Did Bush Lie to Fitzgerald?
By Robert Parry
April 7, 2006
Lewis Libby’s testimony identifying George W. Bush as the top official who authorized the leaking of intelligence about Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program raises two key questions: What did the President tell the special prosecutor about this issue in 2004 and what is Bush’s legal status in the federal criminal probe?
Bush’s legal danger came into clearer focus with the release of a court document citing testimony from Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff who claimed that Bush approved the selective release of intelligence in July 2003 to counter growing complaints that Bush had hyped evidence on Iraq’s pursuit of enriched uranium.
Libby, who is facing a five-count federal indictment, testified that he was told by Cheney that Bush had approved a plan in which Libby would tell a specific New York Times reporter about the CIA’s secret analysis, according to a court filing by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald dated April 5.
“Defendant’s (Libby’s) participation in a critical conversation with Judith Miller on July 8 (2003) occurred only after the Vice President advised defendant that the President specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE,” the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate, the filing said.
While some experts believe Bush may have the legal authority to unilaterally declassify secrets, Libby’s testimony – along with other evidence from this so-called Valerie Plame leak investigation – leaves little doubt that Bush and White House aides repeatedly misled the public about the role of senior officials in disseminating secret information to deflect criticism about the Iraq invasion.
Bush even vowed to fire anyone who leaked classified material. “The President has set high standards, the highest of standards, for people in his administration,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said on Sept. 29, 2003. “If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.”
Yet, Bush never disclosed that he himself had a hand in planting information to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for accusing the administration of having “twisted” the pre-war intelligence to justify invading Iraq.
During a series of contacts with reporters in June/July 2003, Libby and other administration officials also allegedly informed reporters that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer, a revelation that soon appeared in the press, destroyed her cover and prompted the leak investigation.
Though the new court document does not say Bush ordered his subordinates to leak Plame’s identity, the President’s alleged initiative to have Libby disclose the secret CIA analysis appears to have set the stage for the Plame disclosure as well.
Despite Bush’s deceptive public pronouncements, the more important legal question is what Bush told Fitzgerald when the President submitted to a 70-minute interview – not under oath – on June 24, 2004.
If Bush misled the prosecutor about authorizing Libby to brief a reporter, then Bush himself could be open to charges of making false statements or obstructing justice, potential felonies and possibly impeachable offenses.
Also deserving an explanation is the curious trip that Fitzgerald reportedly made to the office of Bush’s personal criminal attorney, James Sharp, on the morning of Oct. 28, 2005, just before announcing the indictment of Libby on charges of obstruction, perjury and false statements. [NYT, Oct. 29, 2005]
It’s unclear why Fitzgerald would take time out of his very busy schedule that day to visit Bush’s personal lawyer unless Fitzgerald had to pass on sensitive information about Bush’s status in the investigation. Possibilities range from telling Bush that he would not be named in the Libby indictment to saying he had become an investigative target.
Attorney Sharp accompanied Bush on June 24, 2004, when the President was questioned about the Plame case, CNN reported.
Bush “was pleased to do his part to help the investigation move forward,” spokesman McClellan said after the interview. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the President does.” But McClellan declined to comment about the substance of what Bush told Fitzgerald or whether Bush was a target of the investigation.
At the time, some Democrats questioned why Bush would need a criminal attorney at his side if he had nothing to hide.
“White House claims that they are fully cooperating with this investigation seem at odds with the President feeling the need to hire a private lawyer,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Jano Cabrera.
Despite such touchy moments, Bush did succeed in keeping the lid on the Plame case before the November 2004 elections.
Now with Bush more than a year into his second term, the options for the American people are far more limited. They include possibly voting Bush’s Republican Party out of congressional control in November 2006, thus opening Bush to greater accountability.
The history of the Wilson-Plame case goes back to 2002 when Vice President Cheney expressed interest in a dubious report about Iraq seeking processed uranium from Africa. In response, CIA officials decided to send Wilson to Niger to check out the reports.
