By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009
A document filed in federal court this week by the Justice Department offers new evidence that former vice president Richard B. Cheney helped steer the Bush administration's public response to the disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson's employment by the CIA and that he was at the center of many related administration deliberations.
The administration's discussion of Wilson's link to the CIA was meant to undermine criticism by her husband of administration allegations that Iraq attempted to acquire uranium, a matter that her husband had probed for the CIA, according to testimony presented in a 2007 trial.
A list of at least seven related conversations involving Cheney appears in a new court filing approved by Obama appointees at the Justice Department. In the filing, the officials argue that the substance of what Cheney told special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald in 2004 must remain secret.
No such agreement was reached between Fitzgerald and Cheney at the time of their chat, according to a 2008 Fitzgerald letter to lawmakers. But the Bush administration rejected requests by Congress and a nonprofit group for access to two FBI accounts of the conversation, saying the material was exempt from disclosure under subpoena or the Freedom of Information Act.
The Obama administration has since agreed that the material should not be disclosed. A Justice Department lawyer at one point last month argued that vice presidents and other White House officials will decline to be interviewed in the future if they know their remarks might "get on 'The Daily Show' " or be used as fodder for political enemies.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan expressed doubt about that argument. To counter Sullivan's skepticism, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a supporting affidavit to the new court filing that the department needs the ability to interview White House officials informally in future law enforcement investigations, and that if the Cheney interview summaries are made public, "there is an increased likelihood that such officials could feel reluctant to participate." Breuer served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater probe.
The nonprofit group pushing for disclosure, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, responded yesterday with a statement that the Justice Department has subpoenaed such officials without difficulty in the past. "It is astonishing that a top Department of Justice political appointee is suggesting other high-level appointees are unlikely to cooperate with legitimate law enforcement investigations. What is wrong with this picture?" said Melanie Sloan, head of the group.
A list of what Cheney and Fitzgerald discussed appears in a declaration to the court by Acting Assistant Attorney General David J. Barron, who oversees the department's Office of Legal Counsel. Barron said he thinks substantial portions of the chat are covered by "the deliberative process privilege," protecting advice, recommendations and other "deliberative communications" between government officials.
He mentioned in particular Cheney's discussion of his conversation with then-CIA Director George J. Tenet about "the decision to send Ambassador Joseph Wilson on a fact-finding mission to Niger in 2002." Wilson is the former CIA operative's husband, and a report he filed after the trip cast doubt on claims that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons program. President George W. Bush cited those claims as part of the justification for the Iraq war.
Barron also listed as exempt from disclosure Cheney's account of his requests for information from the CIA about the purported purchase; Cheney's discussions with top officials about the controversy over Bush's mention of the uranium allegations in his 2003 State of the Union speech; and Cheney's discussions with deputy I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, press spokesman Ari Fleischer, and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. "regarding the appropriate response to media inquiries about the source of the disclosure" of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity.
The declaration also said Cheney had helped resolve disputes about "whether to declassify certain information," including portions of a National Intelligence Estimate related to Iraqi weapons programs that Libby leaked to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller.