By Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 9, 2006
As he drew back the curtain this week on the evidence against Vice President Cheney's former top aide, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald for the first time described a "concerted action" by "multiple people in the White House" -- using classified information -- to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" a critic of President Bush's war in Iraq.
Bluntly and repeatedly, Fitzgerald placed Cheney at the center of that campaign. Citing grand jury testimony from the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Fitzgerald fingered Cheney as the first to voice a line of attack that at least three White House officials would soon deploy against former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Cheney, in a conversation with Libby in early July 2003, was said to describe Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger the previous year -- in which the envoy found no support for charges that Iraq tried to buy uranium there -- as "a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife," CIA case officer Valerie Plame.
Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for denying under oath that he disclosed Plame's CIA employment to journalists. There is no public evidence to suggest Libby made any such disclosure with Cheney's knowledge. But according to Libby's grand jury testimony, described for the first time in legal papers filed this week, Cheney "specifically directed" Libby in late June or early July 2003 to pass information to reporters from two classified CIA documents: an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and a March 2002 summary of Wilson's visit to Niger.
One striking feature of that decision -- unremarked until now, in part because Fitzgerald did not mention it -- is that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before.
United Nations inspectors had exposed the main evidence for the uranium charge as crude forgeries in March 2003, but the Bush administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained they had additional, secret evidence they could not disclose. In June, a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair's role in promoting the story. With no ally left, the White House debated whether to abandon the uranium claim and became embroiled in bitter finger-pointing about whom to fault for the error. A legal brief filed for Libby last month said that "certain officials at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department each sought to avoid or assign blame for intelligence failures relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
It was at that moment that Libby, allegedly at Cheney's direction, sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation. Libby made careful selections of language from the 2002 estimate, quoting a passage that said Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium" in Africa.
The first of those conversations, according to the evidence made known thus far, came when Libby met with Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, on June 27, 2003. In sworn testimony for Fitzgerald, according to a statement Woodward released on Nov. 14, 2005, Woodward said Libby told him of the intelligence estimate's description of Iraqi efforts to obtain "yellowcake," a processed form of natural uranium ore, in Africa. In an interview Friday, Woodward said his notes showed that Libby described those efforts as "vigorous."
Libby's next known meeting with a reporter, according to Fitzgerald's legal filing, was with Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, on July 8, 2003. He spoke again to Miller, and to Time magazine's Matt Cooper, on July 12.
At Cheney's instruction, Libby testified, he told Miller that the uranium story was a "key judgment" of the intelligence estimate, a term of art indicating there was consensus on a question of central importance.
In fact, the alleged effort to buy uranium was not among the estimate's key judgments, which were identified by a headline and bold type and set out in bullet form in the first five pages of the 96-page document.
Unknown to the reporters, the uranium claim lay deeper inside the estimate, where it said a fresh supply of uranium ore would "shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons." But it also said U.S. intelligence did not know the status of Iraq's procurement efforts, "cannot confirm" any success and had "inconclusive" evidence about Iraq's domestic uranium operations.
Iraq's alleged uranium shopping had been strongly disputed in the intelligence community from the start. In a closed Senate hearing in late September 2002, shortly before the October NIE was completed, then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet and his top weapons analyst, Robert Walpole, expressed strong doubts about the uranium story, which had recently been unveiled publicly by the British government. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, likewise, called the claim "highly dubious." For those reasons, the uranium story was relegated to a brief inside passage in the October estimate.
But the White House Iraq Group, formed in August 2002 to foster "public education" about Iraq's "grave and gathering danger" to the United States, repeatedly pitched the uranium story. The alleged procurement was a minor issue for most U.S. analysts -- the hard part for Iraq would be enriching uranium, not obtaining the ore, and Niger's controlled market made it an unlikely seller -- but the Niger story proved irresistible to speechwriters. Most nuclear arguments were highly technical, but the public could easily grasp the link between uranium and a bomb.
Tenet interceded to keep the claim out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, but by Dec. 19 it reappeared in a State Department "fact sheet." After that, the Pentagon asked for an authoritative judgment from the National Intelligence Council, the senior coordinating body for the 15 agencies that then constituted the U.S. intelligence community. Did Iraq and Niger discuss a uranium sale, or not? If they had, the Pentagon would need to reconsider its ties with Niger.
The council's reply, drafted in a January 2003 memo by the national intelligence officer for Africa, was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq.
Bush put his prestige behind the uranium story in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address. Less than two months later, the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the principal U.S. evidence as bogus. A Bush-appointed commission later concluded that the evidence, a set of contracts and correspondence sold by an Italian informant, was "transparently forged."
On the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction was producing no results, and as the bad news converged on the White House -- weeks after a banner behind Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln -- Wilson emerged as a key critic. He focused his ire on Cheney, who had made the administration's earliest and strongest claims about Iraq's alleged nuclear program.
Fitzgerald wrote that Cheney and his aides saw Wilson as a threat to "the credibility of the Vice President (and the President) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq." They decided to respond by implying that Wilson got his CIA assignment by "nepotism."
They were not alone. Fitzgerald reported for the first time this week that "multiple officials in the White House"-- not only Libby and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who have previously been identified -- discussed Plame's CIA employment with reporters before and after publication of her name on July 14, 2003, in a column by Robert D. Novak. Fitzgerald said the grand jury has collected so much testimony and so many documents that "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson."
At the same time, top officials such as then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley were pressing the CIA to declassify more documents in hopes of defending the president's use of the uranium claim in his State of the Union speech. It was a losing battle. A "senior Bush administration official," speaking on the condition of anonymity as the president departed for Africa on July 7, 2003, told The Post that "the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech." The comment appeared on the front page of the July 8 paper, the same morning that Libby met Miller at the St. Regis hotel.
Libby was still defending the uranium claim as the administration's internal battle burst into the open. White House officials tried to blame Tenet for the debacle, but Tenet made public his intervention to keep uranium out of Bush's speech a few months earlier. Hadley then acknowledged that he had known of Tenet's objections but forgot them as the State of the Union approached.
Hoping to lay the controversy to rest, Hadley claimed responsibility for the Niger remarks.
In a speech two days later, at the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney defended the war by saying that no responsible leader could ignore the evidence in the NIE. Before a roomful of conservative policymakers, Cheney listed four of the "key judgments" on Iraq's alleged weapons capabilities but made no mention of Niger or uranium.
On July 30, 2003, two senior intelligence officials said in an interview that Niger was never an important part of the CIA's analysis, and that the language of Iraq's vigorous pursuit of uranium came verbatim from a Defense Intelligence Agency report that had caught the vice president's attention. The same day, the CIA referred the Plame leak to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, the fateful step that would eventually lead to Libby's indictment.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.