with Katherine Stapp
US Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and top national security aide resigned Friday, hours before a grand jury formally indicted him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice following a 22-month probe into the public disclosure of the identity of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative.
The resignation and indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, perhaps the most influential sub-Cabinet official on national security policy in the George W. Bush administration, marks a second serious setback in as many days to the president whose nominee to the Supreme Court withdrew her name from consideration Thursday under withering fire from the Christian Right and neoconservative hard-liners.
Libby’s departure is particularly damaging to the administration’s hawks, whose influence has appeared on the wane since late 2003 but who remain a major factor in setting policy. Libby played a key role in the drive to war in Iraq and has consistently favored a hard line toward Syria, Iran, North Korea and China.
According to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby had repeatedly lied to federal agents who interviewed him in October and November 2003 about the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name to reporters, and twice lied under oath to the grand jury in March 2004.
The leak was apparently part of a White House-orchestrated effort to discredit Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, a retired ambassador who was sent by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium yellowcake in Niger.
Wilson disclosed his mission and his findings that the reports were false in a July 6, 2003 New York Times column that accused the administration of taking the country to war under false pretenses.
Eight days later, the Washington Post published a piece by Robert Novak that reported Plame’s relationship to Wilson and her alleged role in the decision to send her husband on the mission. At the same time, several other Washington reporters said they had been contacted by administration officials regarding Plame’s identity.
After Novak’s disclosure, the CIA referred the case to the Justice Department under a 1982 law that makes it a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert US officer.
However, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald did not charge Libby with violating that statute, saying his obstruction of the investigation “keeps us from making the judgments we need to make” on Libby’s motives.
In essence, the indictment says Libby claimed to investigators that he first heard Plame’s name from a reporter, when in fact he learned of her position as a covert operative several times in June 2003 from other government officials, including a senior CIA officer, an undersecretary of state, Vice Pres. Cheney himself, and an unnamed official in Cheney’s office.
Although speculation has mounted for weeks that Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Bush’s closest advisor, and possibly even Cheney, would also be indicted, Fitzgerald said at a press conference Friday that “the substantial bulk of this grand jury’s work is completed.”
“We make no allegation that the vice president committed a criminal act,” Fitzgerald said. “We don’t comment on people who are not charged.”
Still, he did not rule out convening another grand jury the current one’s term expired Friday and Rove’s lawyer said in a statement he was told by Fitzgerald’s office that investigators had “made no decision about whether or not to bring charges” against other individuals, including Rove.
Fitzgerald also did not comment on recent reports that his investigation has expanded to include the origin of forged documents that prompted Wilson’s mission to Niger and that have subsequently been traced to Italy’s military intelligence agency (SISMI).
A separate two-year investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the documents, which purported to show that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for a nuclear weapons program, has failed to pinpoint the source of the forgery.
However, according to an investigative series in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, then deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley secretly met in Washington in September 2002 with the chief of SISMI, who allegedly brought the Niger yellowcake story directly to an administration eager to build support for its case that Iraq was acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
The Italian government denies any role in the “manufacture or spreading” of the false documents, and Hadley’s spokesman said Thursday that “no one present at that meeting has any recollection of yellowcake being discussed or documents being provided.”
But regardless of where the forgeries originated, critics say the Plame saga underlines the administration’s manipulation of intelligence to sell the Iraq war, and subsequent efforts to cover up its missteps.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA intelligence analyst and State Department counter-terrorism official, said “It is slowly dawning on the American people that the Bush administration attack on Valerie and Joe Wilson was part of a broader conspiracy to hide the fact that our political leaders fabricated a case for war in Iraq.”
“Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, and Karl Rove, among others, apparently preferred to destroy a valuable intelligence asset rather than expose the truth that the United States went to war in Iraq based on misinformation and deception. That is a crime deserving the most serious punishment,” he said.
John Podesta, the chief of staff under President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), said that “In addition to Rove and Libby, we know that senior Presidential aides National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan were either complicit in the leak and the cover up, or grossly negligent in their duties.”
“There is no question this is a presidency in crisis,” Podesta said. “Bush has a chance to salvage his credibility and last three years of his presidency but only if he stands by his word to fire anyone involved in the leak, starting with the immediate resignation of Lewis Libby and Karl Rove.”
If convicted on all counts, Libby faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Speaking briefly to reporters before departing for his retreat at Camp David, President Bush said “Scooter has worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people and sacrificed much in the service to this country.”
“He served the vice president and me through extraordinary times in our nation’s history.”
For his part, Libby, in a statement issued through his lawyers, said he was “confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated.”
(Inter Press Service)
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