Cheney mired in Plame case disclosures

Last week, sources close to the investigation of the leak of a CIA agent’s identity disclosed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has not released to the Special Prosecutor’s office e-mails that may incriminate Vice President Dick Cheney, his aides and other White House officials who are believed to have played an active part in outing former agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the press.

Investigative reporter Jason Leopold, writing for Online Journal, said Cheney was interviewed by federal prosecutors early in 2004. These unidentified sources said Cheney testified that neither he nor any of his aides or anyone in his office were involved in leaking the identity of Valerie Plame. He also said no one in his office had attempted to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a strong critic of the administration’s Iraq policy.

According to Leopold, Gonzales is said to be holding e-mails containing references to Plame’s identity and CIA status and events related to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Sources also told Leopold that the e-mails outlined suggestions by officials about how the White House ought to respond to what the administration believed were intensifying and critical comments by Joseph Wilson about the Bush administration’s pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

When the leak occurred, Gonzales was White House counsel. He spent two weeks with other White House attorneys screening e-mails given his office by nearly 2,000 staff members, after a 2003 deadline imposed by the president. The sources reported Gonzales told prosecutor Fitzgerald more than a year ago that he would not release the messages to Fitzgerald’s office, because they contain classified intelligence information about Iraq in addition to some references to Plame.

Gonzales is said to have cited “executive privilege” and “national security concerns” as his reasons for retaining the messages. Attorneys said some of the communication allegedly proves Cheney’s office was active in making Plame’s identity and CIA status public. Disclosing the identity of a covert intelligence operative is a violation of federal law.

The attorneys added that the Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald believes, besides the messages withheld, others were shredded or deleted.

Fitzgerald filed a court document Jan. 23 in which he said during his investigation he was told some e-mails from the offices of President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney were not saved. His document makes no accusations against either official or any member of the administration, but those close to the probe say Fitzgerald has been saying that privately.

Spokesmen for Gonzales and the White House had no comment about the allegations, citing the continuing investigation. A spokesman for Fitzgerald also made no comment. Cheney’s office did not return calls for comment, and neither did his attorney, Terrence O’Donnell.

Cheney testified for more than an hour in 2004 about his function in the leak, but he was not under oath. His testimony appears to match that of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, given before a grand jury that same year. Libby later was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to investigators about his part in the Plame case.

Two weeks ago, additional documents in the case were made public. In one of them, Fitzgerald told Libby’s lawyers Libby told the grand jury his “superiors” authorized him to disclose elements of the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate to reporters in the summer of 2003. The NIE reportedly showed Iraq to be a grave nuclear threat. That was a move designed to deflect criticism that the administration fabricated pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Some news reports, citing people familiar with Libby’s testimony, said Cheney authorized Libby to make the disclosures. Within the past month, an extensive investigation has shown that Cheney, Libby and former Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley led an effort to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, beginning in March 2003.

Cheney told none of this to investigators when he was questioned in 2004.

The vice president was asked how the White House came to rely on Niger documents that supposedly showed Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the African country. Cheney said he had a briefing about these claims late in December 2003 or early in January 2004, and asked the CIA for more information.

Cheney claimed he knew nothing of Joseph Wilson’s trip to Niger, and never saw Wilson’s report to a CIA analyst. That report said the claims about the uranium buy were false. Cheney said the CIA never told him about Wilson’s trip.

However, attorneys on the fringes of the investigation said witnesses in the case testified before a grand jury that Cheney, Libby, Hadley, the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Justice Department, the FBI, senior aides in Cheney’s office, the president and the National Security Council all had received and read a cable from the CIA sent March 9, 2002, that fully debunked the Niger story.

The cable, drafted by a CIA analyst, quoted a CIA source and several Niger officials—questioned by Wilson during his eight days there—who said claims that Iraq had tried to buy 500 tons of yellowcake uranium ore from Niger were totally false.

Leopold reported several present and former State Department and CIA officials testified before the grand jury that they had talked with Libby and Hadley about the cable, and were told Cheney also had read it.

The attorneys added, Cheney told investigators when Wilson began talking to reporters about his trip to Niger, he asked Libby to “get more information” from the CIA and find out if reports of the trip were true. Cheney also told prosecutors that before he learned about Wilson’s trip, his office merely tried to rebut Wilson’s statements and news stories that charged the Bush administration knowingly used flawed intelligence to build support for war on Iraq.

Further, Cheney said he and Libby were concerned reporters had the impression Cheney had selected Wilson for the Niger trip, according to the attorneys. Cheney said he told Libby and others to prepare a response to such queries and refer them to the White House press office.

One attorney said: “In his testimony the vice president said that his staff referred media calls about Wilson to the White House press office. He said that was the appropriate venue for responding to statements by Mr. Wilson that he believed were wrong.”

From the Frb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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