A Key Player
With Vice President, He Shaped Iraq Policy
Saturday, October 29, 2005
The indictment and resignation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby ends the partnership between two men -- Libby and Vice President Cheney -- who have shaped and often dominated policymaking throughout the Bush presidency, especially toward Iraq.
Libby was both Cheney's chief of staff and assistant to the president -- a title that gave him the same rank as the president's national security adviser. Cheney is arguably the most powerful vice president in U.S. history. Behind the scenes, working with allies in the Defense Department and other parts of the government, the two were early advocates of removing Saddam Hussein and highly effective in thwarting any opposition from the State Department and other bureaucratic rivals.
Both put the same high value on secrecy, and so their role in setting policy has been hard to trace. Cheney is famously guarded, his precise influence one of Washington's great mysteries. Libby, as the indictment issued yesterday by a federal grand jury here suggests, was in many ways Cheney's eyes and ears in the bureaucracy -- and the media.
While Cheney disdained the press and rarely gave interviews, Libby, 55, met with reporters over breakfast and lunch and enjoyed their company at parties. He was also totally loyal to Cheney, guarding his flanks and rarely providing much more than the company line.
The two men shared an obsession about possible threats to the United States, particularly biological and chemical weapons and a skepticism about the intelligence provided by the CIA. The charges announced by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald describe how Libby was driven by his animus toward the CIA to battle what he viewed as unfair blame-shifting for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Libby allegedly worked the bureaucracy to gather information about the mission of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to Niger to investigate reports of uranium sales to Iraq. Court papers say Libby then tried to fashion public opinion against Wilson through conversations with reporters and White House officials, noting that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, played a role in setting up the trip in an effort to discredit Wilson's findings.
Strikingly, it was Cheney's office -- not the president's White House staff or the National Security Council -- that appears to have taken the lead in rebutting Wilson, even though Wilson was disputing information that appeared in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
In an effort to learn about Wilson's trip, Libby sought information from the State Department and the CIA, including classified documents, the indictment said. Cheney also took an interest in the matter, telling Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby then allegedly passed that information to journalists.
At one point, the indictment said, Libby had lunch with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and "noting that such information was not widely known." At another point, Libby tried to disguise the source of information by convincing New York Times reporter Judith Miller to attribute it to a "former Hill staffer," the indictment said, "rather than to a 'senior administration official.' "
Cheney's role in the Bush administration has long been the subject of controversy and speculation. His allies have contended that the frequent media portrayal of Cheney as an unseen puppet master is inaccurate and overblown; instead, they say he works hard to serve Bush as an adviser and sounding board. But some former officials have decried Cheney's outsized influence.
Last week, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, accused Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of being a "cabal . . . on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."
Rumsfeld and Cheney's relationship dates to the Nixon and Ford administrations, when Cheney was Rumsfeld's top staffer, and they are considered ideological soul mates. "They are very close friends," said a senior administration official who knows them both well. "I don't think they agree on everything but they share a lot of the same worldview."
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld's deputy in Bush's first term, Paul D. Wolfowitz, was a close friend of Libby's. Libby had worked for Wolfowitz when he was undersecretary of defense -- and Cheney was defense secretary -- in President George H.W. Bush's administration.
Cheney allies were sprinkled across the bureaucracy, even in the State Department, and they helped keep Libby in the information loop. After Wolfowitz left the administration to become president of the World Bank, the number three spot at the Pentagon was given to Eric Edelman, once Libby's deputy in Cheney's office.
"His staff intervened at select but critical junctures when they thought State was going to push policy off track," said one Cheney ally who works elsewhere in the administration.
Cheney, in the words of former State Department policy planning chief Richard N. Haass, has "three bites at the apple" as policy is developed -- his staff is at every key meeting, he attends principals' meetings and then he has one-on-one meetings with the president. "I felt that at just about every meeting, the State Department began behind 2 1/2 to 1," Haass was quoted as saying in "Running the World: the Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power," by David J. Rothkopf.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, Cheney's office and Rumsfeld worked together to block two experienced -- but ideologically suspect -- State Department officials from the team led by Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner to stabilize Iraq. Then, after the White House decided not to favor any particular Iraq exile group, the Pentagon flew Ahmed Chalabi and 600 armed followers into Iraq -- with Cheney's approval, administration officials said.
The power of the vice president's office appears to have diminished somewhat in Bush's second term, in part because of Libby's legal troubles and also because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proven to be an effective counterweight, administration officials said. But Cheney remains extremely powerful, in part because of the effectiveness of Libby, who ran a small but talented staff that kept its pulse on the bureaucracy. At key moments, Libby or Cheney would weigh in, often tipping the scales in the direction they sought.
"No vice presidential chief of staff has ever been close to the active role he played," Rothkopf said. "Libby's elevation and the critical role he played is a testament to the vice president's influence and a factor in it."
In personality, the vice president and his closest aide were a study in contrasts. Libby, who once wrote an erotically charged novel set in 1903 Japan, has a sharp, sarcastic sense of humor. At work, Cheney tends to be all business, saving his dry wit for close family or friends. At meetings, Cheney never gets ruffled, keeping his thoughts and opinions to himself, "almost Buddha-like," as one of his aides put it. Instead of tipping his hand during internal administration debates, Cheney generally asks detailed questions that have the effect of punching holes in the other person's argument.
There were other noticeable differences. Cheney dropped out of Yale; Libby thrived there, meeting a professor who became his mentor and eventually one of his closest colleagues -- Wolfowitz. Libby graduated from Columbia Law School and was practicing law in Philadelphia in 1981 when Wolfowitz hired him as a speechwriter at the State Department.
Libby is an avid skier and, until breaking his foot recently, played in a weekly touch-football game in Chevy Chase. Cheney, with a heart condition, has never been known for exercising.
But the two men spent much of their time together. Libby, one of the few White House officials to rate a limousine, was picked up every morning at his house and driven to the vice president's residence so he and Cheney could ride in together. He was at the vice president's side on almost all his trips -- and vacationed in Wyoming when Cheney did.
Yesterday, Cheney praised his longtime aide as "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known" and said he accepted Libby's resignation to fight the charges "with deep regret."