The Cheney Factor

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 25, 2005; 1:39 PM

The New York Times this morning reports that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby apparently first learned that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA agent from none other than his boss -- Vice President Cheney.

This new revelation suggests that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity has reached even closer to the vice president than was previously known.

Fitzgerald is expected to wrap up this week, possibly tomorrow. Libby and Bush senior adviser Karl Rove are widely seen as most likely to be indicted.

Just how the White House first learned of Plame's identity has been one of the elusive mysteries of this case.

Rove is said to have initially told the grand jury he first heard about Plame from some reporter, but he couldn't remember who. Then he said he heard it from Libby.

Libby is said to have initially told the grand jury he first heard about Plame from reporters -- but they denied it. And now, says the Times, Libby's own notes show he heard it from Cheney.

But today's news raises even more questions than it answers, among them:

* Who told Cheney, and under what circumstances?

* Did Cheney acknowledge his own role when he spoke to prosecutors last summer? If not, could he be indicted himself?

* Did Cheney encourage Libby not to disclose their conversation?

* Did President Bush know about Cheney's role?

* Who leaked this latest development -- and what was their motivation?

* Does this mean the White House will stop blaming reporters for everything? (That one was rhetorical: The answer is no.)

The Story

David Johnston, Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl write in the New York Times: "I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, first learned about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak investigation in a conversation with Mr. Cheney weeks before her identity became public in 2003, lawyers involved in the case said Monday.

"Notes of the previously undisclosed conversation between Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney on June 12, 2003, appear to differ from Mr. Libby's testimony to a federal grand jury that he initially learned about the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, from journalists, the lawyers said.

"The notes, taken by Mr. Libby during the conversation, for the first time place Mr. Cheney in the middle of an effort by the White House to learn about Ms. Wilson's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was questioning the administration's handling of intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program to justify the war. . . .

"It would not be illegal for either Mr. Cheney or Mr. Libby, both of whom are presumably cleared to know the government's deepest secrets, to discuss a C.I.A. officer or her link to a critic of the administration. But any effort by Mr. Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Mr. Cheney could be considered by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the case, to be an illegal effort to impede the inquiry."

The Times reporters wonder "why Mr. Libby would have suggested to the grand jury that he might have learned about Ms. Wilson from journalists if he was aware that Mr. Fitzgerald had obtained the notes of the conversation with Mr. Cheney or might do so." Good question.

The conversation between Libby and Cheney apparently took place on the day The Washington Post published a front-page story by Walter Pincus about an unnamed diplomat, later publicly identified as Wilson, and his mission to Niger.

"A key component of President Bush's claim in his State of the Union address last January that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program -- its alleged attempt to buy uranium in Niger -- was disputed by a CIA-directed mission to the central African nation in early 2002, according to senior administration officials and a former government official," Pincus wrote.

David Shuster reports for MSNBC this morning: "The story in the New York Times has huge implications, because it places Vice President Cheney for the first time in the heart of this investigation. . . .

"For Scooter Libby, it suggests that his legal exposure may be even greater than expected. . . . This also raises questions about Vice President Cheney. What did the vice president tell investigators? Did the vice president also tell them that he learned about Valerie Plame a month before her identity was revealed by reporters . . . ?

"Why was Scooter Libby trying to protect the vice president in some fashion? Did the vice president know that Scooter Libby was trying to protect him in some fashion? And were there any steps that were taken to further that effort?"

Dana Bash reports on CNN: "This comes at a very, very tense time here at the White House. They're waiting for Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, to come down with perhaps some imminent indictments or at least announcements. They're preparing quietly for that here. It is an understood notion that if anyone is indicted they will resign and we can expect the president of the United States, very soon after that, if that happens, to come out with a public statement."

Under Oath?

In last Tuesday's column, while speculating about whether a sitting vice president can be legally indicted (answer: yes), I noted that very little was known about Cheney's contact with Fitzgerald last summer.

A contemporaneous New York Times story by David Johnston said Cheney was not under oath during the interview.

But today's Times story says Cheney was indeed under oath.

