Late in the morning of July 12, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney stood atop a pier at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia awaiting the commissioning of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, a ship 20 stories high that took eight years to construct. More than 15,000 people stood under clear skies to watch the pomp and ceremony. As she christened the carrier by breaking a bottle of champagne over its bow, Nancy Reagan told the crowd: "I only have one line. Man the ship and bring her alive."
A Washington Post reporter recounted what happened next: "With those time-hallowed words, hundreds of crew members wearing dress whites ran aboard the 20-story Reagan and lined the flight deck while four fighter jets flew overhead and every crane, radar, whistle, and alarm aboard was turned on simultaneously."
Cheney himself later took the podium, and as he spoke, the spirit of the crowd turned somber: "The Ronald Reagan sets sail in a world with new dangers," he said, "The outcome is certain. There will be victory for the United States."
The moment of triumph would prove to be illusory. Americans had no idea that the war in Iraq, then not even four months old, would take a turn for the worse, that more than 3,000 American servicemen would die in the line of duty; that "liberated" Iraq would spiral down into sectarian violence; and that the war would not only divide the Iraqi nation but the American one as well.
On the flight back to Washington, Cheney huddled with two of his top aides -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his then-chief of staff, and Catherine Martin, then assistant to the vice president for pubic affairs. According to federal court records, the three discussed how to counter and discredit the allegations made by a former U.S. ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, that the Bush administration had manipulated and distorted intelligence information to make the case to go to war with Iraq.
On January 16, Libby will go on trial in the federal courthouse in Washington D.C. on five counts of lying to federal investigators, perjury, and obstruction of justice. He is accused of attempting to conceal his role, and possibly that of others, in leaking to the media that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer, and that she might have played a role in sending her husband on a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger in 2002 to determine whether Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from Niger to build a nuclear weapon.
In attempting to determine Libby's motives for allegedly lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about his leaking of Plame's CIA identity to journalists, federal investigators theorized from the very earliest stages of the case that Libby may have been trying to hide Cheney's own role in encouraging Libby to discredit Wilson, according to attorneys involved in the case.
Cheney is scheduled to be a defense witness in the Libby trial. Regarding this, a spokesperson for the Vice President says: "We've cooperated fully in this matter and will continue to do so in fairness to the parties involved."
Both Cheney and Libby have repeatedly denied -- both publicly and to federal investigators -- that Cheney ever encouraged Libby specifically to leak information to the press about Plame. But since the early days of the leak probe in fall 2003, even before it was taken over by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, investigators have maintained that Libby devised an elaborate cover story even though he must have known that contemporaneous records and the testimony of others was very likely to show that he was lying. Other than the motive to protect himself, the only other driving force behind Libby's actions, federal investigators have theorized, was to protect Cheney or other superiors, according to attorneys who have been involved in the CIA leak probe.
On July 6, six days before Cheney's trip to Norfolk, Wilson had charged in an op-ed piece in The New York Times that during a March 2002 CIA-sponsored trip to Niger he found no evidence to substantiate Bush administration claims that Saddam had attempted to purchase uranium from that African country. Despite Wilson's report, and other warnings to administration officials that the Niger information might have been untrue, it was cited in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech as evidence of an Iraqi program to build an atomic weapon, a major argument in the case to go to war.
Cheney was incensed as Wilson's allegations gained public currency in the days following the op-ed, his top aides would recall later.
The vice president had apparently first learned in June 2003, according to the indictment, that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer, and that she might have been responsible for her husband being sent to Niger. He scribbled in the margins of Wilson's New York Times op-ed: "Have they done this sort of thing before? Send an Amb. [sic] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?"
During testimony before the federal grand jury in the CIA leak case, a federal prosecutor approached Libby with a copy of the marked-up column and asked if he recalled the Vice President expressly raising the same issues with him. A small amount of grand jury testimony has been made public in court filings by the special prosecutor. Additional accounts of what occurred in the grand jury were provided by sources with first-hand knowledge of the testimony.
"Do you recall ever discussing those issues with Vice President Cheney?"
"And tell us what you recall about those conversations," the prosecutor pressed Libby.
"I recall that along the way he asked, 'Is this normal for them to just send somebody out like this uncompensated, as it says?' He was interested in how did that person come to be selected for this mission. And at some point, his wife worked at the Agency, you know, that was part of the question."
The extraordinary amount of time and energy that Cheney personally devoted to the issue, as well as his intensity of emotion regarding it is underscored by this exchange between a federal prosecutor and Libby when Libby testified before the grand jury:
"Was it a topic that was discussed on a daily basis?" a federal prosecutor asked.
"Yes, sir," answered Libby.
"And it was discussed on multiple occasions each day in fact?"
"And during that time did the vice president indicate that he was upset that this article was out there which falsely in his view attacked his own credibility?"
"And do you recall what it is the vice-president said?"
"I recall that he was very keen to get the truth out. He wanted to get all the facts out about what he [Cheney] had or hadn't done--what the facts were or were not. He was very keen on that and said it repeatedly. 'Let's get everything out.'"
On the plane ride back to Washington from Norfolk on July 12, Cheney strategized once again with Libby and Martin as to how to discredit Wilson's allegations, according to people familiar with the federal grand jury testimony of both Libby and Martin.
Cheney, then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, White House counselor Dan Bartlett, and Libby had over the course of the previous several days taken to reviewing classified records to reconstruct what occurred regarding Wilson's mission and to see what if anything in them might undercut his credibility. Working with then CIA-director George Tenet, they undertook a formal declassification process that would enable them to make public intelligence records that they thought would help them make the case.
"We were trying to figure out what happened and get the story out," said a senior official, involved in the process, "There was nothing nefarious as to what occurred."
But the same official confirmed in an interview what has also been said in federal grand jury testimony and public court filings: that Cheney and Libby often acted without the knowledge or approval and of other senior White House staff when it came to their efforts to discredit Wilson -- including leaking classified information to the press.
Aboard Air Force Two, Cheney, Libby, and Martin discussed a then-still highly classified CIA document that they believed had information in it that would undercut Wilson's credibility. The document was a March 8, 2002 debriefing of Wilson by the CIA's Directorate of Operations after his trip to Niger. The report did not name Wilson or even describe him as a former U.S. ambassador who had served time in the region, but rather as a "contact with excellent access who does not have an established reporting record." The report made no mention of the fact that his wife was Valerie Plame, or that she may have played a role in having her husband sent to Niger.
Cheney told Libby that he wanted him to leak the report to the press, according to people with first-hand knowledge of federal grand jury testimony in the CIA leak case, and federal court records.
Cheney believed that this particular CIA debriefing report might undermine Wilson's claims because it showed that Wilson's Niger probe was far more inconclusive on the issues as to whether Saddam attempted to buy uranium from Niger. The report said that Wilson was restricted from interviewing any number of officials in Niger during the mission, and he was denied some intelligence information before undertaking the trip.
But other senior White House aides -- including Hadley and Bartlett -- later told federal investigators that they were unaware that Cheney had authorized the disclosure of the CIA report on Wilson's Niger mission.
According to a court filing by the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby also testified to the federal grand jury "that on July 12, 2003, he was specifically directed by the Vice President to speak to the press in the place of Cathie Martin (then the communications person for the Vice President) regarding the National Intelligence Estimate [on Iraq] and Wilson. [Libby] was instructed... to [also] provide information contained in a document [he] understood to be the cable authored by Mr. Wilson."
Four other people -- including a senior White House official involving in the effort to declassify Wilson's debriefing, a former senior CIA official, and two private attorneys involved in the CIA leak case -- had previously told National Journal the document in question was not a cable regarding the trip but rather the March 8, 2002 CIA debriefing report.
Almost immediately after disembarking Air Force Two, once back in Washington, D.C., Libby made three telephone calls to two journalists: Matthew Cooper, then of Time magazine, and Judith Miller, then of The New York Times.
During both of those conversations, according to the federal grand jury testimony of both Cooper and Miller, Libby said absolutely nothing at all about the March 8, 2002 CIA debriefing report regarding Wilson.
Instead, both testified that Libby discussed the fact that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer, and that she had been responsible for sending her husband on his mission to Niger. The discussion between Libby and Cooper was the first that the then-vice presidential chief of staff and the Time correspondent spoke of Plame.
But Libby and Miller enjoyed a long professional relationship and also shared a personal friendship. Before the two telephone calls that Libby placed to Miller that day, both had spoken about Plame on two earlier occasions, on June 23, 2003 and July 8, 2003.
