If a senior White House official leaks classified information that identifies an undercover CIA officer to reporters in order to undermine a critic of the administration, he is not entitled to lie about it to FBI agents and a grand jury charged with the task of determining if such a leak violated the law. That was special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s message, as he held a dramatic press conference at the Justice Department to explain the five-count indictment his grand jury issued against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. “This is a very serious matter,” he insisted.
The indictment charged Libby with two counts of making false statements to the FBI, two counts of committing perjury (by lying twice to the grand jury) and one count of obstruction of justice. All these charges referred to Libby’s account of how he came to learn of Valerie Wilson, the undercover CIA official who was married to former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a White House critic, and who was outed in a July 14, 2003 Bob Novak column. During interviews with FBI agents and in his testimony before the grand jury, Libby–who, before the Novak column was published, told Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA–repeatedly claimed that he was merely passing along information he had heard from other reporters. For instance, on March 5, 2004, Libby, answering questions about a July 12, 2003 conversation with Cooper, told the grand jury,
All I had was this information that was coming in from the reporters….I said, reporters are telling us that [about Valerie Wilson’s employment at the CIA]. I don’t know if it’s true. I was careful about that because among other things, I wanted to be clear I didn’t know Mr. Wilson. I don’t know–I think I said, I don’t know if he has a wife, but this is what we’re hearing.
On March 24, 2004, Libby, in another appearance before the grand jury, said,
All I had was that reporters are telling us that, and by that I wanted them to understand it wasn’t coming from me and that it might not be true….So I wanted to be clear they [the reporters to whom he spoke] didn’t, they didn’t think it was me saying it. I didn’t know if it [the information about Valerie Wilson] was true, and I wanted them to understand that.
But, according to the indictment, Libby had actively gathered information on Joseph Wilson and his wife after newspaper stories appeared about a trip that Joseph Wilson had taken to Niger for the CIA in February 2002, during which he had concluded that the allegation that Iraq had been shopping there for weapon-grade uranium was highly dubious. In May 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, using Wilson as a source, wrote about this trip without naming Wilson. The Washington Post did the same the following month. And on July 6, 2003, Wilson published an op-ed piece in the Times describing his mission to Niger and his findings, which undercut the Bush administration’s use of the Niger allegation in making a case for war.