Johnston, Stevenson and Jehl write that their sources "said they had no indication that Mr. Fitzgerald was considering charging Mr. Cheney with wrongdoing. Mr. Cheney was interviewed under oath by Mr. Fitzgerald last year. It is not known what the vice president told Mr. Fitzgerald about the conversation with Mr. Libby or when Mr. Fitzgerald first learned of it."

That could be significant.

Bloggers Falling Out of Their Chairs

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times that "a senior Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking said that such a meeting between the vice president and his top advisor was not surprising. . . .

" 'Nobody should fall out of their chair if they hear that the vice president discussed classified information trying to determine facts with his national security advisor and chief of staff,' the strategist said."

But that's exactly what bloggers, particularly liberal ones, are doing today.

Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas Zniga writes: "This is not the sort of news that allows us to lower expectations for Fitzmas."

(Many liberal bloggers are referring to the day that Fitzgerald announces indictments as "Fitzmas Day.")

Atrios writes: "The real issue is that Cheney was at the center of this and knew all along what was going on (at least after the fact). Leaking this now is a way of softening the political blow, as even if Cheney's name isn't on the indictments it's going to be in them."

Steven C. Clemons writes: "The entire charade of President Bush stating that he wanted to get to the bottom of who leaked Plame's name -- and who was involved -- is no longer believable at any level. Cheney would not have failed to disclose this to Bush, and Bush played along as if none of his staff were involved. They confessed nothing -- accepted no responsibility -- until forced by Fitzgerald."

Jane Hamsher writes: "Cheney was interviewed by Fitzgerald last year under oath. That would make it perjury to tell a lie. . . .

"What indication do we have that Cheney lied? Well, if Cheney had told the truth when he was interviewed last year, i.e., that he was Scooter Libby's source, Fitzgerald would not have needed to threaten Judy Miller and Matt Cooper with jail in order to counter Scooter Libby's testimony that he first heard about Valerie Plame's identity from journalists."

Spin City

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush's damage-control handlers are plotting a sophisticated war room offensive to fight back against possible indictments in the CIA leak probe. . . .

"Team Bush was finalizing its campaign to discredit and undermine special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's conclusions, sources told the Daily News. . . .

"An emerging theme in the Bush war room is arguing that his top political aide, Karl Rove, simply got tripped up on his recollections of whom he talked to and what he told them when questioned about the outing of CIA spy Valerie Plame. He shouldn't be indicted simply because of contradictory grand jury testimony, a source said."

Cheney and the Detainees

R. Jeffrey Smith and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration has proposed exempting employees of the Central Intelligence Agency from a legislative measure endorsed earlier this month by 90 members of the Senate that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoners in U.S. custody.

"The proposal, which two sources said Vice President Cheney handed last Thursday to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the company of CIA Director Porter J. Goss, states that the measure barring inhumane treatment shall not apply to counterterrorism operations conducted abroad or to operations conducted by 'an element of the United States government' other than the Defense Department. . . .

"McCain, the principal sponsor of the legislation, rejected the proposed exemption at the meeting with Cheney, according to a government source who spoke without authorization and on the condition of anonymity."

Eric Schmitt notes in the New York Times: "The White House has threatened to veto any bill that includes the McCain provision, contending that it would bind the president's hands in wartime. . . .

"One of the principal amendments that Democrats are expected to offer, sponsored by Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, would create an independent commission to review accusations of prisoner abuse by American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere. The White House has also threatened a presidential veto if any bill comes to Mr. Bush's desk that contains the provision."

Cheney vs. the CIA

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The alleged leaking of a CIA operative's name had its roots in a clash over Iraq policy between White House insiders and their rivals in the permanent bureaucracy of Washington, especially in the State Department and the CIA.

"As the investigation into the leak reaches its expected climax this week with the expiration of the grand jury's term, the internal disputes have been further amplified by a recent string of speeches and interviews criticizing the administration's handling of Iraq, including by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and State Department diplomats, and other officials involved in the early efforts to stabilize Iraq."

Wilkerson vs. Cheney

Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence B. Wilkerson , follows up on his speech last week (see Thursday's column ) with an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times today, that hones his major points:

"In President Bush's first term, some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security -- including vital decisions about postwar Iraq -- were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. . . .

