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Leopold: Plame Wilson v. White House: Round 1

Plame Wilson v. White House: Round 1

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

Thursday 16 November 2006

Let the legal wrangling begin.

The showdown between the White House, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, a former covert operative for the CIA whose identity was unmasked by Bush administration officials, entered its first stage Tuesday.

As expected, Justice Department attorneys acting on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Political Adviser Karl Rove, and other officials, filed a motion in federal court Tuesday seeking the dismissal of a civil lawsuit filed against them earlier this year by the Wilsons, claiming Cheney, his former chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Rove, and other unnamed defendants conspired to destroy Valerie Wilson's career and violated Ambassador Wilson's civil rights.

The Justice Department contends in its motion that Rove, Cheney, in his capacity as vice president, and the other defendants are immune to civil lawsuits, citing a Supreme Court decision which held that executive branch officials should be able to perform their public duty without fear their motives may result in litigation.

"The United States has a strong interest in ensuring that federal officials are appropriately protected from personal liability in lawsuits arising as a result of their official positions," said the Justice Department in its motion filed Tuesday. "The United States believes that ... the individual federal defendants have valid claims of immunity. The vice president possesses absolute immunity from civil damages claims in connection with acts taken within the scope of his office."

Evidence suggests that the Valerie Wilson leak was a retaliatory act against her husband, who had publicly accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence data to win support from Congress and the public to launch an invasion of Iraq. The Wilsons' civil suit charges that Libby, Rove, Cheney, and other defendants engaged in a "conspiracy to discredit, punish and seek revenge" against Wilson and his wife. In one of his court filings related to his investigation of the leak, Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, used the same description to describe how "multiple officials" in the White House engaged in a concerted effort to discredit Wilson for criticizing intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The civil case revolves around conversations between Cheney and Libby in the spring of 2003. At the time, Wilson had become a vocal critic of the administration's rationale for the Iraq war and had specifically called into question the veracity of intelligence suggesting Iraq had attempted to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger to use in finalizing its pursuit of an atomic bomb. Privately, Wilson had told a few reporters that he knew firsthand the intelligence was flawed because he had personally traveled to Niger the year before to check out the uranium claims, and there was no truth to the rumor.

Wilson went public on July 6, 2003, in an op-ed column in the New York Times, calling the uranium claims bogus and accusing the White House of deceiving Congress and the public so it could launch a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. When a couple of reporters called Cheney's office to inquire about Wilson's assertions, it set off a chain of events that led Libby, Cheney, and Rove to begin intense discussions about how to handle Wilson and the public relations disaster he was creating for the White House. The events that transpired over the next two days ultimately led Libby, Rove, and possibly other officials to reveal Valerie Wilson's undercover CIA status to a handful of reporters - two of whom first published her identity in a magazine and newspaper column, ending her career as a spy.

By bringing Valerie Wilson into the fold, Rove, Libby and others maintained that Wilson got the job to check out the Niger claims as a result of nepotism and because of that, his findings shouldn't be trusted. A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was tapped in December 2003 to investigate whether White House officials acted with malice when they leaked Valerie Wilson's identity, which would have been a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, an obscure 1982 law making it a felony to knowingly disseminate the classified status of an undercover federal agent.

Libby was charged with five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice a year ago. Fitzgerald maintains that Libby lied and obstructed his investigation when he testified before a grand jury about how he learned that the CIA employed Valerie Wilson and whether he shared that information with the media. Libby's trial is set to begin in January.

At issue in the civil suit is whether public officials are entitled to immunity in legal actions filed against them. Ultimately, the decision as to whether the civil suit against Cheney, Libby, Rove and others can move forward will be up to a federal court judge, no doubt setting up a legal showdown that may drag on for months and eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

Still, Wilson's attorneys believe the law leans heavily in their favor, and they plan to use a legal precedent in the 1997 Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against former President Clinton to argue their case. The Supreme Court denied Clinton immunity while he was still in office and was sued by Jones. The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the Clinton/Jones case said deferring Jones's lawsuit until Clinton's presidency ended was not required under the Constitution, adding that Clinton, as president, was "subject to the same laws that apply to all citizens."

Joseph Cotchett, one of the lead attorneys on Wilson's legal team, pointed out several months ago in interviews with several media outlets that the Supreme Court's decision in Clinton/Jones would likely automatically apply to the vice president - in this case, Cheney.

"[It's] the president on down," Cotchett said in an interview with CBS News in August. "It doesn't single out; it doesn't make a distinction between president and vice president."

Norman Rosenkranz, a Georgetown University law professor, agreed.

"If the argument can work vis-à-vis the president, then it can [be applied] in favor of the vice president," Rosenkranz told CBS News in the same August interview.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and one of the attorneys representing the Wilsons against Cheney and the other administration officials, said the law itself is ambiguous and "a vice president's absolute immunity has never been specifically decided."

Still, some legal scholars point out that the Paula Jones legal precedent stripping away absolute immunity for Clinton may not pass muster with a federal court judge in the Wilson civil suit. For one thing, in their ruling, the Supreme Court said one of the factors that played into their decision was that the charges against Clinton involved a private matter that supposedly took place prior to his presidency, whereas the Justice Department in its motion to dismiss claims that Cheney, Rove, and Libby's alleged actions against Valerie Wilson took place while they were actively working as members of the Bush administration.

However, Wilson's legal team could very well argue that Libby, Rove, and Cheney's behavior are not protected under immunity laws because their actions were personal and not "official."

Cotchett, in the interview with CBS News, said he's prepared to go to battle.

"We have to show what the conduct was," he said. "And even if the conduct wasn't private, we have to show the conduct was illegal."


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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