A month before Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert status as a CIA operative was revealed in a newspaper column, Vice President Dick Cheney told his then-chief of staff, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, and his press secretary, Cathie Martin, that Plame Wilson worked at the spy agency.
But according to a 28-page summary of Cheney’s May 8, 2004 interview with the FBI and the special prosecutor probing the leak, Cheney did not recall having that conversation.
“Cheney has no recollection of Cathie Martin entering his office at some point while Scooter Libby was present and advising both of them that [Plame Wilson] was employed by the CIA,” states the interview summary, released late Friday by the FBI after a lengthy court battle between the Bush and Obama administrations and the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
The ‘Plame-gate’ affair dates back to 2003, when Valerie Plame Wilson’s husband, former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly disclosed that he had undertaken a fact-finding trip to Niger which had disproved President Bush’s claim that Iraq was seeking to buy yellowcake uranium from the African nation.
As Wilson was going public with his knowledge of the Niger falsehood, Bush administration officials began leaking the fact that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Niger.
The leakers included Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, White House political adviser Karl Rove and Libby.
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. Two months later, a CIA complaint to the Justice Department sparked a criminal probe into the identity of the leakers.
Initially, Bush professed not to know anything about the matter, and several of his senior aides, including Rove and Libby, followed suit. However, it later became clear that Rove and Libby had a hand in the Plame leak and that Bush and Cheney had helped organize a campaign to disparage Wilson by giving critical information to friendly journalists.
Remarkably, according to a summary of his interview, Cheney said “that the identity of Valerie Wilson and her employment was not high on his radar screen and her employment with the CIA and relationship with Joe Wilson did not figure prominently in his thinking.”
Cheney added that he had no recollection of discussing Valerie Plame Wilson with Libby before her name appeared in Novak’s column.
Cheney’s denials are simply not credible. Evidence has surfaced over the years that shows Cheney played a central role in the campaign to discredit Ambassador Wilson and may even have given Libby the order to leak Plame’s identity to journalists. Libby’s own notes showed that he and Cheney discussed Valerie Plame Wilson at least a month before Novak unmasked her identity.
The long-awaited disclosure of Cheney’s interview transcript also serves as a vivid reminder of the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq, initiating a war based wholly on bogus intelligence, and punishing critics who dared to speak out against the White House’s assertions that Saddam Hussein constituted an immediate threat to the United States.
The Niger claim Wilson called into question showed up in Bush’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2003, as what became known as the “Sixteen Words”: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The White House has never provided a full accounting of how the Niger story, despite warnings from several government agencies that it was unreliable, wound its way from strange-looking documents that surfaced in Italy to become a key element of Bush’s case for war.
Cheney described the CIA’s decision to dispatch Ambassador Wilson to Niger as ‘amateur-hour’ and he disparaged the CIA’s handling of Iraq intelligence, which Cheney, Libby and others in the Office of the Vice President pressured agency analysts to manipulate in an attempt to portray Iraq as posing an immediate threat.
Cheney said he could not recall playing any role in the campaign to attack Wilson, who he described as “something of an aggravation.”
But former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan wrote in his memoir, What Happened: Inside The Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, that the White House’s behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit Wilson heated up in June 2003 when Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus contacted the Office of the Vice President.
“In early June, while making inquiries about what [New York Times columnist Nicholas] Kristof wrote [about a then anonymous Wilson’s claims regarding Iraq’s attempt to acquire yellowcake uranium], Pincus had contacted Cathie Martin, who oversaw the vice president’s communications office. Martin went to Scooter Libby to discuss what Pincus was sniffing around about,â€ McClellan wrote. â€œThe vice president and Libby were quietly stepping up their efforts to counter the allegations of the anonymous envoy to Niger, and Pincus’s story was one opportunity for them to do just that.”
But in his interview with Fitzgerald, Cheney said he did not recall these events nor does he remember being concerned with the substance of the articles in question.
Cheney’s responses are reminiscent of the testimony of other top Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who, on more than 70 occasions, told members of Congress he could not recall anything substantive related to his role in the firings of nine US attorneys. Recently released documents related to testimony Rove gave House investigators regarding his role in the attorney firings show him using the same line.
In fact, Cheney said 72 times during his interview he could not recall key events he was involved in — such as conversations he had with his staffers and other Bush administration officials — less than a year after Plame Wilson’s identity was leaked nor could he recall dictating a set of talking points to Libby about efforts to counter Ambassador Wilson’s charges.
Finally, he said he was unaware of who in the Bush administration was responsible for the leak and added that he had no recollection of discussing the undercover CIA operative with Libby before Novak’s column was published. Cheney claims he was first told by former CIA Director George Tenet that Plame Wilson worked at the agency.
