The Smoking Pen

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, May 15, 2006; 1:15 PM

Handwritten notes from Vice President Cheney once and for all place the vice president at the epicenter of a scandal that still threatens to tear apart the Bush White House.

The notes were scrawled in the margins of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson's fateful July 2003 New York Times op-ed piece, in which Wilson described his trip to Niger at the behest of the CIA and criticized the White House for misusing intelligence in the run-up to war in Iraq.

"Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us?" Cheney scribbled atop his copy, a reproduction of which was filed in federal court late Friday by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. "Or did his wife send him on a junket?"

The annotated article is one of the pieces of evidence Fitzgerald intends to introduce in the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of Cheney's then-chief of staff, Scooter Libby.

"Those annotations support the proposition that publication of the Wilson Op-Ed acutely focused the attention of the vice president and the defendant -- his chief of staff -- on Mr. Wilson," Fitzgerald wrote in his filing.

In fact, whether it was Cheney's explicit intention or not, two days later Libby and White House political guru Karl Rove were telling reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA.

Fitzgerald is said to still be considering filing charges against Rove, whose testimony in the case, like Libby's, has changed dramatically over time.

The notes also offer an insight into Cheney's state of mind. It's an often overlooked aspect of this case that the objective of alerting reporters to the identity of Wilson's wife was to imply that his trip was some sort of nepotistic plum.

But what kind of person would think that a secret mission to the landlocked, impoverished and generally benighted country of Niger is a junket? Either someone quite delusional -- or someone so caught up in the desire to punish and ruin his enemies that the preposterousness of the accusation doesn't really make a difference.

This is notably not the first time that Cheney himself has been spotted at the nerve center of the Plame case. Rove is said to have initially told the grand jury he first heard about Plame from some reporter -- then he said he heard it from Libby. Libby is said to have initially told the grand jury he first heard about Plame from reporters -- but Libby's own notes showed he first heard about her from Cheney.

Michael Isikoff , apparently the first reporter to spot Fitzgerald's filing, wrote Saturday on Newsweek's Web site: "The role of Vice President Dick Cheney in the criminal case stemming from the outing of White House critic Joseph Wilson's CIA wife is likely to get fresh attention as a result of newly disclosed notes showing that Cheney personally asked whether Wilson had been sent by his wife on a 'junket' to Africa. . . .

"It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for Cheney's own notes to be made public. The notes -- apparently obtained as a result of a grand jury subpoena -- would appear to make Cheney an even more central witness than had been previously thought in the criminal probe."

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