As the CIA leak investigation heads toward its expected conclusion this month, it has become increasingly clear that two of the most powerful men in the Bush administration were more involved in the unmasking of operative Valerie Plame than the White House originally indicated.
With New York Times reporter Judith Miller's release from jail Thursday and testimony Friday before a federal grand jury, the role of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, came into clearer focus. Libby, a central figure in the probe since its earliest days and the vice president's main counselor, discussed Plame with at least two reporters but testified that he never mentioned her name or her covert status at the CIA, according to lawyers in the case.
His story is similar to that of Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. Rove, who was not an initial focus of the investigation, testified that he, too, talked with two reporters about Plame but never supplied her name or CIA role.
Their testimony seems to contradict what the White House was saying a few months after Plame's CIA job became public.
In October 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that he personally asked Libby and Rove whether they were involved, "so I could come back to you and say they were not involved." Asked if that was a categorical denial of their involvement, he said, "That is correct."
What remains a central mystery in the case is whether special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has accumulated evidence during his two-year investigation that any crime was committed. His investigation has White House aides and congressional Republicans on edge as they await Fitzgerald's announcement of an indictment or the conclusion of the probe with no charges. The grand jury is scheduled to expire Oct. 28, and lawyers in the case expect Fitzgerald to signal his intentions as early as this week.
Fitzgerald is investigating whether anyone illegally disclosed Plame's name or undercover CIA job in retaliation against her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. In the summer of 2003, Wilson, a former diplomat, accused the White House of using "twisted" intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
He claimed firsthand evidence: At the behest of the CIA, he had flown to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the administration's assertion that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium in the African nation for use in its nuclear weapons program. Wilson returned unconvinced the assertion was true. However, Bush himself made the charge in his 2003 State of the Union address, prompting Wilson to spread word throughout the government and eventually make public his rebuttal.
Many lawyers in the case have been skeptical that Fitzgerald has the evidence to prove a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which is the complicated crime he first set out to investigate, and which requires showing that government officials knew an operative had covert status and intentionally leaked the operative's identity.
But a new theory about Fitzgerald's aim has emerged in recent weeks from two lawyers who have had extensive conversations with the prosecutor while representing witnesses in the case. They surmise that Fitzgerald is considering whether he can bring charges of a criminal conspiracy perpetrated by a group of senior Bush administration officials. Under this legal tactic, Fitzgerald would attempt to establish that at least two or more officials agreed to take affirmative steps to discredit and retaliate against Wilson and leak sensitive government information about his wife. To prove a criminal conspiracy, the actions need not have been criminal, but conspirators must have had a criminal purpose.
Lawyers involved in the case interviewed for this report agreed to talk only if their names were not used, citing Fitzgerald's request for secrecy.
One source briefed on Miller's account of conversations with Libby said it is doubtful her testimony would on its own lead to charges against any government officials. But, the source said, her account could establish a piece of a web of actions taken by officials that had an underlying criminal purpose.
Conspiracy cases are viewed by criminal prosecutors as simpler to bring than more straightforward criminal charges, but also trickier to sell to juries. "That would arguably be a close call for a prosecutor, but it could be tried," a veteran Washington criminal attorney with longtime experience in national security cases said yesterday.
Other lawyers in the case surmise Fitzgerald does not have evidence of any crime at all and put Miller in jail simply to get her testimony and finalize the investigation. "Even assuming . . . that somebody decided to answer back a critic, that is politics, not criminal behavior," said one lawyer in the case. This lawyer said the most benign outcome would be Fitzgerald announcing that he completed a thorough investigation, concluded no crime was committed and would not issue a report.
The campaign to discredit Wilson's accusations came at a critical moment in the Bush presidency. It occurred a few months after the United States invaded Iraq and at a time when Bush, Cheney and the entire administration were under extraordinary pressure to back up their prewar allegations that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical weapons and was working on a nuclear weapons program.
The Niger claim was central to the White House's rationale for war, and Wilson was on a one-man crusade to disprove it. Early on, his actions caught the eye of the vice president's office, which was often the emotional and intellectual force pushing the United States to war based on fears of potential weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Cheney and Libby were intimately involved in building the case for the war, which included warnings that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear weapons.
Cheney's staff was looking into Wilson as early as May 2003, nearly two months before columnist Robert D. Novak identified Wilson's wife as a CIA operative, according to administration sources familiar with the effort. What stirred the interest of the vice president's office was a May 6 New York Times column by Nicholas D. Kristof in which the mission to Niger was described without using Wilson's name. Kristof's column said Cheney had authorized the trip.
According to former senior CIA officials, the vice president's office pressed the CIA to find out how the trip was arranged, because Cheney did not know that a query he made much earlier to a CIA briefer about a report alleging Iraq was seeking Niger uranium had triggered Wilson's trip. "They were very uptight about the vice president being tagged that way," a former senior CIA official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. "They asked questions that set [off] a chain of inquiries."
By early June, several weeks before Libby is said to have known Plame's name, the State Department had prepared a memo on the Niger case that contained information on Plame in a section marked "(S)" for secret. Around that time, Libby knew about the trip's origins, though in an interview with The Washington Post at the time, he did not mention any role played by Wilson's wife.
By July 12, however, both Rove and Libby and perhaps other senior White House officials knew about Wilson's wife's position at the CIA and, according to lawyers familiar with testimony in the probe, used that information with reporters to undermine the significance of Wilson's trip.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.