Though Cheney said he could not recall whether he discussed Plame Wilson with Rove, Libby, Martin and others, he was certain he did not discuss her with Armitage, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or then-Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman. He added that he’s sure he discussed Ambassador Wilson with Rove, but he’s sure he did not discuss Wilson’s wife with the Bush’s former political adviser.
“For years the American people have wondered what role Vice President Cheney played in outing former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. “While we may never know the whole story, with the release of these documents we are one step closer.”
Sloan continued, “In his closing statement at Scooter Libby’s trial, Special Counsel Fitzgerald said a cloud remained over the vice president. Mr. Cheney’s near-total amnesia regarding his role in this monumental Washington scandal – resulting in the conviction of his top aide – shows why.”
Yet Libby testified before a grand jury that he took his marching orders from Cheney.
On July 8, 2003, Cheney had instructed Libby to leak the contents of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) highlighting bogus claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. The leak was aimed at undercutting Ambassador Wilson’s accusations that the Bush administration ‘twisted’ prewar Iraq intelligence, published in a Times op-ed two days earlier.
But Cheney said he didn’t recall any conversations he had with Libby or others about leaking the contents of the NIE to Miller, according to the summary of his interview with Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and other FBI investigators.
“The vice president does not recall any member of his staff, including Scooter Libby, meeting with New York Times reporter Judith Miller during the week of 7/7/03, just after the publication of Joe Wilson’s editorial in the New York Times,” according to the interview transcript.
Libby, however, testified to a grand jury in March 2004, two months before Cheney’s interview, that Cheney not only gave him the green light to leak the so-called ‘key judgments’ of the NIE, but also said that the authorization to do so came from President George W. Bush.
“The vice president instructed me to go talk to Judith Miller to lay things out for her,” Libby said, according to court transcripts.
According to Cheney’s interview transcript, “although the Vice President cannot recall having such a conversation, if one did occur, he would have advised Libby only to use something if it was declassified.”
But again, Cheney’s statement was contradicted by Libby’s sworn testimony.
In court documents filed by Fitzgerald before Libby was indicted (and later convicted) on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to investigators, the special prosecutor noted that Libby testified ‘that the Vice President advised him that the President had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the still classified NIE.
“Defendant testified that he brought a brief abstract of the NIE’s key judgments to the meeting with Miller on July 8. Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was ‘vigorously trying to procure’ uranium [from Niger]. Defendant testified that this July 8th meeting was the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the President’s authorization that it be disclosed. Defendant testified that one of the reasons why he met with Miller at a hotel was the fact that he was sharing this information with Miller exclusively.”
Cheney said he had no recollection of ever instructing Libby to do such a thing.
But during closing arguments in Libby’s criminal trial three years later, Fitzgerald told jurors:
“The vice president picked Judith Miller for a reason. They went to the St. Regis Hotel for two hours for a reason. The best way to get a story out is to leak an exclusive. That’s one of the times [July 8, 2003], the defendant shared the employment of Wilson’s wife [Plame] with the CIA with Judith Miller. There was a focus of who sent Wilson [to Niger]. There was an obsession of Wilson. They felt the wife was responsible.”
Cheney also refused to respond to questions as to whether the order to disclose the NIE to Miller was approved by Bush.
“When asked if he ever advised Libby that the President had decided to declassify the NIE, the Vice President declined to answer in view of his concerns about sharing potentially privileged conversations between himself and the President,” the interview summary says. “It was clarified for the Vice President that he was not being asked to comment on the substance of his conversations with the President, but rather, only whether he ever told Libby that he had such a discussion with the President.”
“In response, Vice President Cheney repeated his assertion that he must refrain from commenting to the investigators about any private and/or privileged conversations he may have had with the President.”
In his book, McClellan said in early 2006 a reporter questioned him aboard Air Force One about rumors that Bush authorized Libby to leak the NIE to the media. McClellan wrote that he asked the president the question directly and was stunned by his response.
A reporter “asserted you authorized the leak of part of the NIE,” McClellan wrote about a conversation he had with Bush.
“Yeah, I did,” is what Bush’s response was, McClellan wrote. “The look on his face said he didn’t want to discuss the matter any further. Nor did I expect him to, since he had already been advised by his personal attorney Jim Sharp not to discuss any details related to the Libby trial. I was shocked to hear the President casually acknowledging its accuracy, as if discussing something no more important than a baseball score or the latest tidbit of inside-the-Beltway gossip.”
“No one else was told about the secret declassification – not Chief of Staff Andy Card, not National Security Advisor Condi Rice. When Rice was publicly rejecting the notion of selective declassification on July 11, 2003, Scooter Libby had already leaked it to Judith Miller on July 8 â€” at the vice president’s direction with authority from the president.”
In 2007, Libby was convicted of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to 30 months in jail. Bush later commuted the sentence to spare Libby any jail time.
Cheney unsuccessfully lobbied Bush during his last days in office to issue a full pardon to Libby.