Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The CIA agent, her husband and a leak ... how high-flying Bush aide fell to earth

Editor's note: I am moving over to post at the other blog.
· Conviction ends career of Cheney chief of staff
· Trial exposed secretive White House machine

Ewen MacAskill in Washington
Wednesday March 7, 2007
The Guardian

The downfall of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, one of the leading figures in the Bush administration, was completed yesterday. The man who had swaggered round the White House as chief of staff to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, was subdued as he listened to the verdict in courtroom 17 of the US district court, within walking distance of his former office.

Libby had looked confident when he appeared in court to hear the verdict. But as he was found guilty on the first of five charges he blinked and seemed surprised. As each verdict was announced, the blinking became more pronounced.

And so ended the political career of one of the Bush ideologues, part of the original neoconservative group known as the Vulcans who advocated an aggresessive foreign policy, in particular the invasion of Iraq.

The six-week trial, with its parade of witnesses from the administration, offered a rare insight into the workings of the obsessively secretive White House. It also provided more than a glimpse of the often unsavoury relationship between the administration and the media insiders.

Witnesses provided a view of daily life inside the White House, revealing an administration paranoid about the media, and extremely sensitive about criticism.

A White House staffer revealed what Washington journalists have long suspected: that bad news should be released late on a Friday when most of the media are not paying attention or on the assumption that most stories that appear on a Saturday are not followed up.

Run-up to war

But the real importance of the trial was the insight it offered into the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The case coincided with a shift in US public opinion from support for the war to scepticism and outright hostility, and confirmed the growing suspicion that the public had been misled.

The case was complex but it began simply enough with 16 words uttered by Mr Bush in his state of the union speech two months before the invasion. He said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

That statement was untrue. The CIA advised the president that it was sceptical about the claim - advice which Mr Bush ignored. Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador opposed to war, went to Niger to check the claim He concluded it was nonsense, and said so in an article in the New York Times shortly after the invasion.

This appears to have enraged Mr Bush and Mr Cheney, according to witnesses during the trial. In what could have been an act of retribution, there was a leak to the press that Mr Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was apparently a CIA covert agent. As a result of her identity being made public, she was out of a job.


Disclosing the identity of CIA agents is a criminal offence and the FBI and a grand jury conducted investigations. In the speculation about who might have leaked Ms Plame's identity, Libby's name regularly came up.

The 56-year-old lawyer had long been involved with many of the individuals who would become key figures in the Bush adminstration. He had been taught at Yale by Paul Wolfowitz, who would later become the intellectual powerhouse of the neoconservatives.

Mr Wolfowitz invited Libby to join him at the state department in the 1980s. In 1997, Libby became a founding member of the Project for the New American Century, the neoconservative team seeking to reshape US policy in the Middle East.

He joined Mr Cheney, the most hawkish member of the Bush administration, as chief of staff in 2001. He was also national security adviser, shaping policy on Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and other hotspots.

Under oath, Libby told the investigators looking into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity that he learned her identity from a reporter, Tim Russert. The television presenter denied this. Another reporter, Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, spent three months in jail for refusing to disclose her sources for Ms Plame's identity. She was freed after Libby allowed her to name him as the source.

During the trial, prosecutors said Libby had lied. The defence claimed he had suffered a memory lapse. The jury refused to give him the benefit of the doubt and he faces a sentence of up to 25 years. But in reality he may never go to jail. His lawyers can string out the appeal long enough for Mr Bush, before he leaves office in January 2009, to grant a pardon to his loyal follower. But his time as one of the leading advocates of the neoconservative revolution and a leading player at the White House is long over.

Key figures: spies and whistleblowers

Lewis "Scooter" Libby

The former aide has different explanations for how he came by his nickname - either from his father, impressed by the agility of his son, or comparison to a well-known Yankees player. Until his fall, the lawyer was one of Washington's most powerful neocons, tutored at Yale by Paul Wolfowitz. He was so close to the vice-president that he was known as "Dick Cheney's Dick Cheney".

