Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Cheney Penned Note About Plame"

The Washington Post’s Jeffrey Smith reports that Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a note about Valerie Plame Wilson, according to a filing by Patrick Fitzgerald. The article suggests that Cheney wrote this note after Joseph Wilson penned his now-famous op-ed in The New York Times and before Libby revealed Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity and position to reporters. The article is very short but absolutely essential reading if you’ve been following this case:

After former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV publicly criticized a key rationale for the war in Iraq, Vice President Cheney wrote a note on a newspaper clipping raising the possibility that the critique resulted from a CIA-sponsored "junket" arranged by Wilson's wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, according to court documents filed late Friday.

The filing by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is the second that names Cheney as a key White House official who questioned the legitimacy of Wilson's examination of Iraqi nuclear ambitions. It further suggests that Cheney helped originate the idea in his office that Wilson's credibility was undermined by his link to Plame.

Even though the note raises precisely the line of attack used on Joseph and Valerie Wilson, Cheney of course still has deniability:

Fitzgerald does not allege in his filing that Cheney ordered Libby to disclose Plame's identity. But he states that Cheney's note to Libby helps "explain the context of, and provide a motive for" many of the later statements and actions by Libby.

The main purpose of the filing by Fitzgerald appears to be establishing this motive for Libby:

Fitzgerald also says in the filing that after columnist Robert D. Novak published the first newspaper article mentioning Plame's name on July 14, 2003 -- the disclosure that sparked Fitzgerald's investigation -- a CIA official discussed in Libby's presence "the dangers posed by disclosure of the CIA affiliation of one of its employees."

This conversation, Fitzgerald said, directly undermines Libby's claims that he had no reason to believe he or others had done anything wrong and had no reason to lie to the FBI. It also helps explain, Fitzgerald said, why Libby told a grand jury he thought Wilson was fully qualified to go on the trip and he was unsure if Wilson was even married.

This is huge. This strongly suggests:

1. Libby’s defense that he learned of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity and position from reporters is completely blown out of the water (I suspect it was already).

2. Libby knew Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert status and that it was sensitive, but revealed it anyway. At the very least, he knew it was wrong to do so and perhaps he specifically knew it was illegal to do so.

3. Fitzgerald has proof of Libby lying beyond what’s he’s been indicted for: Libby definitively knew Wilson was married but pretended otherwise to the grand jury. This is important because it establishes a pattern of deceptive behavior and helps establish motive: Libby knew what he did was wrong and therefore tried to cover it up. Libby also apparently spoke well of Wilson to the grand jury ('I have nothing personal against Wilson' or something similar, I'm sure). Previous reports by Murray Waas and others paint a picture of Libby being obsessed with Wilson. While there's some possibility such stories were planted to depict Libby as a rogue agent and thus distance him from Cheney and others, I suspect Ftizgerald has both testimony and Libby's own meticulous notes to establish Libby's interest was rabid, not dispassionate. None of that helps his credibility with a jury.

4. Cheney had a much more direct hand in this than previously disclosed, although he still has deniability. Libby can claim he acted overzealously on behalf of his boss.

5. The defense "Of course I didn't lie, because I'd have to be stupid to do have done so" is less convincing when there's proof positive you've lied. Then all you've established is that you're a stupid or arrogant liar instead of just a liar. Just a thought.

While none of the above is shocking to those that have followed this case closely, it’s nice to have more evidence. Even though previous reports indicated that Cheney told Libby about Plame, now we know specifically about Cheney’s note and the article quotes some of its contents.

The filing also establishes a pattern of recklessness and misusing privileged information for political purposes:

The new filing also expands on Fitzgerald's revelation last month that Libby had disclosed portions of a previously classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq by describing portions of it to a Times reporter. It states that Libby also provided -- "through another government official" -- a copy of portions of the NIE to the Wall Street Journal before it published a July 17, 2003, editorial on that subject.

Dan Froomkin had a great summary of the NIE leak news back in his 4/10/06 WaPo column. The revelatory news was that President Bush, in what appears to be glaring hypocrisy, authorized Libby’s leak. I feel Froomkin summed it better than anyone else when he wrote (emphasis mine):

To the extent that McClellan said anything related to the Libby revelation, it was to suggest that the president is incapable of leaking classified information -- because once he utters it, it is automatically declassified. By contrast, he had nothing but scorn for leaks of classified information that he said could compromise national security.

By that logic, however, the White House owes us answers to these questions: How was is it in the public interest or the national security interest to leak highly selective, misleading excerpts from a discredited document in an attempt to disparage someone making what turned out to be accurate charges that the administration exaggerated prewar intelligence?

Is there any evidence that Joseph Wilson's charges were doing any damage to national security -- rather than to Bush's political standing and credibility?

And conversely, is there any evidence that national security was compromised by the other leaks that the administration has responded to so ferociously? And would most Americans not agree that knowing about such things as domestic spying or secret prisons is in the public interest?

Libby provides a clear pattern of leaking classified information for political purposes. In the case of the NIE, he was authorized to do so by Cheney and Bush. Was he authorized to leak Plame's identity? This is still unknown. I suspect Bush is not hands-on enough to have authorized it, but Cheney is another matter. At the very least, Cheney and David Addington unquestionably would have approved of Libby's actions even if they didn't know the details. There's little doubt these guys both play hardball and feel entitled to take out anyone they view as an enemy. I find it hard to believe, though, that they didn't know about it. But Cheney has a long history of getting other folks to throw themselves on their swords for him. Barring a Colonel Jessup moment of Cheney brazenly admitting his role and justifying it (Libby's defense has flirted with this approach by trying to attack the irrelevant issue of Wilson's credibilty), I don't envision Cheney's true role coming out. (And I think even boy scout Patrick Fitzgerald would pause before pursuing the Vice President and President.)

While Fitzgerald likely could nail Libby for revealing Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert status (the original subject of the investigation) the relevant statute makes it difficult to prove. Even if he has the goods, Fitzgerald may feel it’s too distracting... but going back to his original press conference, the entire issue at that time was that Fitzgerald could not bring charges because of Libby’s obstruction of justice. Fitzgerald is very by the book and the fact he didn’t bring those charges then does not preclude him from doing so in the future. There’s little doubt Libby knew what he was doing would at the very least look very bad if revealed. He may well have known what he was doing was illegal, but that may be a point of contention still. Finally, Fitzgerald may wish to avoid punishing the act of leaking itself because of the potentially chilling effect on future reporting.

My take on this entire affair has always been this was business as usual for Rove, Libby, and Cheney, but this time at least two of them got caught because by accident or design they happened to break the law. I do not believe knowing the law would have dissuaded them, however, only made them more cautious in their smear of Wilson. I do not think they ever expected to get caught, out of a combination of hubris and the fact that loyalist John Ashcroft was originally in charge of the investigation.

As to their defense strategy, even in a White House busy with "doing the people's business" or waging a brain-numbing disinformation campaign where those pesky "details" slip away, there's no way Rove and Libby "forgot." Wilson was a prominent, credible critic that forced an administration unwilling to admit mistakes to publicly acknowledge a huge and embarrasing mistake. Murray Waas also posits that Rove was worried more information would come out, for instance that Bush was briefed on the serious doubts about the aluminum tubing intel,and that such revelations could fatally derail Bush's re-election. The obvious motive and modus operandi of Libby and Rove is "slander your opponents." However, Waas essentially invokes Nixon by offering a more urgent motive: to preserve George W. Bush's presidency.

In the spirit of making bold, irresponsible predictions, I suspect the Karl Rove will be indicted for perjury and making false statements... I’m less sure of obstruction of justice charges, but I’ll go with that, too. I suspect Fitzgerald will make the announcement in the next two weeks (Firedoglake was taking bets; I'm guessing most likely between Wednesday 5/24 and Friday 5/26). I’d be surprised if it took more than a month for some sort of announcement. There’s an outside chance Rove may be completely cleared, but I’d put the odds of that at 10% or less.

UPDATE: Jeralyn Meritt of TalkLeft has posted the actual filing and provides links to some of the usual suspects' analysis of it (firedoglake, emptywheel, and Tom Maguire, who provide greater legal acumen than I possess). I'm in dire need of sleep now, but I've glanced over some of the commentary and look forward to reading the actual 38-page document. Currently, my main question would be the date of Libby's note. Does Jeffrey Smith possess independent verification of the date? Smith reports the note was written on a newspaper clipping of the Wilson op-ed itself, therefore it seems safe to assume that Cheney penned it very soon after publication, certainly far in advance of Novak's infamous column revealing Plame's CIA status. More sensible analysis tomorrow, I hope.

UPDATE II: Blame a tired brain. Smith states, and Maguire picks up on the same point, that Fitzgerald describes Libby as being warned about the sensitivity of Plame's status after the publication of Novak's column. This does not preclude that Libby knew this beforehand. Really, he should have known, since he reportedly knew Plame was involved in curtailing WMD proliferation. However, charging Libby under the specific leaking statute originally posited would requiring proving that Libby knew what he was doing. While Fitzgerald may suspect this and even have proof, currently he is offering evidence not to charge Libby with the leak itself, but to establish Libby's motives for lying to the grand jury.

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