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The Cloud Over Cheney

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 21, 2007; 2:12 PM

"What is this case about?" special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald asked in his rebuttal to the defense's closing arguments yesterday in the Scooter Libby perjury trial.

"Is it about something bigger?"

And while Fitzgerald never directly answered that second question, he at long last made it quite clear that the depth of Vice President Cheney's role in the leaking of the identity of a CIA operative is one of the central mysteries that Libby's alleged lies prevented investigators from resolving.

"There is a cloud over the vice president . . . And that cloud remains because this defendant obstructed justice," Fitzgerald said.

"There is a cloud over the White House. Don't you think the FBI and the grand jury and the American people are entitled to straight answers?" Fitzgerald asked the jury.

Libby, Fitzgerald continued, "stole the truth from the justice system."

After literally years of keeping his public pronouncements about the case to an absolute minimum, Fitzgerald yesterday finally let slip a bit of the speculation that many of us have long suspected has lurked just beneath the surface of his investigation.

Suddenly it wasn't just the defendant alone, it was "they" who decided to tell reporters about Wilson's wife working for the CIA. "To them," Fitzgerald said, "she wasn't a person, she was an argument."

And it was pretty clear who "they" was: Libby and his boss, Cheney.

Back in the summer of 2003, after former ambassador Joseph Wilson had dared suggest that the administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq, "they" were obsessed with denying that Wilson had been sent on his mission to Niger as a result of a request for information from the vice president's office, Fitzgerald said.

"They" saw his wife Valerie Plame's role in suggesting him for the trip as a way to cast suspicion on his mission and his claim.

In Fitzgerald's last words to the jury, what had been a somewhat innocuous-sounding memo suddenly became something close to a smoking gun documenting Cheney's encouragement to his minions out to spread the word about Wilson's wife.

As Fitzgerald explained it: Right after Cheney first read Wilson's op-ed -- and wrote the question, "[D]id his wife send him on a junket?" in the margins of his own carefully clipped copy-- Cheney dictated "talking points" for his staff to use with the press about Wilson's mission.

As a result, the lead talking point morphed from "The Vice President's office did not request the mission to Niger" in a version drafted the day before by Cheney press aide Cathie Martin to "It is not clear who authorized Joe Wilson's trip to Niger" in the vice president's version.

Without quite coming out and saying so directly, Fitzgerald strongly implied that was an invitation for White House officials to talk about how Plame played a role in her husband's selection for the mission.

"There's something funny about how they want to talk about who sent him, but they don't want to talk about the wife," Fitzgerald said, mocking the defense's position that those two were somehow entirely separate issues.

Fitzgerald's broad hint at Cheney's role, while in my mind the biggest news, was nevertheless not the central drama yesterday. The traditional media mostly focused on the two sets of passionate closing arguments reflecting wildly different views of what had been accomplished in the past four weeks of testimony.

In the defense's closing arguments, lead attorney Ted Wells declared that the courtroom had "become like a laboratory of recollection," where just about everyone had memory problems. The defense in particular attacked the credibility of Fitzgerald's two star witnesses -- Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Tim Russert of NBC News -- and Wells insisted that any mistakes Libby might have made were innocent, and that the government had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Wells repeatedly and emotionally attacked the government's case. "Think about the madness of this prosecution," Wells said at one point. "It is outrageous! Just outrageous!" At the end of his statement, Wells suddenly began to sob.

Opening his rebuttal, Fitzgerald mocked Wells -- "Madness! Madness! Outrageous!" Fitzgerald said -- then reasserted that the prosecution's evidence as a whole was irrefutable, and that Libby had discussed Plame's identity with a slew of people -- starting with the vice president himself -- in the days and weeks before his conversation with Russert.

"I submit you can't believe that nine witnesses remembered 10 conversations exactly the same wrong way," Fitzgerald said.

On Cheney's Role

Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun, who was sitting right next to me in court yesterday, was possibly the only print reporter to lead with the big news: "The special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, Patrick Fitzgerald, is suggesting in his strongest terms yet that Vice President Cheney was involved in an effort to unmask a CIA operative married to an administration critic.

"Mr. Fitzgerald's explosive comments came as he delivered closing arguments yesterday in the monthlong obstruction-of-justice and perjury trial of Mr. Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr."

In fact, Gerstein astutely spotted an even wider critique of the White House than I did: "Broadening his attack on the White House, Mr. Fitzgerald took a shot at President Bush, indirectly criticizing him for not firing officials implicated in the leaks about the CIA officer, Valerie Plame. The prosecutor noted that in 2003 the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said Mr. Bush would immediately dismiss anyone involved in leaking Ms. Plame's identity.

