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The Smoking Pen

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 15, 2006; 1:15 PM

Handwritten notes from Vice President Cheney once and for all place the vice president at the epicenter of a scandal that still threatens to tear apart the Bush White House.

The notes were scrawled in the margins of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson's fateful July 2003 New York Times op-ed piece, in which Wilson described his trip to Niger at the behest of the CIA and criticized the White House for misusing intelligence in the run-up to war in Iraq.

"Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us?" Cheney scribbled atop his copy, a reproduction of which was filed in federal court late Friday by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. "Or did his wife send him on a junket?"

The annotated article is one of the pieces of evidence Fitzgerald intends to introduce in the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of Cheney's then-chief of staff, Scooter Libby.

"Those annotations support the proposition that publication of the Wilson Op-Ed acutely focused the attention of the vice president and the defendant -- his chief of staff -- on Mr. Wilson," Fitzgerald wrote in his filing.

In fact, whether it was Cheney's explicit intention or not, two days later Libby and White House political guru Karl Rove were telling reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA.

Fitzgerald is said to still be considering filing charges against Rove, whose testimony in the case, like Libby's, has changed dramatically over time.

The notes also offer an insight into Cheney's state of mind. It's an often overlooked aspect of this case that the objective of alerting reporters to the identity of Wilson's wife was to imply that his trip was some sort of nepotistic plum.

But what kind of person would think that a secret mission to the landlocked, impoverished and generally benighted country of Niger is a junket? Either someone quite delusional -- or someone so caught up in the desire to punish and ruin his enemies that the preposterousness of the accusation doesn't really make a difference.

This is notably not the first time that Cheney himself has been spotted at the nerve center of the Plame case. Rove is said to have initially told the grand jury he first heard about Plame from some reporter -- 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 Libby's own notes showed he first heard about her from Cheney.

Michael Isikoff , apparently the first reporter to spot Fitzgerald's filing, wrote Saturday on Newsweek's Web site: "The role of Vice President Dick Cheney in the criminal case stemming from the outing of White House critic Joseph Wilson's CIA wife is likely to get fresh attention as a result of newly disclosed notes showing that Cheney personally asked whether Wilson had been sent by his wife on a 'junket' to Africa. . . .

"It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for Cheney's own notes to be made public. The notes -- apparently obtained as a result of a grand jury subpoena -- would appear to make Cheney an even more central witness than had been previously thought in the criminal probe."

Isikoff writes that Fitzgerald also announced his intention to "introduce evidence about a series of conversations that he argued could undercut one of Libby's principal defenses: that he had no reason to believe Plame's employment was a sensitive matter and therefore had no reason to lie to the grand jury about when and with whom he spoke about it."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "The filing by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is the second that names Cheney as a key White House official who questioned the legitimacy of Wilson's examination of Iraqi nuclear ambitions. It further suggests that Cheney helped originate the idea in his office that Wilson's credibility was undermined by his link to Plame."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press that "the prosecutor is leaving the door open to the possibility that the vice president's now-indicted former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, was acting at his boss' behest when Libby allegedly leaked information about Plame to reporters."

Here's the filing . Here are all of Fitzgerald's exhibits . Here's the annotated Wilson article .

Blogger Jane Hamsher , noting that Cheney had known about Plame's role in the Wilson trip for more than a month, writes: "These were marching orders, not a question."

Domestic Spying Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that the USA Today report last week that the National Security Agency has been logging a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States for years suggests that the White House has been something less than forthright with the public.

"To many lawmakers and civil liberties advocates, the revelation seemed to fly in the face of months of public statements and assurances from President Bush and his aides, who repeatedly sought to characterize the NSA's effort as a narrowly tailored 'terrorist surveillance program' that had little impact on regular Americans.

"But, as illustrated by [intelligence chief John D.] Negroponte's remarks last week, administration officials have been punctilious in discussing the NSA program over the past five months, parsing their words with care and limiting comments to the portion of the program that had been confirmed by the president in December."

Say What?

Brian Ross reports on the ABC News Web site: "A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we call in an effort to root out confidential sources."

NSA and the White House

So who was pushing for more domestic spying, and who was pushing back? Depends who you believe.

Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek: "In the difficult days after 9/11, White House officials quietly passed the word through Washington's alphabet soup of intelligence agencies: tell us which weapons you need to stop another attack. At the supersecretive NSA, the National Security Agency (also known as No Such Agency), the request came back: give us permission to collect information on people inside the United States."

