Correction to This Article
An Oct. 30 article about the disclosure that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative gave an incorrect date for a burglary at Niger's embassy in Rome, when official letterhead stationery was stolen. The burglary occurred in 2001, not 1991. In some editions, the article gave conflicting dates for Vice President Cheney's trip to Norfolk. It was July 12, 2003, not June 12. Also, a reference to the vice president's principal deputy chief of staff should have identified him as Eric Edelman, not John Hannah.

A Leak, Then a Deluge

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Air Force Two arrived in Norfolk on Saturday morning, July 12, 2003, with Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff aboard. They had come "to send forth a great American ship bearing a great American name," as Cheney said from the flag-draped flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

As Cheney returned to Washington with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the two men spoke of the news on Iraq -- the most ambitious use of the war machine Reagan built two decades before. A troublesome critic was undermining a principal rationale for the war: the depiction of Baghdad, most urgently by Cheney, as a nuclear threat to the United States.

Defending the war became the animating priority aboard Air Force Two that day. According to his indictment on Friday, Libby "discussed with other officials aboard the plane" how he should respond to "pending media inquiries" about the critic, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Apart from Libby, only press aide Catherine Martin is known to have accompanied Cheney on that flight.

The crimes alleged in Libby's indictment would come later. But the flight from Norfolk marked a transition in the four-month slide from politics as usual -- close combat in defense of the president's policies -- to what a special prosecutor described as perjury and obstruction of justice. Summer would give way to fall before Libby reached the point of no return, with his first alleged lies to the FBI. But he skirted the line soon after stepping off the aircraft.

That Saturday afternoon, the indictment states, is when Libby confirmed for Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and disclosed to Judith Miller of the New York Times the classified fact that Wilson's wife, who was known as Valerie Plame, "worked at the CIA." Just over two weeks earlier, after a previous conversation with Cheney, Libby had told Miller more tentatively that Plame "might work at a bureau of the CIA."

It may never be clear what drove Libby, the most cautious of Washington insiders, to take such risks, ostensibly to protect the administration. In a news conference Friday, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald described the question as unanswerable so far. "If you're asking me what his motives were, I can't tell you; we haven't charged it," Fitzgerald said. The obstruction of his inquiry, he said, "prevents us from making the fine judgments we want to make."

Libby's possible motive is only one of many unknowns left in the aftermath of Friday's indictment, which prompted the resignation of one of the most powerful figures in the White House and left the Bush administration reeling politically. Still to be determined is who first leaked Plame's name to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak -- the original act that led to Fitzgerald's investigation -- and the roles of many other administration officials, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

Even so, the grand jury's 22-page indictment fleshes out a saga that has been largely shrouded for almost two years by grand jury secrecy. While Friday's disclosures allege no wrongdoing by Cheney, they place the vice president closer than has been known before to events at the heart of the case.

One notable disclosure is that Libby and Cheney made separate inquiries to the CIA about Wilson's wife, and each confirmed independently that she worked there. It was Cheney, the indictment states, who supplied Libby the detail "that Wilson's wife worked . . . in the Counterproliferation Division" -- an unambiguous declaration that her position was among the case officers of the operations directorate. That conversation took place on June 12, 2003, a month before the Norfolk flight and nearly two weeks before Libby first told a reporter about Plame's CIA affiliation.

Wilson was a former ambassador who traveled to Niger in February 2002 after Cheney requested elaboration on a Defense Department report -- based on erroneous information originating from the Italian security service -- that Iraq had an agreement to buy processed uranium ore, or "yellowcake." Upon his return, Wilson reported to CIA and State Department analysts that he had found no support for the allegation and had reasons to believe it was untrue. When the Bush administration nonetheless launched a public relations campaign that highlighted the uranium report -- most prominently in the president's State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, 2003 -- Wilson began raising questions among friends in government. In March, when the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the documents as forged, a fact Wilson had not discovered, he began telling journalists in not-for-quotation interviews that the White House propounded a deliberate lie.

Wilson pressed himself fully into the spotlight in the late spring and early summer, a vulnerable moment for the president. The occupation of Iraq had turned unpredictably perilous, with casualties rising in an as-yet-unacknowledged insurgency and strong signs emerging that search teams were at a loss to discover evidence of "weapons of mass destruction."

The uranium claims had never been significant to career analysts -- Iraq had plenty already and lacked the means to enrich it. But the allegations proved irresistible to the White House Iraq Group, which devised the war's communications strategy and included Libby among its members. Every layman understood the connection between uranium and the bomb, participants in the group said in interviews at the time, and it was the easiest way for the Bush administration to raise alarms.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company