Did Cheney Know Plame Was Undercover?

Did Cheney Know Plame Was Undercover?

The indictment of I. Lewis Libby indictment casts Vice President Dick Cheney in a key role in the CIA leak investigation: It suggests Cheney had reason to suspect Valerie Wilson was a covert officer.


The Scooter Libby indictment is rather straightforward. He first told FBI agents and later the grand jury that he had no independent information regarding Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie (and her employment at the CIA). He said that he only had picked up rumors about Wilson’s wife from reporters and that this was the information he passed to other reporters. He said he wasn’t even certain the scuttlebutt he had shared with the journalists was correct. Yet special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald uncovered evidence, which seems rather strong, that Libby actively gathered information on the Wilsons from the CIA and the State Department before talking to reporters about Valerie Wilson.

And the most intriguing piece of evidence Fitzgerald mentioned in the indictment (with, alas, no elaboration) was that on June 12, 2003–nearly a month before Joseph Wilson published his now-infamous op-ed piece on his trip to Niger but several weeks after he had shared information about this trip with the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as an anonymous source–Vice President Dick Cheney told Libby, in the words of the indictment, that “Wilson’s wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division.”

By sharing this information with Libby, Cheney was telling his chief of staff that Wilson’s wife was employed by the Operations Directorate of the CIA–the clandestine service of the intelligence agency where undercover officers work. The Counterproliferation Division is part of the DO–as it been called within the CIA–and anyone familiar with the CIA, especially a senior administration official obsessed with weapons of mass destruction ought to know that. This short sentence suggests that Libby had reason to assume that (or wonder if) Valerie Wilson was working undercover at the CIA. As Barton Gellman noted in an important front-pager in Sunday’s Washington Post, this statement from Cheney was …an unambiguous declaration that [Valerie Wilson’s] position was among the case officers of the operations directorate…

It’s possible that Libby didn’t catch the significance of Cheney’s assertion. Or that he figured–wrongly–for some reason that Valerie Wilson worked in the Operations Directorate but was not operating under cover. But if the indictment is accurate–and Cheney’s office has not challenged it–Libby at the very least was profoundly careless in discussing Valerie Wilson with two reporters (Judith Miller of fhe New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time) without first checking on her position at the CIA. After all, it was the Vice President who had told him that she worked in the clandestine portion of the CIA.

Let’s sum up: Libby disclosed identifying information about a covert official of the US intelligence service after being told she was employed by a division of the Operations Directorate. This scenario comes close to being a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and it does appear that Fitzgerald, even recently, had contemplated seeking an indictment of Libby or someone else under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Just last week, FBI agents working with Fitzgerald were investigating issues that would be relevant to such a prosecution. But perhaps Fitzgerald realized it would be difficult to pursue this sort of case because Libby (or anyone else) could mount a defense by claiming he had not checked to see if Valerie Wilson specifically was under cover and, thus, did not really, really know her status.

Conservative and Republican critics of the leak investigation have long argued that since there was no way Fitzgerald could indict anyone under the narrowly drafted (and poorly written) Intelligence Identities Protection Act, his whole inquiry was pointless. But this one sentence is a hint that Fitzgerald came close. And his investigation, Fitzgerald says, is not over yet.

This sentence suggests Libby was either damn close to breaking that law or recklessly negligent by not determining Valerie Wilson’s CIA position before discussing her with reporters. Moreover, it prompts serious questions about Cheney. How did he find out about Valerie Wilson? The indictment notes that “Libby understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA.” But from whom at the CIA? The indictment does not say. Shouldn’t Cheney have realized that a person working at the DO’s Counterproliferation Division was probably–or possibly–an undercover official?

Given Cheney’s long years of government service–when he was in the House of Representatives he sat on the intelligence committee–it’s not a stretch to expect that Cheney would understand a DO officer might be undercover and that one should handle information about such a public servant with much care. (As the indictment notes, Libby was “obligated by applicable laws and regulations…not to disclose classified information to persons not authorized to receive such information, and otherwise to exercise proper care to safeguard classified information.” Valerie Wilson’s employment status at the CIA, the indictment says, was “classified.”)

Yet Cheney’s chief of staff leaked information on Valerie Wilson to reporters. As the Post piece notes, on July 12, 2003–six days after Wilson published his op-ed–Libby apparently discussed with Cheney what he should say to reporters, particularly Matt Cooper, about the Wilson imbroglio. The indictment does not disclose what Cheney said to Libby at this point. But the next day, Libby confirmed for Cooper that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Would Libby have done so had Cheney told him to be careful not to identify a DO officer when discussing the Wilson affair with reporters? Perhaps so. But it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Libby was–inadvertently or knowingly–spreading classified information about an undercover officer with the tacit or explicit consent of his boss.

The indictment does not resolve this issue, and Fitzgerald is not likely to offer any other evidence about Cheney’s conversations with Libby unless he produces additional indictments. At his press conference, Fitzgerald yielded no hints as to whether other indictments would come. The consensus of reporters there–which I shared–is that he acted like a fellow who was close to done with this endeavor; other close-watchers of the scandal that I have spoken with since have offered various analyses that lead to the–wishful?–conclusion that more indictments are on their way.

But the questions generated by this one line in the Libby indictment could be resolved if Cheney would speak candidly about his role in the leak affair. What exactly did he tell Libby about Valerie Wilson? What did the two discuss during that July 12, 2003, conversation regarding what Libby should say to reporters? And what was Cheney doing seeking out information on Joseph and Valerie Wilson on his own? Why did he not rely on Libby or other staffers? Why was this macher down in the weeds? When he learned that Valerie Wilson worked at the DO’s Counterproliferation Division, what was he told about her job there?

Now that it is clear–according to the statements of Cooper and Miller–that Libby did reveal the identity of a DO officer to reporters, why hasn’t Cheney expressed any regrets, apologized, or acknowledged his role in the affair? And when the White House and Bush declared in the fall of 2003 that Karl Rove and Libby were not “involved in the leak,” why did Cheney not speak up and note that he, for one, had sought out information on Valerie Wilson and shared this sensitive material with Libby?

If Fitzgerald has answers to these questions but cannot make them public because he is bound by law not to reveal grand jury evidence that does not appear in an indictment, there is no reason why Cheney and the White House cannot address such matters and tell the public what transpired. Bush did say in 2003 that he wanted the truth to come out. And recently his press secretary, Scott McClellan, said that FItzgerald should “determine the facts and then outline those facts for the American people.”

Cheney and the White House can say that Fitzgerald has asked people involved in his investigation not to talk publicly about the matter–a request, not an order–but perhaps Cheney can agree to tell all at a no-holds-barred press conference once Fitzgerald signals his probe is completed. Cheney champions and Bush backers have claimed that the narrow indictment Fitzgerald issued shows that the leak was not a criminal act. But it was an act of wrongdoing an it was a violation of government rules that prohibit officials from divulging classified information. According to the Libby indictment, Cheney–wittingly or not–helped Scooter Libby break the rules (governing the handling of classified information) if not the law. The White House has said the American public deserves to know what happened. That one sentence–and other issues raised by the Libby indictment–warrant much explanation from Cheney and the Bush White House.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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