By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Former vice president Richard B. Cheney told a special prosecutor in 2004 that he was unable to recall his role in most of the pivotal events that led to the uncloaking of a clandestine CIA officer in the run-up to the Iraq war, according to newly released FBI records.
A question-by-question summary of Cheney's May 8, 2004, interview with Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, made public under court order after years of legal maneuvering to keep it secret, portrays a vice president in command of few clear memories about a case that led to great embarrassment for the White House and felony convictions for his chief of staff. Fitzgerald declared in his closing arguments that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury and obstruction of justice left him unable to pierce "a cloud over the vice president."
Cheney neither denied nor acknowledged any memory of directing Libby, his chief of staff, to tell reporters that Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent war critic, was a CIA officer. Nor did he recall any conversation with Libby in which either man referred to their mutual suspicion that Plame had helped dispatch her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, on "a junket" to explore White House accusations that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapon.
Dozens of questions from Fitzgerald produced the same result. Less than a year after a turbulent episode about which his contemporary notes display strong feelings, Cheney said he could not remember disclosing Plame's CIA employment -- which he learned from CIA Director George J. Tenet -- to President George W. Bush, Libby, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., political adviser Karl Rove or five of the vice president's aides.
Asked whether he personally discussed the couple with any reporter, Cheney said he generally did not "take incoming calls from the media." He declined to sign a legal waiver entitling reporters to break any promises not to quote him by name. When Cheney brought the interview to a close, he also refused Fitzgerald's request that he promise not to discuss the case with any other witness.
Not all of Cheney's replies were opaque. He made several displays of animus toward the CIA and its handling of Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium, an accusation the vice president had placed at the center of his public case for war. He described the CIA's use of Wilson to explore the charge as unprofessional and three times used the term "amateur hour." Cheney acknowledged that he jabbed sarcastically at Tenet, when the CIA was stumped on an unrelated question, that he "ought to send Joe Wilson to check it out."
In many cases, Cheney appeared to leave his chief of staff exposed on damaging admissions that Libby and others had made in the grand jury. Though his memory was hazy on many other things, he said he was certain he had heard no report of Libby's conversations about Plame with Rove, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer or Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman.
Cheney said he did not know that Libby met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller the week before Plame's name was leaked and that Libby did not clear every interview with him in advance.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations made extensive efforts to block release of FBI notes of the May 8, 2004, interview. They were made public late Friday, with some deletions on grounds of national security and presidential privilege, after a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Melanie Sloan, the organization's director, criticized Cheney's "near-total amnesia regarding his role in this monumental Washington scandal" but said the new document was a step forward in resolving the affair.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.