Wilson, who had served as a diplomat in both Iraq and Africa, returned with the conclusion that the reports were most likely untrue. (The Niger allegations were later debunked by U.N. investigators.)
However, in the State of Union address in January 2003, Bush cited the Niger allegations as part of his rationale for war with Iraq. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq two months later, but U.S. forces failed to discover any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program.
By spring 2003, Wilson began talking privately to journalists about his Niger findings and criticizing the administration for hyping the WMD intelligence. Behind the scenes, the White House began to hit back, collecting information about Wilson and his trip.
CIA Director George Tenet divulged to Cheney that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s fact-finding trip to Niger – information that Cheney then passed on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes as described by lawyers in the case, the New York Times reported. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]
Those two facts – Plame’s work for the CIA and her role in Wilson’s Niger trip – then became the centerpieces of the administration’s behind-the-scenes campaign in June/July 2003 to disparage Wilson. Rove, Libby and possibly other administration officials allegedly told journalists that Wilson’s wife had helped get him the Niger assignment.
On June 23, 2003 – 11 days after the Cheney-Libby conversation – Libby briefed New York Times reporter Miller about Wilson and may then have passed on the tip that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.
The anti-Wilson campaign gained new urgency when the ex-ambassador penned an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, describing his pursuit of the bogus Niger allegations.
In the July 8, 2003, meeting, Libby gave Miller more details about the Iraq WMD intelligence and about the Wilsons. He told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation, the Times reported.
It was in the context in those July 8 notes where Miller wrote down the words “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name.
In a third conversation, by telephone on July 12, 2003, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife, Miller said. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]
Two days later, on July 14, 2003, conservative columnist Robert Novak published a column, citing two administration sources outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilson’s Niger trip as a case of nepotism.
Furious that Plame’s covert identity had been blown, CIA officers pressed Tenet to refer the case to the Justice Department to determine whether the disclosure violated a law barring the willful exposure of a CIA officer. An investigation ensued.
Privately, some administration officials acknowledged that the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge Bush on the WMD intelligence.
In September 2003, a White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column. The official said the disclosure was “purely and simply out of revenge.”
At that time, Libby was privately lobbying the White House press office to issue a statement exonerating him from suspicion in the leak case, according to the new court filing. So, on Oct. 4, 2003, McClellan added Libby to a prior list of officials who have “assured me that they were not involved in this.”
The White House statement also gave Libby more of a motive to concoct his false claim that he had first heard about Plame’s CIA identity from NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and had simply recycled the rumor to other reporters, the April 5, 2006, court filing said.
“As defendant (Libby) approached his first FBI interview he knew that the White House had staked its credibility on there being no White House involvement in the leaking of information about Ms. Wilson,” according to the court filing.
Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2005, with the Plame case growing into a political embarrassment for Bush, Republican operatives and their right-wing media allies worked to transform Wilson – a private citizen – into a bete noire.
The Republican National Committee even posted an article entitled “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which itself used glaring inaccuracies and misstatements to discredit Wilson. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Novak Recycles Gannon on ‘Plame-gate.’”]
On Oct. 28, 2005, in indicting Libby on five counts of making false statements, perjury and obstructing justice, Fitzgerald added a few new details to the overall story and confirmed some facts that had appeared in press accounts.
The indictment alleged that Libby – who also served as a national security aide to President Bush – learned of Plame’s identity from a CIA official and from Vice President Cheney, before passing the information to at least two journalists, New York Times reporter Miller and Time correspondent Matthew Cooper.
While denouncing Libby’s alleged deceptions as a serious crime, Fitzgerald splashed cold water on the notion that his investigation might unravel a larger government conspiracy into how Plame’s identity was exposed.
Still, the larger question has now become whether Fitzgerald will address what Bush and Cheney may have done to aid and abet the Plame leak and the subsequent cover-up.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'