"'Any sane person would think, based on what McClellan said in October 2003, that any person involved in this would be fired,' Mr. Fitzgerald said.

"The prosecutor's clear implication was that Mr. Bush failed to keep his word. Mr. Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, is still working at the White House despite having served as a source for two press accounts about Ms. Plame."

Gerstein concludes: "Mr. Fitzgerald's pregnant statements yesterday about Messrs. Bush and Cheney may have been intended to bolster the chance of convicting Mr. Libby by tying him to the unpopular political figures atop the executive branch. Another possibility is that the closing statements offered the prosecutor who has headed the investigation for more than three years his last clear opportunity to opine on the actions of the president and the vice president in the case. While prosecutors appointed under the independent counsel law were permitted to file reports on their findings, there is no such provision for Mr. Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney who was appointed by the Justice Department after senior officials there recused themselves because of the political sensitivity of the case."

On MSNBC's Hardball, Mike Isikoff of Newsweek and Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News both reacted strongly to Fitzgerald's comments about Cheney.

Isikoff: "It's worth pointing out that what today's closing arguments really underscored is why the White House was so nervous about this trial, why they were so reluctant to talk anything about it.

"One thing Patrick Fitzgerald said in his closing arguments that kind of stunned me, he just laid it out there and because the defense had raised questions about vice president -- had suggested that -- that Scooter Libby might be unfairly portrayed as protecting Vice President Cheney. Fitzgerald said there is a cloud on the vice president, but the cloud is there because Scooter Libby put it there. We, the prosecution, didn't put it there. Scooter Libby put it there by obstructing justice.

"And then Fitzgerald ran through everything that Cheney did: writing the talking points, tearing out those articles from the newspaper and making those notes on them. Did his wife send him a junket? Putting the sort of junket claim argument in play.

"All of that was done was because the vice president -- Fitzgerald pretty much made it clear to the jury that Libby, in the prosecution's mind, was protecting the vice president of the United States."

DeFrank: "I would just say it's probably a very good week for the vice president to be in Asia right now because it hasn't been a good week for him.

"I mean, I think Fitzgerald and his fellow prosecutors put the vice president on trial, even though he was not charged with anything. But he was very much front and center in this trial from start to finish."

John Dickerson blogs for Slate: "Last week, Scooter Libby and his defense team decided not to call Vice President Dick Cheney to the witness stand. Today, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald brought him in anyway. 'Let's talk straight,' he said, sounding like John McCain. 'There is a cloud over the vice president.' One of the unanswered questions of the Libby trial is whether, as Cheney's aide, Scooter lied and obstructed justice to protect his boss from political embarrassment or legal jeopardy. In his closing argument, Fitzgerald said that it's Libby's fault those questions linger: 'That cloud remains because the defendant lied about evidence and obstructed justice.'"

Is Cheney Fitzgerald's Next Target?

Here's yet another example of how Fitzgerald pointed in Cheney's direction yesterday.

Fitzgerald has long maintained that Libby's testimony to investigators -- that all he had done was pass along unsubstantiated gossip about Plame that he had heard from NBC Washington bureau chief Russert -- was a pure fabrication.

But yesterday, he called the jurors' attention to the fact that before telling that story to investigators in October 2003, Libby had only shared it with one person: Cheney, who also happened to be the person from whom Libby first learned about Plame, fully a month before the conversation with Russert.

"What's the one thing he tells one person in the fall of 2003?" Fitzgerald asked. "He goes and tells the person who told him" about Plame this story he had made up.

"Think about that," Fitzgerald said momentously, in an obvious attempt to get the jury -- and quite possibly, a wider audience -- to consider that Libby and Cheney may have been agreeing on a cover story at the time.

That, by the way, was precisely the possibility suggested by Murray Waas, in a particularly prescient piece for the National Journal on Sunday. Waas also quoted sources as saying that if Libby is found guilty, the prosecution may pursue Cheney -- presumably by trying one more time to "flip" Libby and turn him into a prosecution witness.

The Blow By Blow

Most of the traditional media coverage focused on yesterday's blow by blow. There was certainly plenty to cover, over the course of more than six hours of arguments.

Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff lied to investigators about his role in leaking a CIA officer's identity in order to keep his job and protect the White House from political embarrassment, prosecutors told jurors yesterday in the closing arguments of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's perjury trial. . . .

"But two defense attorneys argued that Libby was a harried and hardworking public servant who was guilty only of forgetfulness about a relatively insignificant matter given his pressure-cooker job."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "Defense lawyers and prosecutors in the perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. made their final summations on Tuesday, offering the jury two starkly different ways to evaluate the evidence presented over the last few weeks."

