Now in its third year, the CIA leak investigation took a decidedly unwelcome turn for the White House last week. A court filing by prosecutors depicted President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as setting in motion leaks to the press that ended in the disclosure of the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame.
The court papers say that in the weeks before Plame’s identity was revealed, Bush authorized Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, to leak intelligence from a classified document to rebut a war critic, Joe Wilson.
Wilson, Plame’s husband, had accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
The investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is far from over. Libby’s trial on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI is not scheduled to get under way until January.
Some questions and answers about the investigation:
Q: Now that the story is out that Bush and Cheney put Libby in play, are the president or the vice president expected to be called to testify at Libby’s trial?
A. The prosecution and the defense have not signaled their intentions.
Q. What did the president and vice president direct Libby to leak?
A. A portion of a classified prewar document in which U.S. intelligence agencies declared Iraq was vigorously trying to procure uranium. The court papers say Libby leaked the information to New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003. On Saturday, The Washington Post said reporter Bob Woodward met with Libby 11 days before Miller’s meeting with Libby. According to the Post, Woodward said his notes reflect Libby using the word “vigorous” to describe an Iraqi effort to acquire uranium. Libby’s leaks were the beginning of an emerging White House strategy: Blame the CIA for providing the White House with a faulty premise for going to war.
Q. If Libby was directed by Bush and Cheney to leak information from a classified National Intelligence Estimate, why did he allegedly leak information about Plame’s CIA identity as well? Did he do so with or without direction from his superiors?
A. No one in a position to know has offered answers.
Q. Didn’t a lot of people know that Plame worked for the CIA? So what was the big deal about identifying her?
A. Those are the points long raised by White House supporters. They say it had been many years since Plame, who was working at CIA headquarters, was stationed overseas. Plame’s defenders say disclosing her identity still could jeopardize people she dealt with when she was overseas and that she traveled out of the country on CIA business after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Q. Did Bush do something illegal?
A. Legal experts say it is highly unusual, but legal, for a president to unilaterally declassify intelligence without informing anyone other than his vice president and, in this case, a designated leaker, Libby. Bush renewed his own authority to declassify by signing an executive order in 2003.
Q. If what Bush did was legal, why does this matter?
A. The furor prompted by the latest disclosure that Bush and Cheney were directing a leak campaign against Wilson goes to the practice of declassifying secrets to gain political advantage. That kind of conduct has been deplored, most recently last year by a commission Bush appointed to examine U.S. intelligence failures on Iraq. The White House says there is an important distinction between declassifying information in the public interest and leaking classified information that could compromise national security.
Q. What else did Libby leak?
A. Aside from allegedly revealing Plame’s CIA identity, Libby discussed with New York Times report Judith Miller a then-classified CIA report that arguably undercut Wilson’s public attacks on the administration. In it, Wilson described how an Iraqi delegation had visited Niger in 1999 and sought to expand commercial relations, which Niger understood to be a desire to obtain uranium. On the one hand, Wilson was saying publicly it was highly doubtful Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. On the other hand, Wilson was leaving out from his public criticism the information he had learned during his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger about Iraq’s desire to expand commercial relations.
Q. What is the main focus of Fitzgerald’s investigation?
A. The investigation appears to be on hold. He is consumed for now by pretrial battles with defense lawyers demanding thousands of additional documents from the government in an effort to defend their client. White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove still is under investigation. Fitzgerald also is examining the circumstances under which a source revealed Plame’s identity to Woodward.