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Leopold: Trial Reveals Wilson Smear Began Earlier

Trial Reveals Wilson Smear Began Far Earlier

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

Wednesday 31 January 2007

One by one, the witnesses testified: what they knew and when they knew it.

Speaking under the threat of a perjury penalty, the witnesses admitted for the first time that they had played a role in assisting the Office of the Vice President to attack the credibility of a staunch critic of the Iraq War.

The government officials conceded that a coordinated effort to discredit the man who dared to publicly question the Bush administration's rationale for war was hatched long before his name first entered the public record in July 2003. They said they dug up information about his wife's employment with the CIA, knowing that one of their colleagues would leak it to the media in what is believed to have been a retaliatory act against the war critic.

That is perhaps the revelatory aspect of the week-old perjury and obstruction-of-justice trial involving former vice presidential staffer I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The list of officials linked to this case runs from Vice President Dick Cheney right on down to one of his low-level press officers. Testimony has revealed that a coordinated effort was put into place beginning in June 2003 by Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, Libby, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, White House communications director Dan Bartlett, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and as many as a dozen other officials to go after Wilson. In doing so, Wilson's wife's undercover CIA status was compromised, and a possible crime was committed.

The cornerstone of Libby's defense is that he was wrapped up with more pressing matters facing the country, such as terrorism and the war in Iraq, and therefore could not remember who first told him about Plame. However, the testimony of key witnesses shines a bright light on the obsession with Wilson and Plame jointly shared by Cheney and Libby during the months Libby claimed he was consumed with national security matters. Those witnesses were Cheney's former communications director Cathie Martin and David Addington, who was counsel to the vice president.

Indeed, Addington testified Monday that, during a conversation with Libby about the president's authority to declassify documents, Libby also questioned him specifically about whether "if somebody worked out at the CIA and the CIA sent the person's spouse on a trip to do something for the CIA, would there be a record out at the CIA of that," states a copy of the transcript from Monday's court proceedings.

Addington said he told Libby "it depended ... the kind of paperwork would depend on whether you were on the operational side of the CIA, the folks who run spies overseas, if you will, or on the analytical side, the folks at CIA who write reports for policymakers and so forth about what is going on in the world."

For the prosecution, Addington's testimony was crucial because it backs up their claims that Plame was not a "blip on the radar screen" as Libby's defense maintains, but was very much on Libby's mind because he had specifically questioned Addington about Plame, referring to her by the term "spouse," and therefore he knowingly lied to FBI investigators and a grand jury when he testified that he did not remember how he discovered Plame's identity.

Although Libby is not charged with the leak, he is on trial for perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI about how and when he found out that Wilson's wife Valerie Plame worked for the CIA, and about whether he shared that information with reporters.

The testimony of Libby's former colleagues shows that they too played a much larger role in the Plame leak and the attack on Wilson than was previously known, despite the fact that those officials are not on trial for violating any laws. Additionally, the testimony from White House officials over the past week proves that the administration - particularly President Bush - was less than truthful with the public about its complicity in the Plame leak.

Addington revealed that in June 2003 there were internal discussions - involving President Bush and Vice President Cheney - about declassifying a portion of the highly classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate for specific reporters as a way to counter Wilson's criticisms against the administration. That portion purportedly showed that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium from Niger to use for building an atomic bomb - a claim that Wilson had debunked when he personally traveled to Niger to investigate it a year earlier.

In late June or early July 2003, "a question was asked of me ... by Scooter Libby: Does the president have authority to declassify information?" Addington told jurors Monday, in response to a question by defense attorney William Jeffress. "And the answer I gave was, 'Of course, yes. It's clear the president has the authority to determine what constitutes a national security secret and who can have access to it.'"

President Bush signed an executive order in 2003 authorizing Cheney to declassify certain intelligence documents. The order was signed on March 23, four days after the start of the Iraq War and two weeks after Wilson first appeared on the administration's radar. Bush has long maintained that he was unaware of any White House effort to attack Wilson - a statement contradicted by Addington's sworn testimony.

In a court filing last year, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wrote that, during his grand jury appearance, Libby "testified that he was specifically authorized in advance of the meeting to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to [former New York Times reporter Judith] Miller on that occasion because it was thought that the NIE was 'pretty definitive' against what Ambassador Wilson had said and that the vice president thought that it was 'very important' for the key judgments of the NIE to come out."

"Defendant testified that the vice president advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE," the court filing further states. "Defendant testified that he thought he brought a brief abstract of the NIE's key judgments to the meeting with Miller on July 8th. Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium. Defendant testified that this July 8th meeting was the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the president's authorization that it be disclosed. Defendant testified that one of the reasons why he met with Miller at a hotel was the fact that he was sharing this information with Miller exclusively."

During cross-examination Monday morning, Cathie Martin, Cheney's former communications director, provided jurors with additional information about Cheney's role in rebutting Wilson's criticisms.

On July 6th, Wilson had published a New York Times op-ed article accusing the White House of "twisting" intelligence during the run up to the Iraq War. Martin said Cheney dictated "talking points" on July 8th to be used to rebut Wilson's accusations.

Peter Zeidenberg, one of the assistant US attorneys on Fitzgerald's team, added that Libby had clipped a news article from the Washington Post and kept it his files. Zeidenberg said the article might further help the prosecution prove its case.

The article, written by Walter Pincus and Mike Allen, was published two days before Libby was questioned by the FBI about how he learned about Plame, and whether he played a role in leaking her name to reporters. Libby informed the FBI that he was told in July 2003 by Tim Russert, host of "Meet the Press," that Plame was married to Wilson, that she worked for the CIA, and that she had sent Wilson on a fact-finding trip to Niger. Libby underlined specific passages of the Washington Post article, Zeidenberg said, including the allegation that "two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife," and that a federal crime may have been committed. Those passages were reprinted in an October 12, 2003, story in the Washington Post under the headline "Probe Focuses on Month Before Leak to Reporters."

Libby "was specifically questioned about the ... allegation that two White House officials were contacting six reporters with this information," Zeidenberg said. "And he was asked his impressions of that. He acknowledged that he had that article ... that he [had] read that article. It was an October 12 [2003] article, which was two days before the FBI interviewed him. So clearly, it's going to be relevant, and it's admissible independently of Mr. Fleischer's testimony."


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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