Michael J. Sniffen writes for the Associated Press: "Prosecutors told the jury Tuesday that former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby made up a ludicrous lie to save his job during the CIA leak investigation. But defense attorneys said he behaved like an innocent man with a bad memory. . . .

"The arguments built to a late afternoon crescendo as defense attorney Theodore Wells, whose voice rose and fell dramatically, choked back a sob as he asked the jurors to acquit his client no matter how they 'may feel about the war in Iraq or the Bush administration.'

"Wells was followed by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, speaking a mile-a-minute and lacing his rebuttal to the defense with sarcasm. Fitzgerald said that, by lying, Libby 'threw sand in the eyes of the FBI investigators and the grand jury' trying to find out if someone leaked classified information that could endanger lives."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "For a brief moment yesterday, Scooter Libby was not a former White House aide on trial for perjury. He was an orphan in need of a loving home.

"'He's been under my protection for the last month; now I'm entrusting him to you,' defense lawyer Ted Wells told the puzzled jurors.

"His voice breaking, the $700-an-hour lawyer pleaded: 'Give him back! Give him back to me!'

"Wells sobbed loudly and went back to his chair, where he sat staring at the floor and emitting the occasional sniffle.

"Exactly what Wells was trying to achieve with this outburst -- if he intended it at all -- was a mystery. And that made it an appropriate coda for the defense's closing argument in the CIA leak case yesterday. Wells, who has successfully defended the likes of Robert Torricelli and Mike Espy, may yet win an acquittal from the jury, which will start deliberations today. But it won't be because of the cohesion of his closing arguments. Libby was alternately portrayed as a man who told the truth, a man who inadvertently misspoke, and the victim of conspiracies involving everybody from President Bush to Tim Russert."

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Any staffer proven to have leaked CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity 'would no longer be in this administration,' former White House spokesman Scott McClellan promised in September 2003.

"But three years later, President Bush hasn't sacked anyone, even though the perjury trial of Lewis (Scooter) Libby - which resumes today - shows at least 10 other top officials blabbed about the spy whose job as a covert agent was classified as an official government secret."

And Meek wrote on Tuesday: "Lurking in the background of a possible perjury conviction this week of former White House aide Lewis (Scooter) Libby is the potential for an eventual presidential pardon."

Cheney's Heft

The Libby trial and Cheney's unusual week-long trip to Asia have combined to set off another round of what the liberal ThinkProgress blog calls "baseless speculation about Cheney's influence."

Michael Abramowitz wrote in yesterday's Washington Post: "There is no evidence that Cheney's close relationship with Bush has been lessened. But there is also little doubt that the causes he has championed -- a tough skepticism of negotiations with dictatorships such as North Korea and the forceful exercise of presidential authority -- are being rethought within the Bush administration, according to officials inside the government and experts outside it.

"The North Korea deal is only the latest example of a new pragmatism forced on the administration by a series of court decisions, the deteriorating situation in Iraq and -- perhaps most of all -- the Democratic takeover of Congress.

"The White House has made a concerted effort to be more conciliatory with Capitol Hill; to make rhetorical nods to issues such as global warming and income inequality, which drew little attention in Bush's first term; to permit court review of secret wiretapping of terrorism suspects; and to make new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere. . . .

"Figuring out how much influence Cheney has is a longtime Washington parlor game -- but the answer is ultimately unknowable, given that almost all of his advice is offered privately, and both the president and his No. 2 zealously guard the details. The two meet for a private lunch once a week, share intelligence briefings and get together with staff for policy discussions."

Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang wrote in Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney is set to depart Monday for a weeklong trip to Asia, and many in Washington are wondering whether he might be grateful for an excuse to high-tail it out of town. The past few weeks have not been kind to the vice president -- or at least to his public image.

"Last week, a close ally was dressed down by the Pentagon inspector general for skewing intelligence before the Iraq war. The trial of his former chief of staff has depicted the vice president's office as a center of underhanded intrigue. And this week's announcement of a nuclear agreement with North Korea appears to be a repudiation of Cheney's long-term opposition to a deal.

"Those events, culminating months of bad news for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, have prompted speculation that the once-formidable vice president -- the most powerful in American history -- has become a spent force.

"But while Cheney's public standing and his approval ratings appear to have suffered, he remains a highly visible presence when it comes to administration policy, both foreign and domestic. And the ultimate source of Cheney's influence, his seemingly unique relationship with President Bush, shows no visible sign of change."

Both stories noted Cheney's quip in his speech last week to the National Association of Manufacturers, after a snowstorm in Washington: "The good news is, the federal government's shut down today. So everybody's safe," Cheney said.

