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Leopold: CIA Leak Path: Cheney, Libby, Woodward

CIA Leak Path: Cheney, Libby, Woodward

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Monday 06 March 2006

In mid-June 2003, when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's criticism against the White House's use of pre-war Iraq intelligence started to make national headlines, Vice President Dick Cheney told his former chief of staff and close confidant I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to leak classified intelligence data on Iraq's nuclear ambitions to a legendary Washington journalist in order to undercut the charges made against the Bush administration by the former ambassador.

On June 27, 2003, Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, became the first journalist to whom Libby leaked a portion of the classified National Intelligence Estimate that purportedly showed how Iraq tried to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger.

This story is based on interviews with current and former administration officials who work or worked at the CIA, the State Department and the National Security Council. All of the individuals are familiar with the events that took place in the days that led up to Libby's meeting with Woodward and other journalists in which the NIE was discussed.

Woodward, currently an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, did not return calls for comment. Leonard Downie, the executive editor of the Post, would not comment for this story. A spokeswoman for Cheney said she could not comment for this story, and attorneys for Libby did not return calls for comment.

Libby was indicted in October on five-counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators related to his role in the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, Ambassador Wilson's wife.

The leak of the NIE to Woodward was orchestrated by Cheney and Libby in mid-June 2003 in hopes that Woodward would write a story for the Washington Post that would contradict the assertions made by Wilson - that there was no truth to intelligence cited by the Bush administration on numerous occasions that Iraq tried to purchase 500 tons of uranium from Niger.

Just two weeks earlier, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus wrote an article attacking the administration's use of the Niger uranium allegations in President Bush's January 28, 2003 State of the Union address. Pincus's article was based on an unnamed source - later learned to be Joseph Wilson - who called into question the veracity of the White House's use of the documents that supposedly proved Iraq sought uranium from Niger.

Cheney and then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley led a campaign beginning in March 2003 to discredit Wilson, according to current and former State Department and CIA officials. Although the officials said they helped prepare negative information on Wilson about his personal and professional life and had given it to Libby and Cheney, Wilson seemed to drop off the radar once the Iraq war started on March 19, 2003.

With no sign of weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, news accounts started to call into question the credibility of the administration's pre-war intelligence. In May 2003, Wilson re-emerged at a political conference in Washington sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. There he told the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff that he had been the special envoy who traveled to Niger in February 2002 to check out allegations that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from the country. He told Kristoff that he briefed a CIA analyst that the claims were untrue. Wilson said he believed the administration had ignored his report and had been dishonest with Congress and the American people.

Then rumors started to swirl inside the Beltway in mid-June 2003 that Wilson would soon go public and reveal that he was tapped by the CIA to travel to Niger a year earlier to check out whether there was any truth to the intelligence that claimed Iraq tried to acquire uranium from the African country. He reported back to the CIA in March 2002 that the intelligence was bogus.

A day or two after Pincus's article was published in the Post, a meeting took place in Cheney's office to coordinate a response to the charges. In attendance were Libby, Cheney, and several other senior aides to the vice president as well as officials from the State Department, and the National Security Council.

It was then that Cheney decided the only way to counter Wilson's criticism was by having Libby leak portions of the NIE to a select group of reporters whose previous work in their respective publications had advanced the White House's political agenda.

For an administration that despises leaks, the decision by Cheney to declassify highly sensitive portions of the NIE and have his most trusted aide leak it to reporters in order to attack the former ambassador's credibility shows how personal the Wilson issue had become for the vice president.

Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but the timing of an executive order signed by President Bush supposedly granting Cheney the authority to declassify such national security intelligence fits nicely into the time frame when he and his senior aides spearheaded a campaign to discredit Wilson.

The executive order was signed on March 23, 2003, four days after the start of the Iraq war, and two weeks after Wilson first appeared on the administration's radar.

In an interview with Fox News last month, Cheney said he had the legal authority to declassify intelligence as he saw fit. There is still strong debate about the interpretation of the executive order Cheney referred to that provided him with such power. Cheney's comments came on the heels of a disclosure Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made in a letter to defense attorneys representing Libby in the leak case.

In the letter, Fitzgerald said Libby testified before a grand jury that he was authorized by his "superiors" to leak portions of the NIE to journalists.

Woodward was first on deck. He met with Libby on June 27, 2003, in Libby's office next to the White House. A week or so earlier, Woodward met with two other government officials, one of whom told him in a "casual" and off-handed manner that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Woodward said the meeting with Libby and the other government officials had been set up simply as "confidential background interviews for my 2004 book "Plan of Attack" about the lead-up to the Iraq war, ongoing reporting for the Washington Post and research for a book on Bush's second term to be published in 2006."

Woodward wrote a first-person account for the Washington Post after he gave sworn deposition to Fitzgerald about information he had learned about Valerie Plame Wilson. It was a shocking revelation at the time. Woodward had publicly discounted the importance of the Plame Wilson leak and had referred to Fitzgerald as a "junkyard dog" prosecutor. He then revealed in November that he had been told about Plame Wilson's CIA employment in June 2003 - before any other journalist.

In that first person account published in the Post, the Watergate-era journalist wrote that when he met with Libby on June 27, 2003, "Libby discussed the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned "yellowcake" and said there was an effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa. It goes back to February '02. This was the time of Wilson's trip to Niger."

The information in the NIE about Niger was still considered highly classified and extremely sensitive, and although Woodward had been the recipient of classified information on other occasions during the course of gathering material for his books, the data he was provided with concerning the NIE had been authorized by Cheney in order to rebut Wilson. Woodward never wrote a story for the Post about the intelligence information he was given.

Libby also met with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, another Pulitzer Prize winner, and leaked the same portions of the NIE when questions were raised by Miller about Wilson's claims about the administration's use of pre-war Iraq intelligence.

Miller and Woodward had been handpicked by Libby to receive the information contained in the NIE, sources familiar with the events that led up to the meetings said, and were urged by Libby to write stories to undercut Wilson's credibility by showing that the NIE disagreed with Wilson's claims.

Miller never wrote a story for the Time, either. She testified before a grand jury that Libby gave her information in the NIE concerning Iraq's attempt to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger.

In the meantime, while Libby had been leaking portions of the NIE in late June to back up the administration's use of the Niger claims, other officials from Cheney's office and the National Security Council had been speaking with a select group of journalists and had revealed Plame Wilson's identity.

On July 6, 2003, Wilson went public. A week later, his wife's name and covert status were published in newspaper reports.

In the interest of fairness, any individual named in this story who believes he has been portrayed unfairly will have the opportunity to use this space to respond.


Jason Leopold spent two years covering California's electricity crisis as Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires. Jason has spent the last year cultivating sources close to the CIA leak invesigation, and will be a regular contributer to t r u t h o u t.

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