February 7, 2007 in Nation/World

Libby: Bush, Cheney part of leak plan

Greg Miller Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Former White House official I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby told a grand jury in 2004 that Vice President Dick Cheney was upset by an ambassador’s public questioning of the Iraq war and that President Bush, Cheney and Libby were involved in a plan – kept secret from other senior White House officials – to leak previously classified intelligence to reporters to counter the criticism.

Libby’s audiotape testimony, played for jurors in federal court here, offered new details about how the White House orchestrated a campaign to discredit Iraq war critic Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson’s wife, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, was subsequently exposed in the media, triggering a criminal investigation.

As Libby sat silently in the courtroom, jurors heard his disembodied voice describe how he was instructed to leak intelligence secrets to select reporters, even as other White House officials were expressing concern over the leaks and debating whether the administration should formally declassify intelligence reports on Iraq to combat criticism of the case for war.

At one point, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald can be heard on the tapes expressing disbelief that Libby would take part in those meetings without disclosing that the president had effectively already declassified key portions of one of the main prewar pieces of intelligence on Iraq, a national intelligence estimate on the nation’s alleged banned weapons programs.

“Was that unusual for you to have the national security adviser, the director of central intelligence, the White House chief of staff, among others, in the dark as to something that you had done regarding declassification?” Fitzgerald asked.

“It is not unusual for the vice president to tell me something which I am not allowed to share with others,” Libby replied.

Libby’s remarks came during a day in court devoted entirely to playing audiotapes of the former Cheney aide’s grand jury testimony, allowing jurors to listen to the defendant’s voice as he made a series of statements that prosecutors have labeled lies.

Libby faces five felony counts alleging perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice for what he told investigators about his role in the campaign to discredit Wilson.

The tapes offer an intriguing window into the reaction within the White House to mounting criticism of its case for war with Iraq, as well as a chance to witness Fitzgerald’s method as he sparred with Libby during eight hours of grand jury testimony.

Libby can be heard describing how Cheney was “upset” when Wilson went public with allegations that the White House had twisted intelligence to make the case for war. In an op-ed article, Wilson said he had been sent to investigate a key claim – that Iraq was seeking uranium from the African nation of Niger – and found it untrue months before President Bush included the allegation in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

“It was a serious accusation,” Libby said. “It was a very serious attack.” It also quickly became a “topic that was discussed on a daily basis” in the White House.

Libby said that Cheney “thought we should get some of these facts out to the press. He then undertook to get permission from the president to talk about this” to reporters.

Libby said that Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington, had advised him that merely getting such permission from the president rendered the intelligence declassified. President Bush has publicly acknowledged doing so.

Libby’s subsequent conversations with reporters and other White House officials are now at the center of the perjury trial. Prosecutors have produced a series of witnesses over the past week, including former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, to say that they learned of Plame’s identity from Libby.

Libby has testified that he learned about Plame from Cheney in June 2003, but then forgot that detail and didn’t share it with others until he heard it from NBC News reporter Tim Russert in a phone call on July 10 or 11.

Recounting that conversation, Libby said in taped testimony that Russert asked him ” ‘Did you know that Ambassador Wilson’s wife works at the CIA?’ and I was a little taken aback by that. … And I said ‘No I don’t know that’ intentionally because I didn’t want him to take anything I was saying as in any way confirming what he had said.”

Russert, who is expected to testify this week, has said he did not tell Libby about Plame.

Libby’s testimony also puts him at odds with other former White House officials. At one point, Fitzgerald asks if he recalled sharing Plame’s name with Fleischer, as the former press secretary testified last week.

“Isn’t it a fact, sir, that you told Mr. Fleischer over lunch that this was hush-hush or on the Q.T.?” Fitzgerald asked.

“I don’t recall that,” Libby replied.

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