with former New York Times reporter] Judith Miller at the St. Regis Hotel. At that meeting — the two-hour meeting — the defendant talked about the wife [Plame]. We didn’t put that cloud there. That cloud remains because the defendant obstructed justice and lied about what happened.”

The jury convicted Libby of four counts, leading to a sentence of 30 months in jail. However, Bush commuted the sentence to eliminate jail time and left open the possibility that Libby might get a full pardon before Bush leaves office.

The way Bush handled Libby’s commutation removed the chief incentive for Libby to cooperate further with prosecutors (to avoid or reduce his jail time) and dangled a possible reward down the road if Libby remains in the administration’s good graces (a full pardon).

Now, according to the transcript cited by Rep. Waxman, it appears that Libby did tell prosecutors in an earlier interview that it was “possible” that Cheney did order him to leak Plame’s identity. Waxman is now pressing to learn what Cheney and Bush said in response to Fitzgerald’s questions about exactly what they did or did not order their subordinates to do.

Jason Leopold is an investigative reporter and a two-time winner of the Project Censored award. He is the author of the National Bestseller, News Junkie, a memoir, and he has launched a new online investigative news magazine, The Public Record. Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.