Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
When you already have a fall guy, use him--especially if he's a dead man.
Could that be the legal strategy of I. Lewis Libby (a.k.a. Scooter), Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, in the Plame/CIA leak case?
The news of the day in this scandal is that New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, is free. She and the Times cut a deal with Fitzgerald, after Miller had served 12 weeks for being in contempt of court. Under this arrangement, Miller agreed to testify before Fitzgerald's grand jury and to hand over edited version of her notes.
This is not much of a noble denouement to Miller's crusade for the First Amendment. Throughout this episode, she and her paper took what appeared to be an absolutist position against cooperating with subpoena-wielding prosecutors who yearn to poke around newsrooms--while other reporters accommodated Fitzgerald. Now Miller and the Times have also elected to cooperate. But what distinguishes her case is that it seems she went to jail because of a mistake.
Upon her release, Miller declared she had been imprisoned because "a journalist must respect a promise not to reveal the identity of a confidential source." She added, "I am leaving jail today because my source has now voluntarily and personally released me from my promise of confidentiality regarding our conversations relating to the Wilson-Plame matter." This source was Libby. But a lawyer for Libby, Joseph Tate, told The Washington Post on Friday that a year ago he had informed Floyd Abrams, an attorney for Miller, that Libby had waived confidentiality and that Miller was free to discuss her chats with Libby. (The New York Times account of this--which presumably was heavily lawyered--is rather convoluted; if you want to avoid a headache, stick to the Post piece.) Only a few weeks ago, Tate said, he was contacted by Robert Bennett, another Miller attorney, and was told that Miller had not accepted Libby's waiver and was in jail protecting Libby. Tate claimed he and Libby were "surprised to learn we had anything to do with her incarceration." The lawyers for Libby and Miller arranged a phone call between the two, in which Libby apparently assured Miller his year-old wavier was voluntary. Then she and the Times negotiated a deal with Fitzgerald.
This suggests that Miller ended up going to jail due to a miscommunication. Could she had avoided jail had the lawyers done a better job? Was she a martyr because of a mistake? Her position now is the same as the other reporters who are known to have cooperated with Fitzgerald: if the source waives protection, then a reporter can talk. Her crusade is over.
But back to the fall guy. The end of this sub-plot has caused Libby's team to leak his defense to the media. The Post quotes "a source familiar with Libby's account of his conversations with Miller." The odds are that source is Libby or his attorney. This super-secret source says that on July 8, 2003, Miller and Libby talked. This was six days before columnist Bob Novak disclosed the CIA identity of Valerie Wilson and two days after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote an explosive Times op-ed disclosing that his trip to Niger in February 2002 had led him to conclude that President Bush had falsely claimed that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium in Africa. In this conversation, Miller asked Libby why Wilson had been sent on this mission by the CIA. (Miller, whose prewar reporting had promoted the administration's case that Iraq was loaded with WMDs, had a personal, as well as professional, interest in Wilson's tale.) Libby, according to this source, told Miller that the White House was, as the Post puts it, "working with the CIA to find out more about Wilson's trip and how he was selected." Libby noted he had heard that Wilson's wife had something to do with it but he did not know where she worked.
Four or five days later, according to the Libby-friendly source, Libby and Miller spoke again. Now Libby knew more. He told Miller that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had a role in sending Wilson to Niger. This source tells the Post that Libby did not know her name or that she was an undercover officer at the CIA. That latter point is crucial, for, under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, Fitzgerald can only prosecute Libby if Libby disclosed information about a CIA officer whom he knew was a covert employee.
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There's no telling whether this source is being truthful. Karl Rove's attorney put out facts that crumbled as more information became public. But you don't have to look too far between the lines to discern Libby's cover story. It goes something like this: Wilson wrote his Times article. All hell broke loose. The White House asked, "Who authorized this trip?" Someone called the CIA for information. The CIA reported back that Wilson was contacted by the counter-proliferation office, where his wife Valerie was working. But--and here's the crucial "but"--the CIA did not tell the White House that Valerie was undercover. Thus, if any White House officials--say, Rove or Libby--repeated this information to reporters, then they may have been engaged in leaking classified and sensitive information to discredit a critic but they were not committing a crime. And who was at fault? George Tenet, the CIA director at the time.
How convenient. Tenet has already taken the fall for Bush's decision to launch the war in Iraq. He reportedly told Bush that the WMD case was a "slam-dunk." And subsequent investigations--from the Republican-controlled Senate intelligence committee and an independent commission that only looked at the intelligence community, not the White House--have excoriated Tenet's CIA for botching the WMD job. (Still, Bush saw fit to give Tenet a nice medal.)
Tenet is finished in Washington. (Paul Wolfowitz got a medal and was given the top job at the World Bank.) Is Libby looking to point to the dead body in the room and say, "It was him!"? If Libby or any other top White House aide wanted to know what had happened at the CIA regarding Wilson's trip to Niger, what would he or she have done? The obvious answer is that he or she would have called Tenet and demanded answers. And if Tenet--when he or an aide reported back--did not tell the White House Valerie Wilson was undercover, that would not be the White House's fault, right? In this scenario, the CIA outed Valerie Wilson.
Can such a defense fly? It will depend on what facts--or purported facts--Libby and the White House present to the prosecutor (or, if indictments ever come, to a jury). But a CIA-did-it defense might be in the making. And that has worked for this White House before.
All this speculation aside, the public record does show that both Rove and Libby spoke to several reporters (Novak, Miller and Time's Matt Cooper-- about Valerie Wilson and her CIA job. Wittingly or not, they disclosed classified information that derailed her career and that undermined her past and present work to thwart the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These leaks might have imperiled her contacts, previous operations, and one or more front groups used by her and her colleagues in their efforts to stop the spread of WMDs. (No damage assessment of the Plame leak has been made public.) At the least, contrition is warranted. But there has been none from the WHite House. And Bush's previous vow to dismiss anyone caught leaking classified information has been tossed into the waste bin, now that it is undeniable that Rove and Libby leaked classified information.
When Fitzgerald first pursued Miller and Cooper, it was easy to dismiss him as an overzealous prosecutor interested more in a vendetta than in making a case. But as the Cooper portion of this episode demonstrated, Fitzgerald was after information crucial to his investigation. From Cooper he obtained material that showed Rove had discussed the CIA identity of Wilson's wife with a reporter. Though Fitzgerald and Miller have clashed on non-Plame business previously, perhaps he has been seeking information just as critical from her.
For anyone following the matter, it's impossible not to guess about what's going on and what Fitzgerald will do. His grand jury expires at the end of October. He could impanel a new one and keep investigating. But all indications suggest he's close to done. One person who recently had contact with Fitzgerald and his attorneys says that they seem confident about whatever it is they are pursuing. The Miller matter was something of a sideshow that at times drew more attention than the central issue. Now that Miller has decided to follow the course of the other reporters, perhaps Fitzgerald will be ready to end his inquiry and render decisions about indictment. Throughout Washington, those who have closely observed this investigation express different hunches about whether there will be indictments, about whom will be indicted if there are indictments, about what laws will be invoked if there are indictments. There have been no leaks making one guess more probable than another. Those who care are all waiting for Fitzgerald.