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5 Myths About Scooter and the Slammer

By Carol D. Leonnig
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Judge Reggie B. Walton, who sentenced I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to 30 months in prison last week for lying to federal investigators about his role in the leak of a CIA officer's identity, received 373 pages of letters about the high-profile convict whose fate he had to decide. Many argued for leniency on behalf of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, whom former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called a "dedicated public servant" and "strong family man." But some less famous writers were outraged about the example Libby set; one letter from "An Angry Citizen" demanded the longest prison term possible.

Around here, I'm the one who gets both kinds of letters. While covering this case for The Washington Post from the beginning of Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation in December 2003, I've received a steady stream of mail, most of it fuming -- some because the writers think a tireless patriot is being persecuted by a runaway prosecutor, others because they think a ruthless traitor is getting off easy after jeopardizing national security.

In fact, neither caricature is fair -- let alone accurate. But even now, four years after Valerie Plame's name hit the papers, the public still has some startling misconceptions about this fascinating, thorny case.

1. Valerie Plame wasn't a covert operative.

Wrong. She was.

Granted, this wasn't so clear at the start of Fitzgerald's grand jury investigation, so Libby's allies argued that the beans he spilled weren't that important to begin with. In fact, many of the officials who knew about her classified CIA status kept mum, which let Libby's pals jump to assert that she wasn't an undercover operative at the time of the leak.

But a CIA "unclassified summary" of Plame's career, released in court filings before Libby's June 5 sentencing, puts this one to rest: The CIA considered her covert at the time her identity was leaked to the media. The CIA report said that Plame had worked overseas in the previous five years and that the agency had been taking "affirmative measures" to conceal her CIA employment. That echoes the language used in the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime to reveal the identities of covert CIA officers.

When Libby was convicted, some conservative pundits complained that Fitzgerald had presented no compelling evidence at trial that Plame was covert. But that wasn't for lack of evidence; it was because Libby's lawyers convinced the court to bar any mention of her status during the trial, arguing that evidence suggesting that her job was classified would have been "unfairly prejudicial" to their client.

The CIA isn't famous for its clarity, but it's being pretty blunt on this issue: Langley says she was covert. Which other spook bureaucracy do you need to ask?

2. Karl Rove would have been indicted in the Plame case if it hadn't been for all the destroyed evidence.

You'll find this conspiracy theory all over left-wing blogs. The main cause of the hyperventilating is a series of missing White House e-mails, supposedly containing marching orders from President Bush's top political adviser in which Rove told his troops to out Plame and punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph I. Wilson IV, for having poured cold water over reports that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium in Africa.

Those e-mails may contain interesting stuff, but for now, it's rank speculation to suggest that they hold information about the Plame case or would have pushed Fitzgerald to charge Rove with perjury. Fitzgerald told the court just that. He was exercising standard prosecutorial discretion when he decided not to charge Rove, according to sources close to the investigation. He didn't think he had a strong enough case to prove that Rove had intentionally lied to investigators (though some FBI agents disagreed).

3. Libby didn't leak Plame's identity.

Oh, brother, am I tired of this one. Libby wasn't charged with the crime of knowingly leaking classified information about Plame; he was charged with lying to investigators. But the overwhelming weight of the evidence at the trial -- including reporters' notes of their interviews with Libby -- showed that Libby had indeed leaked classified information about Plame's identity, even though that wasn't what put him in the dock. The jury agreed that Libby lied when he said that he'd been telling reporters only what other reporters had told him about Plame's role at the CIA.

What is unclear is whether Libby knew she was a covert CIA agent at the time he discussed her with reporters -- a key point in determining whether this was an illegal leak. But Walton said that Libby "had a unique and special obligation" to keep such secrets, well, secret.

4. Bad press doesn't get under Cheney's skin.

The most powerful vice president in U.S. history is usually described as a tough customer who shrugs off media criticism. But if he had been that immune to (as one of his predecessors put it) "the nattering nabobs of negativism," he never would have told his top aide to talk about Joe Wilson, and none of this would have happened.

After all, did you hear Cathie Martin describe at trial what it was like to be the vice president's communications director during the spring and summer of 2003? Twice, Cheney dictated talking points for her about how to bat down Wilson's allegations that the administration had twisted the intelligence about Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Cheney also ordered her to start monitoring all television reports on the Niger controversy and arranged a luncheon for conservative columnists to help get out his take on everything.

And that's not all. According to Libby's testimony, Cheney arranged to have Bush declassify passages from the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons programs -- the first time Libby had ever heard of such a thing happening -- and pass them to Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter whom the administration saw as sympathetic.

5. The White House would fire any administration official who leaked classified information about Plame.

When the investigation began, the president said he hated leaks and would hold leakers of classified information accountable. But he has not sacked anyone over the case.

Libby resigned the day he was indicted in October 2005. Two other officials who gave reporters information about Plame, former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, left government before Fitzgerald's inquiry concluded. And Rove, who first told Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper about Plame's CIA identity, remains in the White House.

leonnigc@washpost.com

Carol D. Leonnig covers federal courts for

The Washington Post.

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