Valerie Plame

The spy at the heart of the affair. As far as her neighbours in suburban Washington were concerned, she was a civil servant and mother. In fact she was an undercover CIA agent trying to find evidence to back up claims about Iraqi WMD. Her cover was blown in July 2003 by officials briefing journalists. Her husband Joe Wilson annoyed the White House enough to provoke the leak. He was a flamboyant ex-ambassador sent to Niger in 2002 to chase claims from Mr Cheney's office that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in West Africa, but found a dead end. He was shocked to hear the claim repeated by Bush and blew the whistle in July 2003. Later journalists were told by officials that he had no qualifications to go on the Niger trip, other than a well-placed wife in the CIA.

Karl Rove

The Machiavelli in the court of Bush had also told journalists about Plame's identity, but unlike the lawyer, he belatedly admitted it and avoided charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The leak itself was not, in the end, considered a crime.

Robert Novak

The journalist who blew Plame's cover.

The golden couple targeted by White House machine

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
Published: 07 March 2007

The way Joe Wilson tells it, the first time he met the woman who would become his third wife the world went into slow motion. He smiled at Valerie Plame at a reception at the Washington home of the Turkish ambassador. "Suddenly I saw nobody else in a throng that must have numbered 200 people," he later recalled.

Yet if their first meeting was the stuff of fairy tales the past four years have been anything but. The couple have found themselves at the centre of a bitter controversy linked directly to the American and British governments' use and manipulation of faulty intelligence to make the case for war against Iraq.

The backdrop to the controversy were "the 16 words" included in President George Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address. In that speech, Mr Bush said: 'The British Government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Mr Wilson, 57, knew that claim to be false. In 2002, the former diplomat had travelled to Niger at the behest of the CIA to investigate "intelligence" that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from the west African nation to develop a nuclear weapons programme. The "intelligence" was based on documents that the CIA had obtained from Italian intelligence agents. These documents were later proved to be forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr Wilson, who had once served as a US diplomat in Niamey, the capital of Niger, took less than a week to conclude the claims were false. Because of the structure of the country's uranium industry and its control by an international consortium, there was no way Niger could have exported more uranium without drawing attention. He had reported as much to the CIA.

Yet neither the Bush or Blair governments took any notice. In September 2002 a British dossier on Iraq claimed Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa and four months later came Mr Bush's speech. Mr Wilson started hinting to journalists that this was an area worthy of investigation.

In June 2003, speaking on the understanding that he not be named, Mr Wilson told the Independent on Sunday that not only had the administration misled the American people but that his report debunking the claims had almost certainly been passed to London. A week later he wrote a signed piece in the New York Times entitled "What I Did not Find in Africa". He wrote: "Questioning the selective use of intelligence to justify the war in Iraq is neither idle sniping nor 'revisionist history' as Mr Bush has suggested. The act of war is the last option of a democracy, taken when there is a grave threat to our national security."

The White House was furious. Led by Mr Bush's special adviser, Karl Rove, and the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, it set out to discredit Mr Wilson. It did so by going after his wife.

A week after Mr Wilson's article appeared, a piece written by the conservative columnist Robert Novak claimed the former diplomat had been sent to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, whom he named and identified as a CIA officer - potentially a federal crime. In reality, Novak's offence was potentially much greater; Ms Plame was not just a CIA employee, she was apparently working as a NOC or non-official cover, considered among the most covert.

It was Mr Novak's column and the effort to discover who had been its source that led federal prosecutors to investigate and ultimately charge Mr Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Ironically, while it emerged Libby did speak to journalists, it was Richard Armitage - then the deputy secretary of state - who was Mr Novak's primary source.

The couple, who have two young children, have now become fixtures on the liberal party circuit in Washington. Mr Wilson penned a memoir, The Politics of Truth while Ms Plame secured $2.5m to write her own book, Fair Game. The couple also filed a civil lawsuit against Mr Cheney, Mr Libby and Mr Rove seeking damages.

Key figures in Plame leak case

Patrick Fitzgerald

The federal attorney for Northern Illinois was appointed to the Plame leak case in 2003, and had earlier exposed a network of bribery involving the state's then governor George Ryan, who was jailed for corruption.

Judith Miller

The former New York Times reporter was jailed in 2005, after refusing to reveal to the grand jury that Mr Libby was her source for the fact that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Dick Cheney

Madevisits to the CIA, in what critics say was a deliberate effort to pressure analysts to draw the most ominous conclusions from available intelligence.