Saturday, February 04, 2006

New Details Revealed on C.I.A. Leak Case

The New York Times
New Details Revealed on C.I.A. Leak Case

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 — Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff told prosecutors that Mr. Cheney had informed him "in an off sort of curiosity sort of fashion" in mid-June 2003 about the identity of the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak case, according to a formerly secret legal opinion, parts of which were made public on Friday.

The newly released pages were part of a legal opinion written in February 2005 by Judge David S. Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. His opinion disclosed that the former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., acknowledged to prosecutors that he had heard directly from Mr. Cheney about the Central Intelligence Agency officer, Valerie Wilson, more than a month before her identity was first publicly disclosed on July 14, 2003, by a newspaper columnist.

"Nevertheless," Judge Tatel wrote, "Libby maintains that he was learning about Wilson's wife's identity for the first time when he spoke with NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert on July 10 or 11." Mr. Russert denied Mr. Libby's account. Ms. Wilson is married to Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who has criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Over all, the new material amplified and provided new details on charges outlined in the October 2005 indictment against Mr. Libby. The indictment accused Mr. Libby of falsely telling investigators that he had first learned about Ms. Wilson from reporters, when he had, according to the charging document, learned of it from other government officials like Mr. Cheney.

Mr. Libby appeared in federal court in Washington on Friday for the first time in several months. A federal trial judge, Reggie B. Walton, set a calendar that means Mr. Libby's trial will not begin for at least 11 months, with jury selection to begin on Jan. 8, 2007.

Judge Walton had hoped to start the trial in the fall of 2006 but Mr. Libby's chief lawyer, Theodore V. Wells Jr., said he would be involved in another trial at that time.

Judge Tatel's comments in the formerly secret legal opinion were largely drawn from affidavits supplied by the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, that were written nearly two years ago, in August 2004. At that time, Mr. Fitzgerald was seeking to compel grand jury testimony from two reporters, Judith Miller, then a reporter for The New York Times, and Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine.

By that point, the newly disclosed pages showed, Mr. Fitzgerald had centered his inquiry on possible perjury charges against Mr. Libby, although that was not publicly known at the time. Mr. Fitzgerald had abandoned a prosecution based on a federal law that makes it a crime to disclose the identity of a covert officer at the C.I.A. Such charges, Judge Tatel wrote, were "currently off the table for lack of evidence."

Judge Tatel wrote his opinion as part of a unanimous decision by the three-judge panel which ruled on Feb. 15, 2005, that Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper had potentially vital evidentiary information and could not refuse to testify to the grand jury in the leak case on First Amendment grounds.

In a separate affidavit filed by Mr. Fitzgerald and disclosed Friday, the prosecutor wrote that Mr. Libby had testified that he had forgotten the conversation with Mr. Cheney when he talked to Mr. Russert. "Further according to Mr. Libby, he did not recall his conversation with the Vice President even when Russert allegedly told him about Wilson's wife's employment."

About eight pages of Judge Tatel's concurring opinion were deleted from the opinion released in 2005. After Mr. Libby's indictment, lawyers for The Wall Street Journal went to court and succeeded in obtaining the material released Friday by order of the same three-judge panel.

Not all of the previously withheld material was released. Several pages, which apparently contained information about Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation of Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, remained under seal. Mr. Rove has not been charged, but remains under investigation although his lawyer has expressed confidence that Mr. Rove will be cleared.

The release of new material represented an important First Amendment ruling for the right of public access to court records, said Theodore J. Boutros Jr., a lawyer for The Journal. "We're pleased that the court recognized that grand jury secrecy is not absolute and that there's an important public interest in the public being able to scrutinize the basis for a judicial decision."

The newly disclosed information provides new details about other events, like a previously reported lunch on July 7, 2003, in which Mr. Libby told Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, about Ms. Wilson.

In his opinion, Judge Tatel said that Mr. Fleischer said that Mr. Libby had told him that Ms. Wilson sent had her husband on a trip to Africa to examine intelligence reports indicating that Iraq had sought to buy uranium ore from Niger.

Judge Tatel wrote that Mr. Fleischer had described the lunch to prosecutors as having been "kind of weird" and had noted that Mr. Libby typically "operated in a very closed-lip fashion." Judge Tatel added: "Fleischer recalled that Libby 'added something along the lines of, you know, this is hush hush, nobody knows about this. This is on the q.t.' "

Neil A. Lewis contributed reporting for this article.