Prosecutor Says Disclosure of Secrets Was Aimed at War Critic
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006; A01
President Bush authorized White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to disclose highly sensitive intelligence information to the news media in an attempt to discredit a CIA adviser whose views undermined the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, according to a federal prosecutor's account of Libby's testimony to a grand jury.
The court filing by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald for the first time places Bush and Vice President Cheney at the heart of what Libby testified was an exceptional and deliberate leak of material designed to buttress the administration's claim that Iraq was trying to obtain nuclear weapons. The information was contained in the National Intelligence Estimate, one of the most closely held CIA analyses of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war.
Fitzgerald said Libby's disclosure took place as the result of "a strong desire by many, including multiple people in the White House, to repudiate" claims made in a July 2003 newspaper article by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was hired by the CIA to evaluate whether Iraq sought nuclear material in Niger. Wilson wrote that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The White House did not challenge the prosecutor's account of Bush's and Cheney's role in orchestrating the effort to discredit Wilson yesterday. Both Bush and Cheney have been interviewed by Fitzgerald, but the details of what they told him are unknown. Fitzgerald's new account is based on Libby's grand jury testimony that Cheney told him Bush had authorized the declassification and disclosure of some of the information.
Bush has been a major critic of leaks of classified information, and his aides have repeatedly said they want to "get to the bottom" of who leaked the name of Wilson's wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, to the media, which touched off Fitzgerald's investigation . But in the past 33 months the White House has never disclosed Bush's apparent involvement in the deliberate disclosure of information meant to undermine Wilson.
Three months before Fitzgerald began his probe in December 2003, Bush said at a news conference that "I've constantly expressed my displeasure with leaks, particularly leaks of classified information. . . . If there's a leak out of the administration, I want to know who it is. And if a person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."
Fitzgerald has not charged anyone with wrongdoing in the initial leak of Plame's name. In the new filing, he did not allege that Bush authorized that disclosure, and he said Bush was "unaware of the role" that Libby, then Cheney's chief of staff, played in discussing her name with a number of reporters.
The revelation of Bush's role in the disclosure effort set off an intense political debate yesterday over the propriety of the White House's use of intelligence information to undermine a critic. Democratic lawmakers lined up to demand that Bush explain his involvement in an affair they called unprecedented.
"If the disclosure is true, it's breathtaking. The president is revealed as the leaker-in-chief," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Legal scholars and analysts said yesterday that the president has the authority to selectively declassify intelligence reports But they also said it was highly unusual for senior officials at the White House to take such an action so stealthily, without notifying Cabinet officials or others in the administration, including the CIA authors of the National Intelligence Estimate.
According to Fitzgerald's account, Libby believed that only he, Bush and Cheney knew about the calculated disclosure. Even Stephen J. Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, was kept in the dark, and he wasted efforts trying separately to "declassify what Mr. Libby testified had already been declassified." Libby, meanwhile, told the reporters he contacted that the declassified information could not be attributed to him.
Fitzgerald's disclosure, in a document he filed in U.S. District Court here at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, came in the midst of a legal battle over Libby's demand for wide access to materials related to Fitzgerald's continuing investigation.
Libby, who was indicted last year for allegedly lying to the FBI and a grand jury about what he said to reporters about his contacts with the media, wants the materials because they will show that his misstatements were innocent and did not stem from an orchestrated administration campaign to discredit Wilson, according to his court filings.
Fitzgerald's brief uses unusually strong language to rebut this claim. In light of the grand jury testimony, the prosecutor said, "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson."
Plame's name was disclosed in a July 2003 syndicated column by Robert D. Novak. Disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA officer can be a felony in certain circumstances. Fitzgerald has subpoenaed dozens of federal officials and reporters so far and concluded that Libby and several others in the administration discussed Plame's CIA role with reporters.
He also said in the new filing he was withholding information from Libby's legal team related to "other subjects of the investigation," including other administration officials. Fitzgerald disclosed that he does not intend to seek testimony at Libby's trial from Hadley or White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, whose roles in rebutting Wilson's article have been under scrutiny.
Unlike the statement exonerating Bush, no statement is made in the filing about whether Cheney played a role in the leak of Plame's name. Cheney is depicted as acutely interested in and dismissive of what Wilson wrote as the result of a trip he took to Niger, where he was sent by the CIA to probe claims that Iraq had attempted to acquire nuclear weapons materials.
Cheney, Fitzgerald said, "expressed concerns to defendant [Libby] regarding whether Mr. Wilson's trip was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife." Leaking the latter scenario to the press, the prosecutor said, had the effect of undercutting Wilson's credibility by making it seem as if he "received the assignment [to visit Niger] on account of nepotism."
Fitzgerald's filing states that Cheney advised Libby "the President had specifically authorized defendant to disclose certain information" from the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, an analysis of Iraq's ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
That NIE contained information that Bush and Cheney felt would rebut Wilson's claims about the exaggeration of Iraq's nuclear threat. "The evidence will show," Fitzgerald wrote, "that the July 6, 2003 Op Ed by Mr. Wilson was viewed in the Office of the Vice President as a direct attack on the credibility of the Vice President (and the President) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq."
Libby, he wrote, was essentially dispatched to rebut this attack the following week. According to Fitzgerald's account, Libby considered this task unusual and initially protested "because of the classified nature of the NIE." But Cheney -- at some later date, not specified in the court filing -- "advised him that the President had authorized" disclosures from that document.
Libby also testified that the vice president's legal counsel, David S. Addington, "opined that Presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to declassification of the document." The date that Addington offered this advice to Libby is not specified in Fitzgerald's account.
The exclusive venue for the rebuttal effort was meant to be the New York Times, where then-reporter Judith Miller had written a number of articles that highlighted Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Libby met with Miller at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington two days after the Wilson article was published, and he brought a brief abstract of the National Intelligence Estimate's key judgments.
"Defendant testified that this July 8th meeting was the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by the President's authorization that it be disclosed." But Libby said he and Cheney agreed that it was "very important" for the NIE's conclusions to be disclosed.
Libby told Miller, among other things, that the NIE concluded Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium," according to Fitzgerald's filing. In fact, the CIA did not believe this allegation, which came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and remains unproved to this day, according to intelligence analysts.
Libby told investigators that he never mentioned Plame's name in this conversation, but the grand jury indicted him on charges of lying about this.
Miller did not write an article about the information in the National Intelligence Estimate and Fitzgerald has asserted that Cheney authorized Libby four days later to talk about "the NIE and Mr. Wilson" to other reporters. On that day, Fitzgerald said, Libby discussed Plame's CIA employment for the first time with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and for the third time with Miller.
Cooper wrote an article repeating what Novak had disclosed about Plame, though Miller never did.
Once the disclosure of Plame's name became the target of an investigation, Libby "implored White House officials" to issue a statement exonerating him, according to Fitzgerald's account. When he was rebuffed, Libby requested that Cheney intervene. He also wrote a draft statement by hand, asserting that he "did not leak classified information."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan instead issued a more guarded statement, under pressure from Cheney, that Libby and Rove "assured me they were not involved in this," according to Fitzgerald's account. But as Libby approached his first FBI interview, Fitzgerald said, he knew the White House had "publicly staked its credibility on there being no White House involvement in the leaking of information about Mrs. Wilson" and that the president had vowed to fire leakers.
In that context, Libby lied about what he said to reporters and "repeated the story in a subsequent interview and during two grand jury appearances."
Libby's legal team is slated to file its reply to the filing next Wednesday. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence would not comment publicly on the status of the classified NIE yesterday.
Staff writers Dafna Linzer, Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.