By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007
Attorneys for Vice President Cheney and top White House officials told a federal judge yesterday that they cannot be held liable for anything they disclosed to reporters about covert CIA officer Valerie Plame or her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
The officials, who include senior White House adviser Karl Rove and Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, argued that the judge should dismiss a lawsuit filed by the couple that stemmed from the disclosure of Plame's identity to the media.
The suit claims that Cheney, Libby, Rove and former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage violated the couple's privacy and constitutional rights by publicly revealing Plame's identity in an effort to retaliate against Wilson. Plame's identity was disclosed in a syndicated column in July 2003, days after Wilson publicly accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to exaggerate Iraq's nuclear threat and justify an invasion.
Libby was convicted in March of lying to a grand jury investigating the leak.
The lawyers said any conversations Cheney and the officials had about Plame with one another or with reporters were part of their normal duties because they were discussing foreign policy and engaging in an appropriate "policy dispute." Cheney's attorney went further, arguing that Cheney is legally akin to the president because of his unique government role and has absolute immunity from any lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates asked: "So you're arguing there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- these officials could have said to reporters that would have been beyond the scope of their employment," whether the statements were true or false?
"That's true, Your Honor. Mr. Wilson was criticizing government policy," said Jeffrey S. Bucholtz, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil division. "These officials were responding to that criticism."
Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who is representing Wilson and Plame, said the leak was no typical policy debate. President Bush himself said that revealing Plame's identity could be illegal conduct and a firing offense, he told Bates.
Chemerinsky said that after Plame's cover was blown, the couple feared for their safety and their children's safety and Plame lost any opportunity for advancement at the CIA.
"This isn't a case where the government said mean things about Mr. Wilson. This is about revealing the secret status of his wife to punish Mr. Wilson," Chemerinsky said. "In the end, this is egregious conduct that ruined a woman's career and put a family in danger."
Bates, who expressed doubts about arguments on both sides, said he will rule in the coming weeks whether to dismiss the case.