By Jason Leopold and Marc Ash
Wednesday 07 February 2007
According to trial transcripts obtained by Truthout, former White House staffer I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby testified before a grand jury in 2004 that Vice President Dick Cheney instructed him to divulge portions of a then-classified report to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Libby testified that Cheney said authorization to leak a section of the report had come directly from President George W. Bush, the court transcripts state.
The document, titled the National intelligence Estimate, was officially declassified on July 18, 2003. However Libby testified before the grand jury in March 2004 that he had received instructions from Cheney on July 8, 2003, to release portions of the report to Judith Miller.
"The vice president instructed me to go talk to Judith Miller to lay things out for her," Libby said, according to court transcripts. Libby added that President Bush did not know Judith Miller, but authorized Libby to share the NIE with her. Miller did not publish a story based on the information Libby leaked to her.
Libby testified that the leak of the NIE to Miller was aimed at undermining the credibility of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who on July 6, 2003, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times accusing the Bush administration of "twisting" pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Wilson's stinging rebuke of the administration led Libby and other White House officials to leak Wilson's wife's covert CIA status to reporters one week later.
Libby said, according to the court transcript, that the leak of the NIE on July 8, 2003, was a closely guarded secret and that only he, Vice President Dick Cheney, and President Bush were aware that some of its contents would be leaked.
Libby testified that the White House discussed on a daily basis Wilson's accusations that the administration had manipulated pre-war intelligence regarding Iraq. Those conversations included President Bush, Libby testified, according to the court transcript. Libby testified that his own handwritten notes indicate that President Bush wanted him to to speak with reporters and to rebut Wilson's charges.
"If the president tells you to talk about a document, it's declassified," Libby testified about the why he believed he was authorized to discuss what was then still a classified document.
The information that surfaced during Tuesday's court proceedings places President Bush at the center of the probe, and once again raises the question of whether Bush knew in advance the lengths to which senior White House officials would go to discredit Wilson. President Bush retained a private attorney when he was interviewed by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the leak probe three years ago, but details of the president's interview have yet to be released publicly.
Libby's testimony is backed up by a court document filed by Fitzgerald last year, in which the special prosecutor wrote that Libby had testified he was authorized by Bush and Cheney to discuss the NIE with Miller.
"Defendant testified that the Vice President advised him that the President had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE," the filing further states. "Defendant testified that he brought a brief abstract of the NIE's key judgments to the meeting with Miller on July 8. Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium. Defendant testified that this July 8th meeting was the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the President's authorization that it be disclosed. Defendant testified that one of the reasons why he met with Miller at a hotel was the fact that he was sharing this information with Miller exclusively."
According to the court transcript, Libby claimed that Miller was the first journalist to receive details of the NIE. But his story does not appear to be accurate. On June 27, 2003, two weeks before Libby met with Miller, the vice president's former chief of staff met with Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and leaked the portion of the NIE that dealt with Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Niger, which was first reported by this reporter in March 2006. It's unclear whether the leak of the NIE to Woodward - which took place two weeks after Cheney disclosed to Libby that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and had suggested sending her husband to Niger to look into the uranium claims - was authorized.
The Watergate-era journalist wrote in the Washington Post in November 2005 that when he met with Libby on June 27, 2003, "Libby discussed the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned 'yellowcake,' and said there was an effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa. It goes back to February '02. This was the time of Wilson's trip to Niger."
The perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Libby stem from when and how he discovered that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA and whether he leaked her status to reporters. Plame's name was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003 - eight days after her husband, Joseph Wilson, accused the administration of twisting intelligence to justify war with Iraq. Wilson and government prosecutors said the Plame leak was an act of retaliation against Wilson.
Libby maintains he first learned about Plame from Tim Russert, host of "Meet the Press." Libby's defense is that he was wrapped up with more pressing issues, such as the war in Iraq and national security, and innocently forgot that Cheney had told him about Plame on numerous occasions in June and July 2003. Libby's assertions are undercut by numerous government witnesses and journalists who testified that Libby discussed Plame's CIA status with them more than a week before he said he was told about her by Russert for the first time.
Last week, a crucial piece of evidence emerged during Libby's trial that also appeared to implicate President Bush in the CIA leak case. Yet the seemingly explosive development was absent from mainstream news coverage of the trial.
Copies of Cheney's handwritten notes, which were introduced into evidence by government prosecutors, show the vice president asserting that Libby was asked - the notes would appear to indicate - by President Bush to deal with media inquiries regarding Wilson's claims. Bush has said publicly that he did not take part in an effort to counter Wilson and that he had no prior knowledge that anyone on his staff was involved in an effort to discredit the war critic.
Cheney's handwritten notes would suggest that Libby was made a scapegoat by the White House. Libby attorney Theodore Wells said Cheney wrote "not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others": a reference to Libby being asked to deal with the media and vociferously rebut Wilson's allegations that the Bush administration knowingly "twisted" intelligence to win support for the war in Iraq.
However, when Cheney wrote the notes, he had originally written "this Pres." before crossing it out and writing "that was" asked. Thus, Cheney's notes would have read: "not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy this Pres. asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."