Filings in CIA Leak Case Paint Cheney as Determined to Counter Critic

Vice President Cheney may be called to testify in the trial of his former staff chief.
Vice President Cheney may be called to testify in the trial of his former staff chief. (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 27, 2006

A string of recent court filings in the CIA leak case provide new details of Vice President Cheney's role at the center of an administration effort to rebut an outspoken critic of the White House's rationale for the Iraq war in the summer of 2003. They include his repeated discussions of the issue with his top aide and his part in a counteroffensive that resulted in the unmasking of a CIA officer.

The court filings -- by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who charged Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with lying in the CIA leak case -- provide a vivid portrait of the vice president's activity. Cheney repeatedly questioned Libby about the war critic, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV; wrote detailed notes about an op-ed article penned by Wilson; and raised questions about the CIA connections of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame.

Cheney -- who helped devise the White House argument that Iraq had an extensive program to build weapons of mass destruction before the war -- is described in the filings as upset by Wilson's criticism, which the vice president saw as a direct assault on his credibility.

Fitzgerald does not describe Cheney's actions as illegal or even improper. But the filings make it clear that Cheney had a larger role in the effort to rebut Wilson than was previously known and that his actions could put him in an uncomfortable place: on the witness stand as a sitting vice president.

Legal experts said Cheney would have a difficult time refusing to testify in court as part of a trial to determine whether Libby lied or obstructed justice in the leak probe.

There are, experts said, many precedents for his appearance. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant voluntarily gave a deposition on behalf of an aide accused of corruption. President Ronald Reagan gave videotaped testimony in the Iran-contra prosecution of John M. Poindexter and testified himself. Most recently, President Bill Clinton agreed to testify before a grand jury investigating the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

One lawyer involved in the Libby case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton has warned lawyers about speaking to the media, said Fitzgerald "is doing everything he can to avoid the sideshow of a constitutional fight over calling a sitting a vice president to testify."

But Carl W. Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, said Fitzgerald will call Cheney "if he believes it will be probative or helpful to the case." If he does, Tobias said, Cheney is likely to resist, arguing that he should not be forced to testify in a criminal case as a sitting vice president. The trial is expected to begin early next year.

Neither Libby nor Fitzgerald has asserted that Cheney directed Libby to leak Plame's name to the news media, and the details of what Cheney told the prosecutor's office in a June 2004 interview have not been disclosed.

But Fitzgerald went out of his way to say in an April filing that Bush played no role in the leak of Plame's name. He did not similarly exonerate Cheney.

So far, Fitzgerald's latest disclosures are not meant to implicate the vice president so much as they are intended to undermine a key aspect of Libby's defense -- that Libby was so preoccupied by other matters that he forgot, rather than lied about, what he told two journalists, Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, regarding Plame.

Instead, Fitzgerald said in his filing on Wednesday night that Cheney's focus on an array of issues surrounding Wilson's July 2003 column, including the fact that Plame worked for the CIA, riveted Libby's attention on the same matters "and what should be done to respond to the accusations it contained." This was said to have been the context -- "the state of mind of the Vice President," as Fitzgerald put it -- in which Libby made statements to reporters at the time and later allegedly lied to investigators about what he had said in those statements.

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