Fine Print: Cheney had his own reading of 'classified'

Then-Vice President Cheney gave a new reading of statutes that make it a crime to disclose classified or national security information.
Then-Vice President Cheney gave a new reading of statutes that make it a crime to disclose classified or national security information. (Stephen Morton/associated Press)
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney gave a surprisingly honest description of how top administration officials treat classified information when he was questioned more than five years ago by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel investigating the leak of the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, who was then a covert CIA employee.

According to the FBI report on the May 8, 2004, session, released last week, the vice president was asked about testimony by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his chief of staff. Libby had said Cheney authorized him on July 8, 2003, to disclose classified information from a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq to Judith Miller, then a reporter for the New York Times.

Though the vice president said he could not recall any members of his staff, including Libby, being authorized to talk to Miller at that time, he did give his views on speaking to the news media about information in classified intelligence estimates.

"The vice president advised that it is possible to talk about something contained in a classified document without violating the law regarding declassification," according to the FBI report. Cheney said he had made "numerous statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction which were based on and, in some cases, tracked his reading of classified information," including a then-classified Iraq NIE.

He added that he "believed it was justifiable to rely on classified information to shape and inform what one says publicly," and that "this was a perfectly appropriate way to use the NIE."

What Cheney told Fitzgerald is, frankly, what presidents, national security advisers and senior officials at the Pentagon, State Department and CIA do all the time when they brief journalists on background or in off-the-record sessions: They use classified information to get out their side of a foreign policy story. When congressional opponents use classified information supporting a different point of view, those same administration officials quickly describe that as illegal leaking, and damaging to national security.

But Cheney tried to get around that complaint by adding a novel legal defense of his use of classified information. The FBI report said he told Fitzgerald that he "did not violate any relevant laws or rules in making these statements because he did not reveal the confidential sources or methods involved in gathering the classified information."

That is a totally new reading of a variety of statutes that make it a crime to disclose classified or national security information. For Cheney, however, it may have been valid, because President George W. Bush had given him declassification authority. So technically, his public disclosure of classified information automatically removed the classification.

Another highlight in the FBI report is personal.

Fitzgerald's investigation was an outgrowth of a July 14, 2003, column by Robert Novak. It was written less than a week after former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV went public about being sent to Niger by the CIA in February 2002 to see whether that country had contracted to sell uranium to Saddam Hussein. In his column, Novak named Plame, Wilson's wife; described her as "an agency operative"; and added that two senior administration officials had told him that "Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger."

In June 2003, a month before Novak's column was published, I was investigating a line in a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times. It reported that, at Cheney's request, the CIA had sent a former U.S. ambassador to Niger and that the ex-ambassador reported back that no uranium sale to Iraq had taken place.

My reporting had me calling Cheney's office on June 8, 9 and 10, 2003, about that reference to the vice president. Libby called me on June 11 and told me on background, so I could not identify him by name in a story, that Cheney had not known of the former ambassador's trip and did not request it. Libby made no mention of Wilson's wife, and she played no part in my June 12, 2003, story about Wilson's trip.

Questioned in 2004 by Fitzgerald, Cheney said he could not remember when he was first told that Plame was Wilson's wife, although he thought he learned it from then-CIA Director George J. Tenet in June 2003. Cheney also said he "had no idea" what Libby knew about Plame before Novak's July 14 column.

There has not been enough time to check all of Cheney's statements to Fitzgerald that day, but this one I already knew. A court filing by Fitzgerald released in 2007 reads: "Defendant [Libby] testified before the grand jury that he could have been a source for Walter Pincus's June 12, 2003 article, and that it was during preparation for providing information to Mr. Pincus that the Vice President informed him that former Ambassador Wilson's wife worked at the CIA."

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