Sunday, February 04, 2007

Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over Trial; Testimony Points Out Cheney's Role in Trying to Dampen Joseph Wilson's Criticism
Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over Trial
Testimony Points Out Cheney's Role in Trying to Dampen Joseph Wilson's Criticism
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers

Vice President Cheney's press officer, Cathie Martin, approached his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on Air Force Two on July 12, 2003, to ask how she should respond to journalists' questions about Joseph C. Wilson IV. Libby looked over one of the reporters' questions and told Martin: "Well, let me go talk to the boss and I'll be back."

On Libby's return, Martin testified in federal court last week, he brought a card with detailed replies dictated by Cheney, including a highly partisan, incomplete summary of Wilson's investigation into Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction program.

Libby subsequently called a reporter, read him the statement, and said -- according to the reporter -- he had "heard" that Wilson's investigation was instigated by his wife, an employee at the CIA, later identified as Valerie Plame. The reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, was one of five people with whom Libby discussed Plame's CIA status during those critical weeks that summer.

After seven days of such courtroom testimony, the unanswered question hanging over Libby's trial is, did the vice president's former chief of staff decide to leak that disparaging information on his own?

No evidence has emerged that Cheney told him to do it. But Cheney's dictated reply is one of many signs to emerge at the trial of the vice president's unusual attentiveness to the controversy and his desire to blunt it. His efforts included the extraordinary disclosure of classified information, including one-sided synopses of Wilson's report and a 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq.

Under questioning from FBI agent Deborah S. Bond, Libby acknowledged that he and Cheney "may have talked" aboard the plane from Norfolk that day about whether to make public Plame's CIA employment, Bond testified Thursday.

Her testimony brought Cheney closer than ever to the heart of the controversy surrounding the Bush administration's efforts to discredit Wilson, who had accused the White House of twisting intelligence he had gathered as it sought to justify the invasion of Iraq.

White House officials testified that Cheney was irritated because he thought Wilson had alleged the vice president sent him on the fact-finding trip to Niger but rejected the investigation's conclusions. Time after time at the height of the controversy, they said, Cheney directed the administration's response to Wilson's criticism and Libby carried it out.

Cheney personally dictated other talking points for use by the White House press office; helped negotiate the wording of a key statement by then-CIA Director George J. Tenet; instructed Libby to deal directly with selected reporters; told Libby to disclose selected passages from the national intelligence estimate and other classified reports; and held a luncheon for conservative columnists to discuss the controversy.

Throughout this period, Cheney kept a news clipping of Wilson's criticisms on his desk, annotated with the question, "did his wife send him on a junket?" according to court statements. Libby told a grand jury that he and Cheney discussed it on multiple occasions each day.

Randall Eliason, a former chief of public corruption prosecutions for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, said, "There has been significant evidence of how deeply the vice president was involved. If Cheney is personally, deeply involved in it, it's Libby's job to be personally, deeply involved."

Wilson was a former U.S. ambassador dispatched by the CIA the previous year -- at the suggestion of his wife but on a decision by other officials -- to determine whether Iraq had recently tried to acquire nuclear materials from Niger. The agency later said that it was responding to inquiries made by Cheney's office, the State Department and the Defense Department.

On July 6, 2003, 16 months after his return, Wilson publicly accused the administration of ignoring his report, which debunked the Iraq-Niger speculation, and of twisting his information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Wilson's allegations provoked a political firestorm. Within days, the White House was forced to repudiate a key assertion President Bush had made in his State of the Union address, and Tenet issued an unusual public apology for failing to stop the president from making it. But rather than tamping down the controversy, the administration's backtracking only "made it flare up," as then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer testified last week.

In its response, the White House wound up training its fire not only on the substance of Wilson's allegations but on him personally, trial testimony has shown.

Over the course of that week in July, bracketed by Wilson's published criticism and Cheney's flight back from Norfolk, three senior White House officials -- Libby, Fleischer and special presidential assistant Karl Rove -- inaccurately told or suggested to five reporters that Wilson had been dispatched to Niger by Plame, according to the testimony. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage separately told columnist Robert D. Novak that Plame worked at the CIA, and Novak made that news public July 14.

The belittling implication of the disclosure, as Fleischer and others testified last week, was that nepotism, rather than Wilson's knowledge and experience, lay behind his involvement in the matter.

While Cheney and Libby have asserted that their sole intent in contacting journalists was to defend the credibility of their policy, prosecutors disclosed new evidence on Wednesday that the administration was focusing on Wilson himself. Cheney's then-communications director, Mary Matalin, advised Libby in a phone call July 10, prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said.

Matalin, according to notes Libby made of the conversation, called Wilson "a snake" and warned that his "story has legs," Zeidenberg said. She laid out a plan: "We need to address the Wilson motivation. We need to be able to get the cable out. Declassified. The president should wave his wand."

While arguing unsuccessfully that the jury should see all of Libby's notes on the conversation, Zeidenberg said, "All we have heard from the defense all along is that Mr. Libby was only interested in responding on the merits." He said it was significant that Libby wrote down word for word "an extremely negative and ad hominem attack, if you will, about a critic."

Plame's employment at the CIA was classified, making it illegal for any official to knowingly and intentionally disclose it. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's 22-month investigation did not produce charges of that offense.

But Libby was indicted on charges of making false statements, obstruction of justice and perjury for denying that he was aware of Plame's employment and had disclosed it to journalists.

In courtroom testimony, witnesses have asserted that Cheney and two others told Libby about Plame in June, and that he told two journalists and Fleischer -- who in turn said he told two more journalists. It was, in short, a hot topic of gossip by the administration.

According to Martin's testimony, Cheney directed her early in the week of July 6 to keep track of daily news coverage of the controversy, including "who was continuing to comment." During a meeting on Capitol Hill, Martin said, Cheney "dictated to me what he wanted me to say" about it to reporters.

In a meeting July 8, Martin said, Cheney also decided that Libby would call NBC News reporters Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory to discuss the matter. Martin said she walked out during Libby's subsequent calls to the reporters.

After Mitchell suggested in a broadcast that the White House was "pushing blame" for the mess toward the CIA, Martin said, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley looked directly at Martin during a staff meeting and said such efforts were improper. At that moment, Martin said, Libby "looked down," in effect leaving her to absorb the blame.

Three months later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan publicly cleared Rove of leaking Plame's name -- inaccurately, as it turned out -- but provided no such statement about Libby.

According to Cheney's own notes, introduced at the trial last week, Cheney told McClellan that such a statement "has to happen today. Call out key press saying same thing about Scooter as Karl. Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."

Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.