Washington on Tenterhooks Over Leak Case

Wrapping up a two-year investigation that a growing number of legal analysts expect to yield indictments of at least one, and possibly two, of the George W. Bush administration’s most powerful men as early as this week, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has Washington on pins and needles.

As the witness list and accounts of recent testimony before Fitzgerald’s grand jury make clear, the prosecutor appears to have set his sights on both Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for their alleged roles in leaking the identity of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, Valerie Plame.

The administration’s right-wing defenders are preparing for the worst, arguing that, as asserted by another prominent neoconservative, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, the prosecutor is part of a "comprehensive strategy of criminalization … implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives who seek to govern as conservatives".

Anyone indicted by the grand jury, which must complete its work by the end of next week, would almost certainly have to resign.

If Rove or Libby, such an indictment would not only constitute a serious political embarrassment to an administration whose popularity is already at its lowest ebb. Given the two men’s central operational roles, it would also almost certainly add to the disarray that has enveloped the White House since Hurricane Katrina more than six weeks ago.

While Rove has long been considered "Bush’s brain" – Bush himself refers to him as "Boy Genius" – Libby, perhaps the single most influential neoconservative inside the administration, oversees the exceptionally large and influential staff of the most powerful vice president in U.S. history.

Both men were also part of the high-level White House Iraq Group (WHIG) that was formally convened in September 2002, apparently to coordinate efforts to rally the country behind the eventual decision to go to war in Iraq. Fitzgerald reportedly has subpoenaed the group’s records and taken testimony from its members.

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. He 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 right-wing columnist 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 U.S. officer. Under pressure from critics who charged that, as a Bush appointee, he had a conflict of interest in pursuing the case, former Attorney General John Ashcroft subsequently appointed Fitzgerald as an independent special prosecutor in late 2003.

The White House had insisted until relatively recently that neither Rove nor Libby had ever spoken to reporters about Plame. However, that position became untenable with the disclosure earlier this summer by a Time magazine reporter who testified that he had communications with both men about Wilson just before the Novak column. Since then, the White House and Bush, who had said early in the case that he would fire anyone involved in the leak, have repeatedly refused all comment.

Fitzgerald’s investigation and the grand jury’s proceedings have been secret, although lawyers who have represented various witnesses have occasionally told reporters what their clients have been asked. Fitzgerald himself has declined to make any public comments about the investigation, so that it remains unclear even now whether he will indeed ask for indictments and, if so, what they will be.

Many analysts believe the evidentiary requirements of the 1982 law, the Intelligence Identities Act, may be too difficult to prove in this case. If indictments are forthcoming, most legal observers say they could involve the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, obstruction of justice, or perjury or conspiracy to commit such acts.

A conspiracy charge could be particularly devastating because it could put more high-level figures at risk.

The speculation has become particularly intense over the last few days. On Oct. 14, Rove made his fourth appearance before the grand jury in what many commentators suggested was probably an eleventh-hour effort to explain certain contradictions in his previous testimony.

But his plight was eclipsed by a series of appearances before the grand jury of Judith Miller, a controversial New York Times reporter, who had spent nearly 90 days in jail rather than comply with Fitzgerald’s demand to disclose how she came to know of Plame’s identity.

Faced with the possibility of another contempt citation that would have extended her time in jail, Miller negotiated a deal with Fitzgerald to confine her testimony to conversations she had with Libby after he personally assured her that he had no objection to her testifying.

Miller’s account of her testimony, published in Sunday’s Times, made clear that Libby told her about Plame’s employment in the CIA at least two weeks before Wilson’s article appeared. And while Miller wrote that Libby had not identified Plame by name, other notations in her notebook suggest that he had. Indeed, Miller’s lawyer told a television interviewer Sunday that "the central and essentially only figure who had information [on Plame] was Libby".

More ominous for the administration was Miller’s disclosure that Fitzgerald had asked repeatedly about whether she thought Cheney himself had authorized or knew about Libby’s exchanges with her regarding Plame. She thought not.

Wilson’s mission to Niger is believed to have originated with a request by Cheney to further investigate a Feb. 12, 2002, Defense Intelligence Agency report, apparently based on documents initially circulated by Italy’s military intelligence (SISMI). According to Miller, Cheney asked both the CIA and the Pentagon to investigate further.

After some deliberation in which Plame, an expert on nuclear proliferation, may have played a role, the CIA sent Wilson to Niger in late February, while the Pentagon sent Marine Gen. Carlton W. Fulford, Jr., then-deputy commander of the U.S. European Command at roughly the same time. Fulford separately reached the same conclusion as Wilson – that the yellowcake transaction was highly unlikely.

Wilson was debriefed by the CIA on his return in early March, while Fulford filed a written report. But whether their conclusions made it up the chain of command remains a mystery.

Cheney’s office has insisted that it never heard anything from the CIA about Wilson’s mission. Fulford’s report reached the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-Gen. Richard Myers, according to official records, although Myers himself said he had "no recollection" of it and no idea whether he passed it along to Cheney.

Cheney, whose initial curiosity set off this flurry of travel and reporting, however, appears to have lost interest in the results by March 24 when he appeared on three national public-affairs television programs and on each one asserted for the first time that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear-weapons production.

The Nigerien documents about the yellowcake deal whose existence was first reported by SISMI were determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency to have been crude forgeries on the eve of the U.S. invasion. No investigation into their provenance – either by Congress or a grand jury – has been undertaken.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.