Newsweek's source "said NSA officials did not really expect the White House to say yes to domestic spying."

But Bush gave his OK. "Out went the old rules -- a 1980 document called 'U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18,' which sharply limited domestic surveillance; in came a new, still dimly understood regimen of domestic spying."

Doesn't sound quite right to you? How about this version:

Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and his top legal adviser argued that the National Security Agency should intercept purely domestic telephone calls and e-mail messages without warrants in the hunt for terrorists, according to two senior intelligence officials.

"But N.S.A. lawyers, trained in the agency's strict rules against domestic spying and reluctant to approve any eavesdropping without warrants, insisted that it should be limited to communications into and out of the country, said the officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the debate inside the Bush administration late in 2001. . . .

"On one side was a strong-willed vice president and his longtime legal adviser, David S. Addington, who believed that the Constitution permitted spy agencies to take sweeping measures to defend the country. Later, Mr. Cheney would personally arrange tightly controlled briefings on the program for select members of Congress."

Poll Watch, Part I

David Jefferson writes for Newsweek: "Has the Bush administration gone too far in expanding the powers of the President to fight terrorism? Yes, say a majority of Americans, following this week's revelation that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of U.S. citizens since the September 11 terrorist attacks. According to the latest Newsweek poll, 53 percent of Americans think the NSA's surveillance program 'goes too far in invading people's privacy,' while 41 percent see it as a necessary tool to combat terrorism. . . .

"Americans think the White House has overstepped its bounds: 57 percent said that in light of the NSA data-mining news and other executive actions, the Bush-Cheney Administration has 'gone too far in expanding presidential power.'"

Among the other findings, 50 percent of Americans now think Bush will go down in history as a below average president, with 32 percent saying average and 16 percent saying above average.

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "A majority of Americans disapprove of a massive Pentagon database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public. . . .

"The findings differ from an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Thursday night of 502 adults. In that survey, 63% called the program an acceptable way to investigate terrorism. The findings may differ because questions in the two polls were worded differently.

"Also, the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll includes more respondents -- the margin of error is +/-4 percentage points, compared with +/-5 points in the ABC poll -- and was taken after Americans had a day or two to hear and think about the program."

Here are the complete results .

A Gift to the Right

Here's White House counselor Dan Bartlett previewing Bush's speech tonight on "Fox and Friends" this morning: "What the president will talk about is a dramatic expansion of Border Patrol agents. We've already increased funding for the border under his presidency by 66 percent, but as we build up the capacity of the Border Patrol Agency, and that takes time, in a more immediate function, the president will ask a number of our National Guard units to help in a supporting role. Now, I know a lot of people have questions about this, but this is something the Guard is already doing on a much more limited basis right now, but in this capacity, they will be in a supportive role. They will not have law enforcement powers in and of itself, but they will help building infrastructure, surveillance, and those things. So it's not necessarily a militarization of the border, but what it is is filling an immediate need to free up more Border Patrol agents so they can do the arresting and detention there on the spot."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Tonight's speech is aimed at assuaging House Republicans who have insisted on tougher enforcement measures against workers illegally in the country. If the House contingent feels action is being taken, White House officials hope they may yet sign off on some version of Bush's guest-worker proposal, which would provide a way for undocumented immigrants to stay here legally if they pay back taxes and penalties."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that this will be Bush's first Oval Office speech on domestic policy.

From the way in which Bush's announcement is dominating the headlines for days on end, you'd almost think this was a big surprise. But of course it's not. As Mike Allen wrote in Time fully three weeks ago, deploying "guns and badges" on the border has long been part of new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten's five-point plan to save the Bush presidency.

Bush and the Networks

Paul J. Gough writes for the Hollywood Reporter: "At least two of the Big Four broadcast networks will carry President Bush's address to the nation on immigration Monday. . . .

" 'We're looking for a little more indication from the White House if he will break news or make an announcement,' said one network executive, who asked not to be named."

Snow's Meltdown

Tony Snow's first off-camera briefing with the press Friday morning turned into a bit of a debacle. (And his first on-camera briefing, so anticipated by my readers , has now been postponed until tomorrow.)

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "New White House press secretary Tony Snow suffered a couple missteps in his first question-and-answer session with the White House press corps Friday."

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column how Snow realized it was a mistake to try to move the "gaggle" into his office instead of the briefing room when too many reporters showed up.