Telephone records presented to Miller during her grand jury appearance indicated that she twice spoke with Libby also on July 12.
The first phone call lasted three minutes, the phone records indicate. Miller testified that she believed she might have taken the call on her cell phone in a cab, and told Libby she would soon talk to him after she arrived home, although she was unsure of this, according to the sources familiar with her grand jury testimony.
The second telephone conversation between Libby and Miller lasted for 37 minutes, according to telephone records examined by attorneys familiar with her grand jury testimony. Miller told the grand jury that she believed that telephone conversation took place after she had arrived at her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., although she was not entirely sure.
By the end of those two additional conversations, Miller testified that she felt confident that she could write a story saying Plame was a former CIA officer and that Plame had played a role in her husband being selected to go to Niger. During an earlier conversation with Libby, she had also agreed to identify Libby, not as a White House source, but as a former Capitol Hill staffer. By doing so, readers would be left in the dark that Libby or anyone in the White House was behind the effort to disclose Plame's covert status as a CIA officer.
What Miller herself did not know during her grand jury testimony was that a key issue for federal investigators was whether she would testify as to whether Libby had attempted to leak her anything about the CIA debriefing report of Wilson after his Niger trip. Prosecutors believed that Miller was perhaps attempting to protect Libby in her testimony.
As National Journal first reported, during her first grand jury appearance Miller did not even tell prosecutors about a June 23, 2003 meeting with Libby about Plame and prewar intelligence about Iraq that took place at Libby's office at the Old Executive Office Building which adjoins the White House.
Prosecutors did not want to tip Miller as to why it was so crucial to them to learn whether Libby had ever mentioned the March 2002 Wilson debriefing report to her or Cooper shortly after he disembarked Air Force Two.
The reason was that Libby's failure to mention the March 2002 debriefing was one more piece of an ever increasing body of circumstantial evidence that led prosecutors to believe that Libby had devised a cover story to protect himself, and perhaps even the Vice President, to conceal the fact that his agenda was to leak information about Plame from the very start.
During one of his initial interviews with the FBI, Libby was shown copies of his own notes showing that as early as June 11 or June 12, 2003, Vice President Cheney was either the first or second person to tell him that Plame was a CIA officer and might have also played a role in sending her husband to Niger. At the time, Wilson had not yet written his New York Times op-ed or put a public face to his allegations, but press reports had already aired Wilson's account of his trip to Niger without naming him.
Cheney, Libby, Martin, and a score of other White House officials worked together from that point on to discredit Wilson's allegations, although Cheney and Libby frequently did things without the knowledge of other White House officials, according to the federal grand jury testimony of several of those officials. Those efforts intensified after Wilson's July 6, 2003 op-ed. The indictment of Libby charges that he lied to the FBI and a federal grand jury to conceal that he had leaked information to journalists that Plame was a CIA officer.
The federal grand jury indictment of Libby states: "A major focus of the Grand Jury Investigation was to determine which government officials had disclosed to the media... information concerning the affiliation of Valerie Wilson to the CIA, and the nature, timing, extent, and the purpose of such disclosures, as well as whether any official making such a disclosure did so knowing that the employment of Valerie Wilson by the CIA was classified information."
In his interviews by the FBI and testimony before the federal grand jury, Libby testified that it was the reporters who told him, and not the other way around, that Plame was a CIA officer. Prosecutors are expected to argue during the trial next week that Libby lied because to tell the truth Libby would have to admit that he leaked classified information and might politically embarrass the White House. But the prosecution may very well subtly make the case that another motive was for Libby to protect his then-boss, Cheney. In private, some federal investigators have asserted that Libby might have lied from the beginning to protect Cheney.
Two days after Wilson's July 6 column, on July 8, 2003, Libby had breakfast with Miller at the St. Regis hotel in Washington, D.C. Miller has testified, and the grand jury has alleged, that Libby provided Miller with information that Plame was a CIA officer and had played a role in sending Wilson to Niger.
On July 12, 2003, after returning from Norfolk, according to testimony by Miller and Time's former correspondent, Cooper, Libby told Cooper for the first time and Miller for the third time that Plame worked for the CIA.
Libby told the FBI and testified to the federal grand jury that when talking to Miller and Cooper he was not providing them with information that he learned from Cheney or other government officials, but merely repeating rumors about Plame's CIA employment that he heard from other journalists.