"I believe that the decisions of this cabal were sometimes made with the full and witting support of the president and sometimes with something less.. . . .

"Its insular and secret workings were efficient and swift -- not unlike the decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy."

He adds: "The administration's performance during its first four years would have been even worse without Powell's damage control. At least once a week, it seemed, Powell trooped over to the Oval Office and cleaned all the dog poop off the carpet."

Washington Post reporter Shailagh Murray was Live Online yesterday:

"Boston, Mass.: What do you think of retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson's recent comments about the Bush administration?

"Shailagh Murray: I think it's a good thing his wife isn't a CIA agent, because they'd have to blow her cover, too. Seriously, it was pretty powerful stuff, and way overshadowed by less relevant political speculation stories. . . .

"Boston, Mass.: More on Colonel Wilkerson: How do news stories like this come to get overshadowed by, as you say, a lot less important political news. Is it because papers think that people don't care?

"Shailagh Murray: It's because television reporters prefer windy sea coasts to boring hallways for their live shots, and we stupidly follow their lead too often."

Damage Control

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Facing a convergence of crises threatening his administration, President Bush and his team are devising plans to salvage the remainder of his presidency by applying the lessons of past two-term chief executives and refocusing attention on the president's larger economic and foreign policy goals.

"Rarely has a president confronted as many damaging developments that could all come to a head in this week. A special counsel appears poised to indict one or more administration officials within days. Pressure is building on Bush from within his own party to withdraw the faltering Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. And any day the death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq will pass the symbolically important 2,000 mark.

"To deal with what they consider the darkest days of the Bush presidency, White House advisers have developed a twofold strategy -- confront head-on problems such as the Iraq death toll, while shifting attention to other areas such as conservative economic policies, according to a senior White House official, who spoke about internal deliberations only under the condition of anonymity. Bush advisers are taking clues from the playbooks of former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom weathered second-term scandals.

"The White House strategy will unfold over the next several days, starting with yesterday's announcement of a new Federal Reserve Board chairman and continuing today with a presidential speech on Iraq at Bolling Air Force Base. Anticipating a barrage of criticism when the death toll hits 2,000, Bush will try to put the sacrifice in perspective by portraying the Iraq war as the best way to keep terrorists from striking the United States again, the official said. He will make the same case in another speech Friday in Norfolk."

The Anti-Miers

Bush yesterday named Ben S. Bernanke, currently the chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, to succeed Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush turned to a candidate for the job with unassailable credentials and enough distance from the White House to blunt charges of cronyism or ideological motivations, former White House officials and economists said yesterday."

While not a crony, Bernanke is not exactly a critic either.

As Weisman notes: "On Oct. 11, Bernanke delivered a speech on economic opportunity to the National Economists Club in which he waxed at length on the power of Bush's economic policies, especially his tax cuts."

Here is the text of Bush and Bernanke's remarks yesterday.

Christopher Cooper writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Though Mr. Bernanke's appointment doesn't appear to be political, it is possible that the timing of yesterday's announcement was."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Markets rose on the news -- a good sign for Bernanke's confirmation prospects.

" 'We probably got Monday's little rally because everyone's happy it wasn't Bush's accountant,' joked David Wyss, chief economist at Standard and Poor's in New York.

" 'This is what the markets expected,' Wyss added, more seriously."

Here's an amusing exchange from yesterday's press briefing :

"Q I'm just wondering -- you know, he's known as 'Helicopter Ben,' because he once said to fight inflation he would fly over the country and throw money out of a helicopter. I'm wondering in the case of Katrina, did he suggest, you know, let's throw $60 billion out of a helicopter, which would stimulate the economy, and now he's in the position of going --

"MR. McCLELLAN: He has not suggested throwing anything out of a helicopter to the President."

Stakeout Watch

Here's an AP photo of Rove driving off to work this morning. Here's an AP photo of Libby being driven to work this morning.

Here's an AP photo of Libby in the Oval Office yesterday, holding a crutch. Libby recently broke a bone in his foot, ostensibly while running up stairs.

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