Monday, October 31, 2005

Fall of a Vulcan (One down, how many more will fall?)

How a very smart and very loyal aide to Dick Cheney got indicted for allegedly lying about his role in defending the war

Scooter Libby always had a knack for fiction. He once penned a thriller set in Japan that a critic praised for its "storytelling skill" and "conspiratorial murmurs." Then, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he earned the scorn of officials at the CIA and State Department for inserting unchecked, raw intelligence into speeches to vilify Saddam Hussein and boost the case for war. One hard-to-kill Libby favorite: the irresistible tale about how 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague five months before the hijackings. That red herring kept creeping back into Vice President Dick Cheney's speeches long after it had been debunked.

Libby was such a good storyteller that some in Cheney's circle believed he had even managed to fool Cheney about his qualifications to be the Veep's chief of staff. Cheney raised a lot of eyebrows in 2001 when he named Libby to be both his national security adviser--a spot for which Libby was certainly qualified--and his top domestic political adviser--a job for which he possibly was not. It was an astonishing, and some people said, unprecedented amount of power for a single staff member. Libby also managed to grab the high-ranking title of assistant to the President and a seat on the National Security Council, not to mention his own CIA intelligence briefing every morning, just like his two bosses. From that powerful position, Libby helped the Vice President in his first term cement his reputation as a bold interventionist abroad and a friend of the corporate world and its oil companies at home. When Cheney quietly tried to bring a more experienced political hand on board to steady his creaky operation in late 2004, Libby maneuvered even more quietly behind the scenes to keep her out.

But the part-time novelist and full-time infighter has met an unforgiving critic. If special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is right, Libby spun an intricate--and criminal--web of lies when he spoke to FBI agents and a grand jury last year investigating the disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame to reporters in 2003. Although Libby maintained under oath that he first heard about Plame's identity from reporters and passed it on to others as mere gossip, Fitzgerald's indictment offers considerable evidence that it was the other way around--that Libby told two reporters, including TIME's Matthew Cooper, about Plame's work for the CIA, and that he lied to investigators about one of those conversations and confected a third out of whole cloth.

Although Fitzgerald has so far drawn a tight circle around Libby that may leave President George W. Bush's longtime alter ego, Karl Rove, bloodied but secure, the United States v. I. Lewis Libby has already reopened old wounds about why the U.S. went to war in the first place. In an unprecedented and awkward fashion, the case pits government officials against the reporters who cover them. And Fitzgerald's indictment sets the stage for either a trial next spring or a plea bargain that almost certainly would mean jail time for Libby. That possibility has already been discussed: a source close to the investigation told TIME that Fitzgerald and Libby's attorney Joseph Tate discussed possible plea options before the indictment was issued last week. But the deal was scotched because the prosecutor insisted that Libby do some "serious" jail time.

For anyone who has been trying to follow the bewildering saga of Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Joseph Wilson and his wife CIA officer Valerie Plame, Fitzgerald's indictment is a helpful road map. After months of confusion, the indictment provides the most concrete evidence yet of a war between the Veep's office and the CIA--a war about a war--and the lengths Libby and his colleagues were willing to go to squelch any criticism of the Administration's prewar behavior. Libby was a Vulcan,* one of the Bush team hard-liners, along with former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who helped the President cram for foreign policy debates during the 2000 campaign and who had argued for years that the U.S. should depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and bring democracy and stability to the Middle East.

What's more, the Vulcans played for keeps. The indictment alleges that Libby sought to find out all he could about an Administration critic named Joe Wilson, then leaked the identity of Wilson's wife to several reporters to undercut the validity of Wilson's criticism, and then lied about his actions in his grand jury testimony. If convicted, lawyers say, Libby could face up to five years in prison. Fitzgerald's theory of the case can be broken into three parts:

THE HUNT FOR THE WHISTLE-BLOWER

The story begins with a mystery man who was dissing the Bush team from somewhere within the government. In May 2003, shortly after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof first wrote about a secret CIA mission to Africa by an unnamed U.S. ambassador to assess suggestions by Cheney's office that Iraq had tried to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger, Libby asked Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman to go digging for more information on the mission. It was not an idle inquiry: the 2002 trip, taken by a former U.S. ambassador to Gabon, Joseph Wilson, had turned up no evidence that Iraq sought the uranium ore for its nuclear weapons program (Which was, by the way, non-existent), as Cheney's office had suggested. And although Wilson reported his findings to the CIA, the claim about the African yellowcake kept popping up in Administration speeches in the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq. At Libby's behest, Grossman ordered the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) to look into the CIA mission to Africa.