Libby claimed that he had heard from NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert on July 10, 2003 that Plame might have worked for the CIA, and that in talking to Cooper and Miller, he was simply repeating the gossip. Russert has testified that he and Libby never discussed Plame at all, and the indictment charges that Libby lied to investigators when he claimed that Russert and he had talked.
Russert is expected to be a crucial prosecution witness against Libby. Miller and Cooper are also likely to testify that Libby never said that he was merely passing along rumors heard from Russert and other journalists when he told them that Plame was a CIA officer, if their trial testimony is consistent to what they have already testified to the federal grand jury.
Libby also testified that when he told reporters that Plame was a CIA officer he had totally forgotten by then that that he might have been originally told that information by Cheney. Investigators are still attempting to determine whether he made the claim to protect Cheney.
In a further possible attempt to protect Cheney, Libby also testified to the grand jury that he did not believe he had discussed that Plame worked for the CIA with Cheney during the critical period that Libby was leaking such information to the press -- and didn't discuss it with the vice president until after syndicated columnist Robert Novak first disclosed on July 14 that Plame was a CIA "operative."
It would be significant that Cheney and Libby only discussed Plame's CIA employment after the July 14 Novak column because instead of discussing a highly classified secret, the information would then have been considered public information, and not illegal, because Novak had disclosed it in his column.
While questioning Libby during grand jury testimony, prosecutors were incredulous regarding Libby's claims that he and Cheney had not discussed Plame's CIA employment during the critical July 6 to July 14 period. They also expressed skepticism that Libby had supposedly forgotten -- even though Libby's own written notes indicated otherwise -- that Cheney had told him that Plame worked for the CIA much earlier, on either June 11 or June 12. They were also disbelieving of Libby's claims that even though Libby and Cheney met several times every day after Wilson's July 6 column appeared, the two men did not discuss Plame during the subsequent eight days, not until Novak's column appeared. And finally, prosecutors were disbelieving when Libby claimed that he was simply passing on a rumor to Cheney that he had purportedly learned from Tim Russert that Plame was a CIA officer.
Libby even mused before the grand jury that Cheney may have scribbled his comments about Plame working for the CIA and having been involved in selecting her husband for his "pro bono" mission to Niger only after Novak's column appeared on July 14, eight days after Wilson's own column appeared in the New York Times.
Exasperated prosecutors indicated during more than one of Libby's grand jury appearances that these claims by Libby seemed implausible.
On March 5, 2004, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald himself questioned Libby before the grand jury.
Asked by Fitzgerald if he recalled a conversation with Cheney during which they discussed Plame and that she sent her "husband on a junket," Libby replied:
"I don't recall the conversation until after the Novak piece. I don't recall it during the week of July 6. I recall it after the Novak…after the Novak article appeared..."
Fitzgerald then bore down on the witness: "And are you telling us under oath that from July 6th to July 14th you never discussed with Vice President Cheney whether Mr. Wilson's wife worked at the CIA?"
Libby replied: "No, no, I'm not saying that. On July 10 or 11 I learned, I thought anew, that the wife—that the reporters were telling us that the wife worked at the CIA. And I may have had a conversation with the Vice President either late on the 11th or on the 12th in which I relayed that reporters were saying that." As Libby further told it, if he discussed with Cheney that Plame was a CIA officer, he had only done so in the context of saying that the information was only an unsubstantiated rumor that he had heard from Tim Russert.
In a subsequent grand jury appearance, a skeptical prosecutor indicated that he found it hard to believe that Cheney would have written the notations he did in the margins of former Ambassador Wilson's July 6, 2003 New York Times op-ed only after Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column appeared saying that Valerie Plame was a CIA "operative."
"OK," the prosecutor said, before asking, "And can you tell us why it would be that the Vice President read the Novak column and had questions, some of which apparently seem to be answered by the Novak column, would go back and pull out an original July 6th op-ed piece and write on that?"
"I'm not sure...," Libby answered, "He often kept these columns for awhile and keeps columns and will think on them. And I think what may have happened here is what he may have -- I don't know if he wrote, he wrote the points down. He might have pulled out the column to think about the problem and written on it, but I don't know."
Libby then added: "You'll have to ask him."
-- Previous coverage of pre-war intelligence and the CIA leak investigation from Murray Waas. Brian Beutler provided research assistance for this report.