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Cheney on Trial | The Nation

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Cheney on Trial

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It was fall 2003. The news had broken that the Justice Department, at the request of the CIA, was investigating the leak that outed Valerie Wilson as an undercover intelligence officer, and FBI investigators were targeting White House officials. With a firestorm under way, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, went to see his boss. Libby hadn't passed any information about Valerie Wilson to right-wing columnist Robert Novak, who first published the leak in a July 14, 2003, column. But he had talked to other reporters about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection before the leak occurred. And he also knew that Karl Rove, White House über-strategist, had spoken to Novak about her days before the leak column. That is, Libby knew a fair bit about the episode.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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Libby told Cheney he had not been one of Novak's two Administration sources for the leak, and he offered to disclose to the Vice President everything he knew. But Cheney did not want to hear it; Libby said no more.

Shortly after that, Libby, responding to a request from investigators, came across a note in his files indicating that in early June 2003--weeks before the Wilson affair began--Cheney had told him that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, a unit of the agency's clandestine operations directorate. (At that point, the former envoy had spoken only privately to two reporters about his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, during which he had concluded there was not much to the intelligence report that Iraq had been uranium-shopping there.) The note was a significant discovery. A key issue in the investigation was who in the Bush Administration had spread information about Wilson's wife to undermine Wilson's charge that the White House had twisted the prewar intelligence (a criticism Wilson made public in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed). And Libby had uncovered evidence showing that Cheney had conducted his own research on Joseph Wilson early on, learned about Valerie Wilson's CIA job and shared the information with Libby. Cheney apparently was the first White House official to discuss Valerie Wilson's specific place of work.

With a criminal investigation in full force, Libby told Cheney, I first heard about Valerie Wilson from you. From me? Cheney replied. The Vice President then tilted his head and, as Libby later said, "that was that." The two discussed it no further.

These vignettes of how Cheney does business--in a mob-boss sort of way--emerged from the recently completed obstruction of justice trial of Scooter Libby. The former senior White House aide was found guilty of four of five counts in a criminal case narrowly focused on whether Libby had lied to the FBI and a grand jury when he claimed he had no official knowledge of Valerie Wilson's CIA employment in the days before the leak and that he had merely shared with two reporters (Matt Cooper, then of Time, and Judith Miller, then of the New York Times) scuttlebutt about Wilson's wife that he had heard from Meet the Press host Tim Russert.

The jury accepted the prosecution's case that Libby had gathered information on Wilson's wife before the leak and then--after a criminal investigation was launched--tried to conceal what he had done. But beyond resolving whether Libby had mounted a criminal cover-up to hide his--and perhaps Cheney's--involvement in the leak episode, the trial exposed the inner world of Cheney's crew. The proceedings also proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Bush White House was neck-deep in the Valerie Wilson leak (even if Novak's original source was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage) and that the White House lied when it claimed otherwise.

Libby described his don't ask, don't tell meetings with Cheney during two appearances before the grand jury in 2004. For three days, jurors in the criminal trial listened to audiotapes of this testimony--and they could hear the disbelief in special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's voice as he questioned Libby about these conversations. After the leak investigation began, Fitzgerald noted, George W. Bush had requested that anyone with information come forward. So, the prosecutor asked, Why didn't Cheney want to know what Libby knew? Libby had no explanation. Why didn't Libby insist on spilling all to Cheney? The Vice President, Libby replied, had no desire for the information. Why didn't Libby tell Cheney or anyone else in the White House that Rove had spoken to Novak about Valerie Wilson--especially since White House press secretary Scott McClellan had declared it "ridiculous" to suggest Rove had been involved in the leak? "It wasn't what I was most concerned about," Libby told the grand jury. The trial jurors listening to Libby on tape could have been forgiven for wondering if he and Cheney were adhering to an unspoken Sopranos-style version of plausible deniability.

Though Cheney was not on trial, his shadow draped the proceedings. Testimony and evidence showed that three months into the Iraq War--when no WMDs were being found and the situation in Iraq was deteriorating--the Vice President took it upon himself to counter Joseph Wilson's criticism of the White House, even before Wilson went public. When Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was sniffing around in early June 2003 to learn more about an unnamed ambassador who had gone to Niger because of a request from the Vice President, Cheney, after collecting information on his own about Wilson's mission, dictated talking points to Libby. Libby then handed Pincus a semi-cover story: that it had been an aide to Cheney, not the Vice President, who had asked for more intelligence on the Niger charge a year before the war.

After Wilson's op-ed created a stir, Cheney directed Libby to leak selective portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMDs to Judith Miller at a private breakfast meeting at the St. Regis Hotel on July 8, 2003. Cheney even went to Bush to have the President declassify the NIE for this private leak. This act of automatic executive declassification (known only to Bush, Cheney and Libby) was unprecedented, as Libby later told the grand jury. Rather than make the full NIE available to all the media, Cheney and Libby decided to share pieces that backed the Administration's use of the Niger charge with a journalist who had reported stories supporting the Administration's contention that Saddam's Iraq was a storehouse of WMDs. They did not tell Miller that the NIE contained dissents on Niger and other WMD issues or that Cheney and Libby had recently received memos from the CIA indicating that the Niger intelligence had been spotty. It was at this meeting that Libby, according to Miller, told her for the second time that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.

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