Mark Silva wrote in Saturday's Chicago Tribune: "Cheney has not lost his influence with President Bush, who often has counted on his sharp-tongued No. 2 to launch the most searing offensives against critics. And, since the retirement of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a recasting of the administration, Bush has counted even more on the hardest of his hard-liners to hold the White House line."

Silva notes: "Cheney has operated his own national security team, which retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, has accused of spying on the president's own National Security Council. And Cheney has not only exercised his authority to classify secret information, he also has refused to account for how much information he is classifying.

"If predecessors tended to focus on narrow missions, Wilkerson said in an interview with the Tribune, 'Along came Dick Cheney, and it's everything. He's got a staff that can stick its nose in anything.'"

In yesterday's New York Times, Jim Rutenberg wrote that "a close reading of the testimony and evidence" in the Libby trial is "revelatory, bringing into bolder relief a portrait of a vice president with free rein to operate inside the White House as he saw fit in order to debunk the charges of a critic of the war in Iraq.

"The evidence in the trial shows Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Libby, his former chief of staff, countermanding and even occasionally misleading colleagues at the highest levels of Mr. Bush's inner circle as the two pursued their own goal of clearing the vice president's name in connection with flawed intelligence used in the case for war."

Regular readers of this column experienced that particular revelation two weeks earlier.

Doesn't Sound Chastened

Cheney delivered a speech Wednesday afternoon Tokyo time, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. He didn't exactly sound chagrined:

"[T]he terrorists have declared an intention to arm themselves with chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, to destroy Israel, to intimidate free countries and to cause great harm to the United States. The terrorists' vision is one of murder and enslavement. . . . That leaves us only one option: to rise to America's defense, to take the fight directly to the enemy, and to accept no outcome but victory. . . .

"This nation has learned the lessons of history. We know that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength; they are invited by the perception of weakness. . . .

"Every member of our military can be certain that America will stay on the offensive in the war on terror. The President of the United States and his national security team understand the threat -- the enemy's changing tactics and its unchanging nature. We are not dealing with adversaries that will ever surrender or come to their senses. We will be flexible. We'll do all we can to adapt to conditions on the ground. We'll make every change necessary to do the job. And I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat."

And Jonathan Karl of ABC News finds Cheney in full-on spin mode.

"British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement that British troops will begin withdrawing from Iraq would appear to be bad news for the Bush administration," Karl writes. "But in an exclusive interview with ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney said the move was actually good news and a sign of progress in Iraq."

Here's the transcript of the interview. An excerpt:

"Karl: Now you just made a very clear statement in your speech saying the American people do not support a policy of retreat.

"Cheney: I believe that.

"Karl: Is that policy that we hear from the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, from other Democrats, is that a policy of defeat?

"Cheney: Yes.

"Karl: So the American people don't stand with the Democrats, what the Democrats are trying to do?

"Cheney: I think the American people want to see first and foremost success in Iraq. I think the preference would be -- even those who are not happy with the current situation, given a choice would prefer -- a situation in which we succeed in Iraq in terms of being able to deal with the security situation, turn things over to the Iraqis so the Iraqis can govern themselves. But I think to do what Nancy Pelosi is suggesting -- and she's made it very clear on many occasions that she, in fact, wants to get out -- that that's exactly the wrong medicine. It's the wrong course of action. It will do nothing but encourage the terrorists. And it will have the devastating long-term consequences in the global war on terror."

The White House and Walter Reed

Dana Priest and Anne Hull write in The Washington Post: "The White House and congressional leaders called yesterday for swift investigation and repair of the problems plaguing outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as veterans groups and members of Congress in both parties expressed outrage over substandard housing and the slow, dysfunctional bureaucracy there. . . .

"At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said that he spoke with President Bush yesterday about Walter Reed and that the president told him: 'Find out what the problem is and fix it.'"

I must admit I found that a bit odd: Asking the press secretary to fix a military hospital? Is Bush saying it's just a PR problem?

Priest and Hull continue: "Snow said Bush 'first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in The Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed.' The spokesman said he did not know why the president, who has visited the facility many times in the past five years, had not heard about these problems before."

But at Snow's press briefing yesterday, the press secretary displayed a sort of insouciance about the whole story that incited the press corps to push harder and harder.

An excerpt:

"Q Tony, can I follow on that? As Bob Dole might ask, where's the outrage?

"MR. SNOW: There's plenty of outrage.

"Q Is there?

"MR. SNOW: Yes.

"Q So the President responded how when he learned about this? What, specifically -- did he order something to be done?

