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Ex-Aide Says Cheney Led Rebuttal Effort

By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 26, 2007; A03

Vice President Cheney personally orchestrated his office's 2003 efforts to rebut allegations that the administration used flawed intelligence to justify the war in Iraq and discredit a critic who Cheney believed was making him look foolish, according to testimony and evidence yesterday in the criminal trial of his former chief of staff.

Cheney dictated talking points for a White House briefing in the midst of the controversy that summer, his former press aide, Cathie Martin, testified, stressing that the CIA never told Cheney that a CIA-sponsored mission had found no real evidence that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa.

Aboard Air Force Two, on a trip back from the launch of a warship in Norfolk, Cheney instructed his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, about responding to a Time magazine reporter who questioned how the faulty intelligence on Iraq had become one of the Bush administration's central arguments for going to war.

In the dramatic replay of events that summer that unfolded yesterday in Libby's federal court trial, Cheney was portrayed as a general on a political battlefield -- enmeshed in tactics, but also deputizing his chief of staff to handle the dirty job of persuading journalists that the war critic was all wrong.

Previously described in court filings and by the news media, Cheney's role was brought to life yesterday by Martin's account. She is the first witness in the case who worked closely with Cheney and Libby as they tried to refute former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was sent to Niger by the CIA to determine whether Iraq had sought uranium for a weapons program.

Her testimony was buttressed by previously unreleased documents provided as evidence yesterday, including handwritten notes and margin scribblings Cheney's staffers hastily jotted at their boss's instruction.

Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's current spokeswoman, said yesterday that the vice president's office could not comment on the case or the evidence introduced in the trial.

Libby, 56, is charged with lying to investigators and a grand jury about how the identity of Wilson's wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, was leaked to reporters days after Wilson went public with his allegations that the administration had twisted his findings to justify the war in Iraq. Libby has pleaded not guilty, contending that he misspoke and that he forgot about conversations he had with journalists amid the crush of his duties. He is not charged with the leak itself.

Martin recalled giving Cheney and Libby information from CIA spokesman William Harlow that Wilson was the person sent to Niger "and his wife works for the CIA." Martin is the fourth witness from the administration to bolster the prosecution's claim that Libby had to be lying when he said he learned about Wilson's wife weeks later from NBC's Tim Russert.

Also yesterday, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald told the judge he was concerned that Libby's defense team was trying to improperly introduce elements of its "bad memory" defense without putting Libby on the stand, questioning each witness about details that no reasonable person could remember.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton warned the defense that Libby would have to take the stand if he wanted to try to convince the jury that his own memory was flawed.

Martin's testimony also illustrated how doggedly Cheney insisted that the administration had significant evidence that Iraq was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- even after the White House had backed off that claim and admitted it was not solid enough for the president to have cited it in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Cheney told Martin to alert the news media that a highly classified and recent National Intelligence Estimate indicated no doubts about Iraq's efforts to buy uranium. Intelligence analysts have said that the uranium claim was never a key finding of the NIE and that there were doubts about it.

On college-rule paper, in blue ink, Martin scribbled what Cheney told her reporters needed to know about the Niger controversy as they conferred in his Capitol Hill office on July 7, 2003. "As late as last October, the considered judgment of the intel community was that SH [Saddam Hussein] had indeed undertaken a vigorous effort to acquire uranium from Africa, according to NIE [the National Intelligence Estimate]," she wrote.

Martin, who now works on communication issues for President Bush, said Libby also directed her to ask the CIA which journalists were calling with questions about Wilson's Africa trip, then personally telephoned at least one in an attempt to influence the broadcast.

Martin said that Cheney also determined the reply to questions she had received from Time reporter Matt Cooper about the role the vice president's office had played in the Niger trip. While flying back from Norfolk on the vice president's plane, she mentioned to Libby the e-mailed questions from Cooper.

Libby later came to her seat in the back of the plane, holding a handwritten card with notes he said were Cheney's instructions about what to say to Cooper. Libby told her, Martin testified, that Cheney, in a rare move, authorized him to provide a specific quote on the record, with Libby's name attached.

Martin portrayed both Libby and Cheney as concerned that reporters were not telephoning their office directly to get their side of the story about Wilson and his criticism of the administration. She said they directed her and her staff to begin monitoring television reports on the Niger trip and provide daily transcripts along with their usual canvas of printed stories about the vice president's office.

Attorneys for Libby repeatedly pressed Martin to acknowledge that, though she saw Cheney and Libby working overtime to rebut Wilson's criticisms, she had no evidence that either of them tried to leak Plame's name to reporters.

"At no time did Vice President Cheney indicate to you that he considered Valerie Wilson part of the story he wanted to get out," attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. said to Martin.

"I did not have a conversation with the vice president about that," Martin responded.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company