Over the next few weeks, Libby got progress reports from the INR, and Grossman eventually informed Libby that it was Wilson who took the trip, that his wife worked at the CIA and that she may have played a role in sending Wilson on the trip. Fitzgerald's indictment alleges that Libby heard similar reports about Wilson and his wife from a senior CIA official and, on June 12, from Cheney, who by then knew that Wilson's wife worked in the CIA's Counter-proliferation Division. To hard-liners like Libby, who believed that the CIA opposed the war in Iraq and had been quietly undercutting the President for months, it appeared that the CIA was turning on Cheney too. "Scooter thought the CIA was trying to screw us," says a former colleague of Libby's.

And almost on cue, the hard-liners' dark fears were realized: within a week, a June 19 online article by the New Republic quoted an unnamed U.S. envoy, who was clearly Wilson, alleging that the Administration knew the yellowcake story "was a flat-out lie" but had used it in the prewar claims anyway. Not long after, Fitzgerald alleges, Libby spoke with his deputy about the article, and the two aides discussed whether information about Wilson's trip might be shared with the press. Libby demurred, saying such a move would cause "complications at the CIA," but added that he "could not discuss the matter on a non-secure phone."

THE NO-FINGERPRINT LEAKS

Just a few days later, on June 23, Libby met at the Old Executive Office Building with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who wrote a series of highly controversial, and now largely discredited, stories about Iraq's prewar arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It was in that session that Libby groused about "selective leaking" at the CIA and first disclosed that Wilson's wife might work at a bureau of the CIA.

Two weeks later, on July 6, Wilson went public, writing an Op-Ed column in the New York Times, retelling the story of his fruitless trip to Niger and hinting that the Bush team didn't really want to know if the prewar intelligence was accurate or not. It was a serious charge and, to the Bush team, an open declaration of war. The next day, Libby told then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and added that that was a fact not widely known--dropping, perhaps, an invitation to Fleischer to leak it to a friendly reporter. The next day, Libby met again with Judith Miller, and they talked again of Wilson and his wife. Libby strengthened his earlier hunch about Plame's employment at the CIA, and this time, the two discussed how their conversations would be attributed in print. Libby, who once worked for the Congress, wanted to be identified as a "former Hill staffer" to mask the source of the information. (Miller, as things turned out, wrote nothing about Wilson or Plame.) Two days later, Libby heard from Rove (identified in the indictment only as "Official A") that syndicated columnist Robert Novak was planning to write about Wilson and his wife.

THE ALLEGED COVER-UP

When Novak's column naming Plame for the first time appeared, all hell broke loose at the CIA. The agency's lawyers launched an internal probe of the leak, and within months the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation. Fitzgerald was appointed to run the case, and the hard-charging prosecutor began interviewing witnesses within weeks. That, according to Fitzgerald, is when Libby began to spin his web. In his interviews with the FBI and later in his testimony to the grand jury, Libby swore that he had first heard about Wilson's wife not from other senior officials in June 2003 but instead on July 10 or 11, 2003, from NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. Libby also told the feds that Russert volunteered in the same call that "all the reporters" knew about Plame's work. Similarly, Libby's account of a brief July 12, 2003, call with TIME's Cooper differs from Cooper's recollection.

Libby's lawyers said last week that they were "surprised" and "distressed" by the charges and noted that "a person's recollection and memory of events will not always match those of other people, particularly when they are asked to testify months after the events occurred." They have vowed to mount a "vigorous" defense, and one even told a colleague the case is winnable. But a number of veteran criminal-defense attorneys believe a trial will be avoided for one reason: Libby's lawyers face the prospect of calling veteran journalists' credibility into question and permitting the prosecutors to call some of the most senior officials in the government, like the Vice President, to the stand. In an environment in which little to nothing has gone right for the White House, politics alone could compel a Vulcan like Libby to take one for the team.

Of course, any plea bargain also has the potential to endanger higher-level officials like Cheney, who is mentioned more than once in the indictment. Fitzgerald's document notes, for example, that Libby flew with Cheney on July 12 to Norfolk, Va., and discussed with some officials on the return trip how to handle the Cooper inquiry--an indication that Fitzgerald has reason to at least investigate a conspiracy that might involve the Vice President. Rove too could be ensnared if Libby cuts a deal. So far, Fitzgerald has declined to detail in his indictment the conversation Libby and Rove had about the Novak story before it broke--and whether they discussed the legality of leaking Plame's identity. A trial might provoke a deeper autopsy into how that may have worked--something the White House is surely not keen on.

Some observers wondered last week why a bright lawyer like Libby bothered with a cover story at all. The indictment offers scant evidence that Libby knew Plame was a covert officer, a key test in the 1982 law barring such disclosures. By that logic, Libby could have told the truth about everything he did and still avoided criminal exposure. But other lawyers pointed out that it's easy to forget that Fitzgerald hasn't made public everything he knows. The two senior officials who discussed Plame's employment with Libby may have testified that they warned Libby about the secret nature of her work. "Some things," said a lawyer for one witness, "come out only at trial."

* The group gave itself the nickname the Vulcans, for the Roman god of fire. For more details, see Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/printout/0,8816,1124343,00.html

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