Cheney on Trial
Judith Miller ended up not writing about the NIE or Wilson's wife. Her reporting had come under question within the Times. Selecting Miller for the handout, Libby told the grand jury, proved to be "a poor choice." But Cheney was not done. As the war raged, he was busy managing his own damage control and wanted this material made public by a simpatico media outlet. So he ordered Libby to leak parts of the NIE to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Libby, though, did not have a close relationship with the editors at the newspaper's neoconnish editorial page. But Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did. At Libby's direction, Wolfowitz disclosed slices of the NIE to the Journal. And the Journal dutifully ran an editorial that quoted from the not yet publicly available NIE to argue that Bush had been correct to cite the Niger charge in his prewar State of the Union address. "This information, by the way, does not come from the White House," the editorial said. (Cheney and Libby were not sharing with their press contacts the information--also not yet public--that the CIA had repeatedly warned the White House not to include the Niger charge in earlier Bush speeches.)
During the Libby trial, a clear picture emerged: Cheney ran his own duchy within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Libby had about a dozen national security aides working for the office of the Vice President--not the National Security Council. This was about double the staff that Vice President Al Gore maintained during the Clinton years. But more important, the OVP, as its denizens call it, independently pursued policies and developed press strategies. When the controversy exploded over Bush's use of the Niger charge, Karl Rove and the White House senior staff pondered how to respond, but Cheney and Libby took their own steps, without always consulting Rove or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. During his grand jury appearances, Libby described awkward (for him) meetings where senior White House aides discussed declassifying the NIE without realizing Cheney had already persuaded Bush to do this so Libby could slip it to selected outlets. (Cheney and Libby even cut Cathie Martin, Cheney's communications director, out of the loop at key junctures.) Libby also told the grand jury he and Cheney might have discussed telling reporters about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment--but that he could not recall having done so.
When the criminal investigation began in late September 2003, Cheney and Libby found themselves--at least momentarily--at odds with Bush's senior aides. In the midst of the media frenzy, Scott McClellan declared publicly that Rove had not been involved in the leak. Libby, according to his grand jury testimony, wanted similar treatment--for, like Rove, he was the subject of media speculation about the leak's origins. He went to McClellan and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and asked to be absolved publicly. They turned him down. Then Libby complained to his boss. Cheney wrote a brusque note--presumably for McClellan--that said, "Has to happen today. Call out to key press saying same thing about Scooter as Karl. Not going to protect one staffer & sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others." As Ted Wells, Libby's lead lawyer, told the trial jurors, Cheney was angry that the White House was rallying around Rove but not Libby. In Cheney's mind, Libby had leaked information to help the White House beat back the criticism that it had manipulated the case for war, and Cheney believed the CIA had screwed up by not yanking the Niger charge from the State of the Union speech. He didn't want Libby twisting while Rove ducked.
But Cheney, looking to blame the CIA for the White House's Niger problems, was in a bubble. He was ignoring the fact that the White House in mid-July 2003 had conceded that the CIA had repeatedly warned Bush's speech writers and the National Security Council to excise the Niger allegation from Bush's speeches before the State of the Union address. The Administration had surrendered, but Cheney and Libby were still fighting that war.
The White House did clear Libby within days, when McClellan said that he had spoken to both Rove and Libby "so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved." But this Cheney-facilitated declaration was not an accurate absolution. Nor was it any more honest than the White House claim, as enunciated by McClellan, that the leak was "not the way this White House operates" and that "if anyone in this Administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this Administration." The Libby trial presented evidence that at least three White House senior aides--Rove, Libby and Ari Fleischer, press secretary at the time of the leak--had spilled information about Valerie Wilson's classified position at the CIA. This was indeed how the Bush White House operated--and Rove and Libby apparently did not tell McClellan the truth. "Rove lied," Wells declared in his closing argument. Yet, as Wells noted early in the trial, Rove continued to work at the White House while his client ended up in the courtroom.
Before the trial started, at a December 19 court hearing, Wells declared, "We are calling the Vice President" as a witness. But this was more bravado than legal strategy. Cheney could have repeated on the witness stand his statement that Libby is "one of the most honest men I have ever met." But how useful an endorsement would that have been coming from an unpopular politician who symbolizes the Administration's credibility problems? Had Cheney taken the stand, Fitzgerald, during cross-examination, could have thrown a series of potentially embarrassing questions at him about his own part in the Wilson affair.
In fact, Fitzgerald had prepared for a cross-examination that would have lasted hours. But Cheney was spared by Team Libby--as was Rove. Though Wells suggested there had been a White House plot to get Libby (as well as a CIA plot, a State Department plot and an NBC News plot), he was not willing to put Cheney or Rove on the hot seat to prove the point (which apparently was beyond proving). In keeping Cheney and Rove out of the line of Fitzgerald's fire, Wells managed to preserve Libby's ultimate escape: a presidential pardon.