"MR. SNOW: What I'm suggesting -- there's a reason I'm suggesting -- DoD is the proper place in which we'll be taking care of these issues. And I would refer you to them for comment. But this is something that's going to have to be an action item. . . .

"Q Do you think the President is going to say something about this later?

"MR. SNOW: No. . . .

"Q Has he given any new orders?

MR. SNOW: No. . . .

"Q Wait a minute. You're now in the PR business, you know if something like this happens it's at odds with the commitments you make; the Commander-in-Chief might well stand up at a meeting and say, darn it, let's get to the bottom of this now and let's get answers. And this happened over the weekend, and you're saying you think the White House knew, but you're not sure; you're not sure when the President knew or if he said something to somebody. It just seems like you should have those answers.

"MR. SNOW: Okay, but you also -- fine, I'll try to get them for you. But when you talk about cold detachment, I don't think saying that if it needs --

"Q You're calling it an 'action item'?

"MR. SNOW: Well, yes, because what I'm telling you is that it is something that falls under the providence of the Department of the Army. Therefore, if you want the detailed answers about who knew what, when and how it's been handled, you do need to ask them, because they're going to have the information, David.

"I can tell you that the President feels passionately about them, and you should have no doubt about it -- you've been at enough events where when he looks these people in the eye there is a commitment, a strong, profound emotional commitment to the people who serve this country. And it is one where the President is committed to doing right by the men and women who serve. There should be no doubt about that."

Friendly Reporters

At the National Press Club last night, Snow sat down with a handful of White House correspondents -- and he got to ask the questions for once.

Crooks and Liars has video and a transcript. Patrick Gavin has a report on the FishbowlDC blog.

One topic that came up, not surprisingly, was bloggers. The liberal ThinkProgress blog has a video excerpt of that exchange.

"It's amazing, you get this wonderful imaginative hateful stuff that comes flying out," Snow said.

Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe responded: "There seems to be this sort of - the witch hunt that's out there. A lot of the blogs are, are, are unduly devoted to media criticism which is itself kind of interesting given all the things you could comment on. . . .

"In my humble view, the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general," Wolffe said.

The bloggers "want us to play a role that isn't really our role. Our role is to ask questions and get information . . . It's not a chance for the opposition to take on the government and grill them to a point where they throw their hands up and surrender. Now obviously there is a contentious spirit there.. but it's not a political exercise, it's a journalistic exercise. And I think often the blogs are looking for us to be political advocates more than journalistic ones."

To which Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald responds: "It is truly astonishing that the people who enabled the administration to spew one falsehood after the next -- and who aided and abetted the worst strategic disaster in our country's history by mindlessly passing those falsehoods along to their readers, completely failing to investigate any of it, but instead obediently validating it all with journalistic approval -- now want to sit around in the most self-satisfied way and pronounce that they are doing an absolutely 'fantastic job' and complain about the vulgar masses who disrupt their tranquility by criticizing them for being insufficiently vigilant.

"And to those American citizens who remain rather angry about the complete failure of the press to scrutinize the war-justifying claims made by their friends in the government -- and who wake up every day and devote themselves to trying to prod the press into performing its intended adversarial watchdog role so that our Government has at least some checks on what it can say and do -- people like Richard Wolffe have nothing to say other than to agree with Tony Snow that they are vulgar and hateful and to lecture them -- in his snidest and most condescending tone -- that they are just ignorant, confused, and unreasonably demanding.

"Truly, the spectacle of watching our country's leading White House journalists sitting there next to Tony Snow -- all of them oozing pomposity and self-satisfaction -- while Snow engineers the entire discussion and treats them like the friendly puppets that they are... is quite difficult to endure, but is nonetheless truly revealing."

Helen Thomas Watch

Mike Allen writes for the Politico: "Every theater-style seat in the White House briefing room, now closed for renovation, had a brass plaque inscribed with the name of a news organization. Only one, in the middle of the front row, had a name: 'HELEN THOMAS,' it said. The unique assigned seat between the chairs for CBS News and ABC News was reserved for the legendary United Press International correspondent who is now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

"The press corps is scheduled to move from temporary facilities back into the spiffed-up, rewired briefing room in May or June. Thomas, who has been questioning presidents and press secretaries for 46 years, plans to be there. But her front-row seat won't be. Plans call for her to be moved to the second row to make room for a cable news channel -- a sign of Washington's changing pecking order, and of the new ways that Americans get their news.

'I didn't think I had a monopoly on that seat,' Thomas, 86, said in a telephone interview. 'Since my peers have decided that I don't belong there, I'll bow to their -- I'll drink the -- What did Socrates drink?'"

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on the Libby trial.

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