By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006
In grand jury testimony two years ago, former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby did not assert that President Bush or Vice President Cheney instructed him to disclose the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame to reporters as part of an effort to rebut criticism of the Iraq war, Libby's lawyers said in a court filing late yesterday.
A court filing last week by the special federal prosecutor investigating the disclosure of Plame's identity had highlighted the fact that Bush and Cheney ordered Libby to disclose details of a previously classified intelligence report as part of an effort to rebut criticism by her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. This disclosure provoked speculation that Bush or Cheney had instructed Libby to disclose Plame's identity.
But the lawyers asserted that White House documents outlining what Libby was to say in conversations with reporters did not mention Plame's name. They said this supports Libby's contention that he did not participate in a campaign to damage Wilson by disclosing Plame's CIA employment or in a coverup of the episode.
The statement that Libby did not link Bush and Cheney to the disclosure of Plame's name during his 2004 grand jury testimony is meant to bolster Libby's contention that no conspiracy existed to make selective disclosures to undermine a key administration critic, as some in Washington have charged.
Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, was indicted last year for allegedly lying to the FBI and a grand jury when he said he had not known, that the CIA employed Plame and had not told reporters that. Wilson had traveled to Niger at the CIA's behest to look into allegations that Iraq was trying to obtain nuclear weapons materials there.
After Wilson's return, he wrote a newspaper article in July 2003 disputing those claims and accusing the administration of twisting intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The article set off an intense effort by the Bush administration to rebut the criticism by documenting its anxieties about Iraqi intentions, partly by leaking -- at the instruction of Bush and Cheney -- details from a classified, October 2002 intelligence estimate about Iraq.
Libby was a key player in the effort, and met privately with a few reporters who later were subpoenaed by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who was assigned in December 2003 with finding out who leaked Plame's name. Several of the reporters told Fitzgerald that Libby not only discussed the intelligence estimate but also mentioned Plame's employment.
According to the indictment, Libby told several reporters that Wilson's trip was requested by Plame. Fitzgerald, in his court filing last week, said the motive for leaking this information was to undermine Wilson's credibility by making it seem as if he "received the assignment [to visit Niger] on account of nepotism."
Libby's court filing yesterday was the latest salvo in his battle to gain access to a wide range of information held by the administration and by government investigators about Wilson's trip to Niger, and about other officials' statements to reporters regarding Wilson and Plame.
Libby has said he needs these documents partly to prepare for expected testimony at his trial by current and former senior administration officials, who Libby says were also aware of Plame's employment. Yesterday's filing also noted Libby's suspicion that one of those, former CIA director George J. Tenet -- who directed the agency when it lodged a formal complaint to the Justice Department over the leak of Plame's name -- had a "bias against Mr. Libby." The suspicion appears to stem in part from past disagreements between the CIA and Cheney's office over the credibility of the White House's alarm about Iraq.
Libby has said the documents will show that Plame's employment was a peripheral matter in his conversations with others, and that thus he had good reason to forget precisely what he said to reporters about it. "He testified to the grand jury unequivocally that he did not understand Ms. Wilson's employment by the CIA to be classified information," the new court filing states.
Libby's legal team complained that he had received less than 10 percent of Fitzgerald's investigative file, a document production it called "exceptionally meager." It also said the case is complex and described as "a fairy tale" the government's assertion that it involves only false statements by Libby.
In his April 5 filing, Fitzgerald urged the court to dismiss Libby's demand for information about leaks to reporters by other government officials, on the grounds that what really counts in the case against Libby are the actions taken by him and "the discrete number of persons with and for whom he worked." Anything occurring outside those White House offices, Fitzgerald said, is "a irrelevant distraction from the issues of the case."
Although he pointedly said he was not accusing Libby of involvement in a White House conspiracy against Wilson and Plame, Fitzgerald said the evidence he had accumulated demonstrated that "multiple people" there wanted to repudiate Wilson's criticisms.
In light of the grand jury testimony, Fitzgerald said, "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson."