In the opening statements at the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, new evidence emerged pointing toward a criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of George W. Bush’s White House.

Libby’s defense attorney Theodore Wells described a conversation from 2003 between Vice President Dick Cheney and Libby, his chief of staff, at which a worried Libby complained that “they’re trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb.”

According to Wells, Libby then told his boss, “I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected,” referring to Bush’s top political strategist who now holds the post of deputy White House chief of staff.

Wells also cited meeting notes written by Cheney suggesting that Libby had been tasked with the job of countering accusations from former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had publicly charged that Bush “twisted” intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear program to help deceive the American people into supporting the invasion of Iraq.

“Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder,” Cheney’s notes read, according to Wells.

In September 2003, when a criminal investigation was launched into whether administration officials had leaked the name of Wilson’s wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, the White House issued a statement clearing Rove and other officials, but didn’t initially include Libby on the list.

Libby’s lament, as described by his lawyer, indicates that the Cheney aide believed the White House was trying to protect some officials involved in leaking Plame’s identity while leaving Libby exposed as “the sacrificial lamb.”

Based on the public record, it now appears Libby was part of an administration conspiracy involving at least seven officials, including Bush and Cheney, seeking to discredit Wilson, one of the first Washington insiders to challenge the President’s misuse of intelligence to justify the preemptive war against Iraq.

The record already reveals that three senior administration officials – Libby, Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage – had discussed Plame’s CIA identity with journalists amid the campaign to undermine Wilson. As part of that tearing down of the former ambassador, administration officials claimed that Wilson’s wife had helped him get the assignment to check out reports that Iraq was trying to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger, suspicions that Wilson and others concluded were unfounded.

Two other unnamed officials who traveled with Bush on a state visit to Africa in July 2003 reportedly encouraged a Time magazine correspondent to ask about the circumstances behind Wilson’s trip, pointing him in the direction of Plame. At the top of the operation to counter Wilson were Bush, who approved the partial release of a CIA National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD, and Cheney, who dispatched Libby to meet with reporters.

Why Rove?

One of the unanswered questions about the Wilson-Plame story is why Bush would have involved his chief political operative Rove in discussions that involved the identity of a covert CIA officer, normally considered one of the most sensitive secrets in the U.S. government shared only with officials who have a strict need to know.

Yet, instead of treating Plame’s identity with care, senior Bush administration officials appeared to have bandied the information about, giving it to political operative Rove and then sharing it with journalists, one of whom – right-wing columnist Robert Novak – published a column outing Plame and thus exposing her overseas spy network.

The administration behavior suggests that it put protecting Bush’s political flanks ahead of guarding sensitive national security secrets.

Based on the opening defense statement in the Libby trial on Jan. 23, the White House then made saving political guru Rove a higher priority than defending Cheney’s chief of staff who had been a central figure in developing the Iraq War policies.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in his opening statement, outlined the case in support of five felony counts against Libby for allegedly lying to investigators and obstructing justice. Fitzgerald said Libby had been part of a fierce campaign by the Bush administration to beat back Wilson’s early criticism of its case for war in Iraq.

In his defense, Libby apparently intends to present himself as the administration’s fall guy hung out to dry while other officials ran for cover and got protection. But that argument suggests that the White House was engaged in a conscious cover-up, with Bush apparently playing a lead role.

Bush intervened publicly on the Plame-gate case on Sept. 30, 2003, when he announced – disingenuously as it turned out – that he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.

“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.”

Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the alleged Iraqi nuclear program and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters.

Bush’s behind-the-scenes role came into clearer focus later with the release of a court document citing testimony from Libby, who claimed Bush approved the selective release of intelligence in July 2003 to counter growing complaints that Bush had hyped evidence about Iraq’s pursuit of yellowcake uranium in Niger.

Libby testified that he was told by Cheney that Bush had approved a plan in which Libby would tell a specific New York Times reporter about the CIA’s secret analysis, according to a court filing by special prosecutor Fitzgerald.

“Defendant’s [Libby’s] participation in a critical conversation with [Times reporter] Judith Miller on July 8 [2003] occurred only after the Vice President advised defendant that the President specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE,” the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the filing said.

In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House hand and possibly to signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.

During the opening remarks of Libby’s trial, the spotlight landed on Bush’s closest political adviser, Karl Rove, but the alleged sacrifice of Libby to spare Rove only makes sense if the President had some involvement in orchestrating how the cover-up was supposed to play out.

[For more details on the Plame-gate case, see Consortiumnews.com’s special report, “Scooter Libby’s Time-Travel Trial.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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