BEHIND THE PROSECUTION

Cheney's Suspected Role in Security Breach Drove Fitzgerald

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By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

In a small room on the third floor of the D.C. federal courthouse in late March 2004, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald stood before I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and asked him three separate times whether his boss, Vice President Cheney, had discussed telling reporters that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.

The question was not insignificant for Fitzgerald, who saw his mission as revealing the full chain of events behind the security breach involving Plame's work as an undercover CIA officer. Fitzgerald was unconvinced by Libby's response that even though he "may have" had such a conversation with Cheney, it probably occurred after Plame's identity had been revealed in a newspaper column.

Fitzgerald would respond with great frustration in his summation at Libby's trial almost three years later, saying that Libby's lies had effectively prevented him from learning about all of Cheney's actions in the administration's campaign to undermine Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

More than he had previously, Fitzgerald made clear in those remarks that his search for the truth about Cheney was a key ambition in his probe and that his inability to get it was a key provocation for Libby's indictment. Although Cheney was the target, Fitzgerald's investigation could not reach him because of Libby's duplicity.

Fitzgerald's summation explained, in part, why he brought charges based on imperfect evidence against Libby, even though Libby was not a source for Robert D. Novak, the author of the July 14, 2003, newspaper column that outed Plame as a CIA employee.

The jury's verdict addresses Fitzgerald's first conclusion -- that Libby lied deliberately and did not misspeak from faulty memory. But the trial showed that the prosecutor finished his investigation with his mind made up that Libby's account was meant to hide his own involvement as well as to conceal the potential involvement of the vice president.

At the trial's close, Fitzgerald expressed his concern in unusually blunt terms. After Libby's lawyers complained that he was trying to put a "cloud" over Cheney without evidence to back it up, Fitzgerald told the jury on Feb. 20, "We'll talk straight."

There was, he said, "a cloud over what the vice president did" during the period before Novak's column was published, and it was created by testimony about Cheney directing Libby and others at the White House to disseminate information on Wilson and Wilson's criticisms.

"We didn't put that cloud there. That cloud remains because the defendant obstructed justice and lied about what happened," Fitzgerald added.

The notion that Libby was merely a courtroom stand-in for Cheney infuriated Libby's lawyers, who sought in their courtroom statement to defend both men. "Nobody in the office of the vice president is concerned about" Plame, Libby attorney William Jeffress Jr. said in his closing argument. "She never was part of the story they were trying to put out."

Fitzgerald disagreed. He twice used a baseball metaphor to describe what he believes went on in the vice president's office -- at his announcement of Libby's indictment on Oct. 28, 2005, and again during his trial summation. Suppose, Fitzgerald said, you were looking into whether a pitcher had purposely beaned a batter, and if so, why.

"As you sit back, you want to learn why was this information going out. Why were people taking this information about Valerie Wilson and giving it to reporters?" Fitzgerald asked at the 2005 news conference. "What we have when someone charges obstruction of justice is the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes. He's trying to figure out what happened, and somebody blocked their view."


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