"Snow melted. 'We'll move it back into the briefing room,' he conceded. 'I had this wonderful idea that this would be nice and collegial and relaxed, but it obviously at this point is just a mess.'"

The TPM Muckraker Web site has the transcript of the gaggle:

Hearst columnist Helen Thomas asked the question of the day:

"QUESTION: How are you going to make this administration more credible?

"TONY SNOW: I'm not going to answer questions about credibility, other than to say that I'm eager to be here and I'm happy to be working with you.

"QUESTION: Are you ever going to -- always going to tell the truth?


Poll Watch, Part II

CNN reports: "In a new poll comparing President Bush's job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues."

Reinforcing the Base

Jeanne Cummings writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's low approval ratings are prompting the White House and Capitol Hill Republicans to design a midterm strategy aimed at an unlikely set of voters: their own party activists.

"That helps explain why the Senate is moving on two long-blocked judicial nominees and why President Bush is expected to send nearly two dozen more to the Senate any day. The low poll numbers are also among reasons why votes in Congress are likely in coming months on social issues crucial to conservatives and why White House political adviser Karl Rove, in an address to the American Enterprise Institute Monday, is expected to lay the foundation for an attack on Democrats, perhaps by reminding his audience that liberal leaders and ideas would return if Republicans lose control of either house of Congress. The ratings also help explain why in Mr. Bush's Oval Office speech on immigration Monday night, he will toughen his talk on policing borders, possibly with National Guard help."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Some of President Bush's most influential conservative Christian allies are becoming openly critical of the White House and Republicans in Congress, warning that they will withhold their support in the midterm elections unless Congress does more to oppose same-sex marriage, obscenity and abortion."

Apparently, Bush's stealth plan -- to win those battles quietly, eventually and for decades to come through his judicial nominations -- isn't fast or public enough for them.

Poll Watch, Part III

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "A long, slow slide in President George W. Bush's popularity ratings over the past year to a low of around 30 percent suggests there may be no quick fix for his political woes."

Poll Watch, Part IV

Reuters reports that depending on which network she's talking to, Laura Bush has different views on opinion polls.

"Interviewed on Fox News Sunday, Laura Bush said she did not think people were losing confidence in President George W. Bush, despite a series of polls showing support for him at its lowest point in his five-year presidency and among the lowest for any president in the past 50 years.

" 'I don't really believe those polls. I travel around the country. I see people, I see their responses to my husband. I see their response to me,' she said."

But on ABC's "This Week," she acknowledged that her husband's popularity was suffering, but blamed it on the country having been through a difficult year -- and the media.

"Mrs. Bush complained that when her husband's popularity was high, newspapers did not put that on the front page. Now it was low, they took great delight in highlighting the fact.

"Asked if she thought the media had been unfair, Mrs. Bush said: 'No, I don't think it's necessarily unfair. I think it's just, you know, I think they may be enjoying this a little bit.' "

Bye Bye, Body Man

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Add the president's 'body man' to the list of close aides leaving the building.

"After more than four years as President Bush's personal aide, Austinite Blake Gottesman will leave next month to head to Harvard Business School -- one of Bush's alma maters -- in the fall.

"Gottesman's official title is 'special assistant to the president and personal aide.' The more commonly used body man moniker derives from the fact that his job is to stick as closely as possible to the president.

"Since March 2002, he's spent about as much time with Bush as anybody on the staff....."He dog-sits Barney. He carries the hand cleanser. He keeps track of the president's schedule. And he has traveled the world with Bush."

Herman also describes Gottesman's propensity for practical jokes -- and wonders how exactly Gottesman got into Harvard Business School without an undergraduate degree.

Elisabeth Bumiller profiled Gottesman last year.

Roving Rumor

Brian Dickerson writes in the Detroit Free Press that "the news that White House adviser Karl Rove had been indicted for perjury electrified the 700 or so lawyers, judges and elected officials . . . [at] Saturday night's annual banquet of the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.

"Until they found out that maybe he hadn't been."

They weren't alone. As the New York Sun reports: "A spokesman for a top White House aide under scrutiny in a criminal leak probe, Karl Rove, yesterday vigorously denied an Internet report that the political adviser to President Bush was told that he had been indicted on charges of perjury and lying to investigators.

" 'The story is a complete fabrication,' the spokesman for Mr. Rove, Mark Corallo, told The New York Sun. 'It is both malicious and disgraceful.' "

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno uses a clip from CNN to show that "Bush's security team may not take their jobs seriously."

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