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Cheney's Suspected Role in Security Breach Drove Fitzgerald

Randall D. Eliason, a former chief prosecutor of public corruption and fraud in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, said Fitzgerald "would not have been doing his job" if he had not brought the charges. If "witnesses believe they can lie to the FBI and lie in the grand jury and there will be no consequences, then it becomes impossible to investigate any criminal activity, from terrorism to shoplifting."

Witnesses in the case never presented evidence of illegal actions by Cheney, nor did they ever pin direct responsibility for the leak on him. They presented what some lawyers considered an imperfect picture of Libby's duplicity in pretrial and trial testimony marked by bouts of forgetfulness and hazy recollections of events.

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, former CIA official Robert Grenier, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer each gave accounts of their interactions with Libby or other journalists that conflicted with their earlier statements or with the recollections of others besides Libby.

"Almost every witness would misspeak on direct [questioning] or left something out of grand jury testimony or got a date wrong," said Ty Cobb, a former assistant U.S. attorney who heads the white-collar criminal defense group at Hogan & Hartson. He expressed skepticism that the case against Libby should have been presented to a jury.

But Fitzgerald's decision to do so may have stemmed from his pique at his inability to get to the truth about Cheney, who appeared in testimony and in White House documents disclosed to the jury as the man behind the screen, pulling the switches and levers in what one of Fitzgerald's aides described as an orchestrated "political public relations" campaign to undermine Wilson.

Cheney, Fitzgerald suggested, had both motive and opportunity to run the show: He was deeply angered, even preoccupied, by Wilson's claim that Cheney deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's nuclear research. He was the first to tell Libby about Plame's job, and he scrawled a disparaging note about Plame's alleged responsibility for a CIA-sponsored "junket" to Niger that her husband took.

And finally, Cheney was convinced that if "everything" about the Wilson trip was disclosed to reporters, Wilson's credibility would be in tatters.

Libby's grand jury testimony addressed each point. "I'm not sure I would use the word 'ticked off,' but [Cheney] was frustrated" by the public impact of Wilson's critique, a topic that Cheney raised in multiple conversations, Libby said. Cheney directed Libby to interrogate Grenier on the reasons for the Wilson trip; he repeatedly "made comments" about Wilson's wife and mused about her role in arranging a junket; he dictated a set of talking points for journalists that opened with what Fitzgerald portrayed as a proverbial leading question about "who authorized Joe Wilson's trip to Niger."

"The question of who sent Wilson is important," Fitzgerald said. "It is a number one question on the vice president's mind."

Fitzgerald's presentation also called attention to two occasions in which Libby said Cheney instructed him to deal directly with reporters and spelled out what to say -- his meeting on July 8, 2003, with Miller and his telephone conversation four days later with Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper. In both, Libby mentioned Plame's employment at the CIA.

Fitzgerald's concerns were heightened by Libby's reply to a question about when he and Cheney first discussed Plame's CIA employment. "I think it was after the [July 6] Wilson column," which accused the White House of lying about the justification for the Iraq war, Libby told the grand jury.

But then he added: "I'm sorry, I don't mean the Wilson column, I'm sorry. I misspoke. I think, I think it was after the [July 14] Novak column," which disclosed Plame's name. He and Cheney had discussed other Wilson-related matters in the intervening period, Libby said, but not "that part about the wife."

Fitzgerald, in his summation, said he found this explanation incredible. He said Cheney referred to Plame in a note he inscribed on Wilson's column and noted that over the next two days, Libby raised the issue of her CIA employment with three others: Miller, Fleischer and Cheney aide David Addington. "If you think that's a coincidence, well, that makes no sense," Fitzgerald said.

He also called the jury's attention to the fact that Libby disclosed to Cheney his statement to the FBI that he learned about Plame's employment from Russert, which Russert later disputed. "The only person he told was the vice president. Think about that," Fitzgerald said.

Libby's false account of events, he added, was meant to serve as a "blocker . . . to cut off all those conversations with people, including the vice president." There is, Fitzgerald said, "a cloud over the White House as to what happened. Don't you think the FBI, the grand jury, the American people are entitled to a straight answer?"

Fitzgerald said at a news conference yesterday that Libby, "by lying and obstructing justice, harmed the system. And that was something serious. And that's the point we made to the jury, and obviously the jury agreed."

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