Behind the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby lies a subterranean battle that has been taking place through much of the Bush administration between neoconservatives centered in Vice President Cheney's office and the Central Intelligence Agency. Once you understand that fundamental tension, the other facts in this strange story begin to make more sense.
Cheney and his aides didn't trust the CIA. They thought the agency was sluggish in pursuing allegations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's links with al Qaeda. They believed that the CIA was conducting a campaign of leaks and bureaucratic harassment to sabotage administration policies. They thought the agency was undermining their pet Iraqi exile leader, Ahmed Chalabi, and favoring its own man, Ayad Allawi.
The feud had been simmering in the run-up to the Iraq war. Cheney's office kept pushing the CIA to substantiate claims by Chalabi and other defectors that would connect Iraq to al Qaeda and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The vice president's office focused on a meeting that had allegedly taken place in Prague in April 2001 between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence. CIA analysts would literally measure ears and noses in surveillance photos of the alleged meeting to show that the report was phony, but Cheney's aides would tell them to go back again, and yet again.
In January 2003, the CIA finally balked at being assigned over and over to confirm what it viewed as phony intelligence. In a heated conversation with Libby, CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin is said to have insisted: "I'm not going back to the well on this. We've done our work."
This confrontation between the White House and the CIA came to a head in June and July 2003, in the battle over who should take the blame for the erroneous claim in President Bush's State of the Union address that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium" from Niger. Former ambassador Joseph Wilson was telling reporters in early June, and repeated in a July 6 op-ed piece, that the administration knowingly had lied about the attempted uranium purchases -- since Wilson had told the CIA in 2002 they were a hoax after the agency sent him on a secret mission to Niger. Wilson's op-ed was more conclusive than his 2002 reporting, and he implied that Cheney was made personally aware of his findings.
Those misstatements added to White House anger. Libby saw Wilson's public attacks as part of a covert CIA campaign to shift blame and make the vice president look bad. In that angry mood, the vice president's top aide allegedly leaked to two reporters the fact that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA -- as if that relationship had somehow contaminated Wilson's mission.
Libby's indignation toward the CIA was described by Judith Miller in her account in the New York Times of her grand jury testimony. She wrote that on June 23, Libby complained to her about "selective leaking" by the CIA. "He told me that the agency was engaged in a 'hedging strategy' to protect itself if no weapons were found in Iraq," she explained. In a July 8 breakfast meeting, Miller said, the chief of staff "proceeded through a lengthy and sharp critique of Mr. Wilson and what Mr. Libby viewed as the CIA's backpedaling on the intelligence leading to war."
At issue that July was whether the CIA would be the fall guy. On the day Robert D. Novak first called the CIA to check his famous July 14 column that outed Valerie Plame Wilson, the agency's public affairs chief, Bill Harlow, was in fact drafting a July 11 statement for his boss, George Tenet, on the Niger issue. In the end, Tenet "didn't take the whole spear," said one former top CIA official. He formally took responsibility for allowing the false claim to appear in the president's speech. But he also offered a detailed account of all the agency's prior efforts to wave the White House off the Niger allegation.
After Tenet's hedged statement about the Niger affair, whatever trust remained between the White House and CIA seemed to dissolve. Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice blasted Tenet personally, and the White House escalated its criticisms of the CIA's intelligence failure. Tenet was gone by early 2004, loyally falling on his sword.
Now this saga has come full circle. Libby is accused of lying to FBI agents and the grand jury about his discussions of Valerie Plame Wilson and her CIA status. But as Fitzgerald suggested in his comments Friday, the deeper issue was blowing her cover and the disregard that showed for the CIA, its people and the importance of its mission. To me, that's the real crime in Libbygate -- that the Bush White House became so passionate about its goals that it treated the CIA as the enemy.