Criminal trials – especially relating to national security scandals – are an imperfect way of learning the larger truth. As with the four-count conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the charges are often structured narrowly to avoid long battles over classified secrets or inherent presidential powers.

But even limited trials can offer important glimpses into the inner workings of an administration, especially one as secretive as George W. Bush’s. Though Libby was convicted only on perjury and obstruction charges, there should be little doubt what the full picture looks like.

If the panorama could be viewed all at once, the American people would see an administration that, in summer 2003, felt it could pretty much do whatever it wanted to anyone. Bush's inner circle validated every cliche about the arrogance of power, particularly the old saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

In the modern media context, defending that omnipotence meant coming up with demeaning comments about critics who dared to speak out. The goal was to generate talking points that could be given to the administration’s many friends in Congress or at right-wing and mainstream news outlets.

Dirtying up one’s opponents was the name of the game, just like during political campaigns. “Controversialize” your enemies so the public won’t take them seriously. Turn them into laughingstocks. Make them look self-interested and maybe crazy.

But in summer 2003, the administration took its intimidating strategy a bit too far, exposing the identity of a covert CIA officer and it then had to conduct a cover-up.

It wasn’t obvious at the time but President Bush and his administration were at a crossroads. Though Bush still basked in the glory of a victorious invasion of Iraq, the failure of the U.S. military to find weapons of mass destruction was eroding Bush’s case for war and fraying nerves inside the White House.

The unlikely historical figure who would push the administration off in a more dangerous direction was a dapper former U.S. ambassador named Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had served in U.S. embassies in Africa and had been chargé d’affaire in Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

In summer 2003, however, Wilson’s account of his unpublicized mission more than a year earlier on behalf of the CIA to Niger would put him on a collision course with the Bush administration at the height of its power.

Strange Journey

Wilson’s strange journey from obscure ex-diplomat to a chief target of the Bush administration’s attack machine began in early 2002 after Vice President Dick Cheney expressed interest in a dubious document that had surfaced in Italy purporting to show that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger, presumably for a revived nuclear program.

Given Cheney’s near obsession with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, senior officials in the CIA office known as Winpac – for weapons intelligence, nonproliferation and arms control – took the Vice President’s interest seriously.

As they looked around for someone suitable for a fact-finding trip, one CIA officer in the unit, the stunningly attractive Valerie Plame, noted that her husband’s diplomatic background fit many of the requirements. Wilson had experience in both Iraq and Niger.

Plame’s superiors asked her to pass on a message inviting her husband in for a meeting.

“Apart from being the conduit of a message from a colleague in her office asking if I would be willing to have a conversation about Niger’s uranium industry, Valerie had had nothing to do with this matter,” Wilson later wrote in his memoir, The Politics of Truth. “Though she worked on weapons of mass destruction issues, she was not at the meeting I attended where the subject of Niger’s uranium was discussed, when the possibility of my actually traveling to the country was broached. She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.”

Wilson accepted the unpaid assignment with the CIA agreeing to pay his travel expenses. In February 2002, the ex-ambassador flew to Niger, discussed the Iraq suspicions with business and government officials, and returned with a conclusion that the allegations appeared to be false.

In his oral report to the CIA, Wilson said he found no evidence that Iraq had sought yellowcake and – considering the international controls governing shipments of uranium – most of his sources doubted that a sale would even be possible.

Wilson did add a caveat, that one senior Nigerien, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki, said he had suspected that an Iraqi commercial delegation to Niger in 1999 might be interested in buying yellowcake, but the uranium topic never came up at the meeting and nothing was sold to Iraq.

State Department intelligence analysts, who had already correctly concluded that the Iraq-Niger-yellowcake claims were baseless, reviewed Wilson’s information and believed that it corroborated their judgment.

But some CIA analysts, who then were pushing the Niger allegations, seized on Wilson’s comment about Mayaki suspecting that Iraq might be in the market for yellowcake as corroboration for their position. In effect, they “cherry-picked” one inconsequential fact from Wilson’s report that could be used to support their position.

Wilson’s negative findings were soon backed up by other U.S. government reports arriving from the field. Nevertheless, since the White House was scouring for any indication that Saddam Hussein might be reconstituting his nuclear program, the dubious Niger-yellowcake story proved hard to kill.

‘Uranium from Africa’

U.S. intelligence agencies did get the allegation stripped out of some administration speeches, but it kept returning, most notably when it was inserted into Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union Address, attributed to the British.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” Bush said in a sentence that later became known as “the sixteen words.”

However, in spring 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the administration’s dire WMD warnings were hollow. Wilson began to speak privately with journalists about his trip.

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an article that cited an unnamed former ambassador who had gone on a fact-finding mission to Africa and had returned discounting the suspicions of Iraqis buying uranium. Cheney grew curious about this mission that had been undertaken because of his expressed interest but that had not led to a formal report back to the Vice President.

After figuring out the identity of Kristof’s source, the White House also prepared to retaliate against Wilson, who was emerging as the first Washington establishment figure to accuse the administration of manipulating the WMD intelligence.

The White House was determined to nip in the bud any “revisionist history” about the integrity behind the march to war. In his memoir, Wilson cited sources telling him that a meeting in Cheney’s office led to a decision “to produce a workup” to discredit Wilson.

Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, asked Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, a neoconservative ally in the State Department, to prepare a memo on Wilson. Dated June 10, 2003, Grossman’s report included a paragraph, marked secret, that referred to CIA officer “Valerie Plame” as Wilson wife. [NYT, July 16, 2005]

On June 11, Libby also heard from CIA official Robert Grenier that Wilson’s wife worked in the CIA unit that sent Wilson to Africa, Grenier later testified.
CIA Director George Tenet also mentioned to Cheney that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Niger. Cheney passed that information on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]

Sensitive Secrets

While these senior officials who were bandying about the name of Valerie Plame might have had sufficient clearance to know Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA officer, their behavior was highly unusual.

Undercover officers in Plame’s category, known as “NOCs” for “non-official cover,” often operate in great danger outside the protection of the U.S. embassies. Normally, the CIA zealously protects their cover, sharing the identities only on a strict need-to-know basis.

“The CIA is obsessive about protecting its NOCs,” one former senior U.S. official told me. “There’s almost nothing they care about more.”

But there was something that the Bush administration seemed to care about more, and that was stopping criticism of President Bush in its tracks.

On June 13, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage – Grossman’s boss – mentioned in an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that Wilson’s wife helped pick the ex-ambassador for the assignment.

“Why would they send him?” Woodward asked. “Because his wife’s a [expletive] analyst at the agency,” Armitage responded. “She is a WMD analyst out there.”

Woodward didn’t use the information, but Armitage’s comment is believed to have been the first reference by an administration official to a reporter about Wilson’s wife whose identity was a classified government secret.

It was not clear, however, whether the tough-talking deputy secretary of state was just shooting off his mouth, trying to impress a famous journalist, or if Armitage was part of an emerging strategy by the White House to undermine Wilson’s credibility by portraying his Niger trip as a case of nepotism.

When Armitage’s early role was publicly revealed three years later, a conventional wisdom quickly took shape in Washington that Armitage was acting on his own, that he had no connection to the White House political machinations, and that he had been a dissenter on the Iraq War. But there was reason to believe otherwise.

A well-placed conservative source, who had been an early supporter of George W. Bush and who knew both Armitage and White House political adviser Karl Rove well, described a different reality to me.

The source said Armitage and Rove were much closer than many Washington insiders understood. Armitage and Rove developed a working relationship in the late 1990s when Bush was lining up Colin Powell to support a Bush presidential candidacy and to be his Secretary of State, the source said.

In those negotiations, Armitage stood in for Powell and Rove represented Bush. After that, the two men provided a back channel for passing sensitive information between the White House and the State Department, the source said.

To illustrate the point, the conservative source recounted an incident early in the Bush administration when he warned Rove to be leery of Armitage, whom the source regarded as untrustworthy.

Shortly afterwards, the source got an angry call from Armitage who had been told by Rove about the warning. Though the source earlier had witnessed the Rove-Armitage connection over the Powell recruitment, he still was surprised that Rove felt so loyal to Armitage that he would immediately hop on the phone to alert Armitage to the criticism.

Subsequently, the source said he was shut out of the White House. He blamed Rove and Armitage for the blackballing.

The significance of the Rove-Armitage friendship to the Wilson-Plame case was that it undercut the conventional wisdom that Armitage had no link to Bush’s inner circle and that therefore his comments about Wilson’s wife must have been just gossip.

“Armitage isn’t a gossip,” the conservative source said, “but he is a leaker. There’s a difference.”

Also, although Armitage may have had doubts about invading Iraq in 2003, he was no peacenik, as some Washington journalists believed.

In 1998, Armitage had been one of 18 signatories to a seminal letter from the neoconservative Project for the New American Century urging President Bill Clinton to oust Saddam Hussein by military force if necessary.

Armitage joined a host of neoconservative icons, such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. Many of the signers became architects of Bush’s Iraq War policy five years later.

Picking the Press

In mid-June 2003, as the White House fretted over the potential impact from Wilson’s Niger-yellowcake criticism, Cheney and Libby began to pick out reporters who were considered friendly and likely would help in the anti-Wilson campaign.

On June 23, 2003, Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Wilson and may have passed on the tip about Wilson’s wife working at the CIA at that time. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]

Other administration officials also were reaching out to journalists. About the same time as the Libby-Miller meeting, conservative columnist Robert Novak received a surprise call from Armitage’s office offering an interview.

“During his quarter of a century in Washington, I had had no contact with Armitage before our fateful interview,” Novak wrote later. “I tried to see him in the first 2 ½ years of the Bush administration, but he rebuffed me – summarily and with disdain, I thought. Then, without explanation, in June 2003, Armitage’s office said the deputy secretary would see me.”

Novak dated the call from Armitage’s office at about two weeks before Wilson went public with his article about the Niger story on July 6, 2003. In other words, Armitage’s outreach to Novak and Libby’s briefing of Miller came at virtually the same time. [Novak column, Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2006]

As the White House was pulling its wagons into a defensive circle, Wilson was deciding to attach his name directly to his charges of manipulated intelligence.
In The New York Times opinion section on July 6, 2003, Wilson published his article, entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” in which he described his Niger mission and said the White House had “twisted” intelligence to justify war. The same day he appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to expand on his charges.

As Cheney read Wilson’s article, a perturbed Vice President scribbled in the margins the questions he wanted pursued. “Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing before?” Cheney wrote. “Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?”

Though Cheney did not write down Plame’s name, his questions indicated that he was well aware that she worked for the CIA and was in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husband’s assignment to check out the Niger reports.

That same eventful day – July 6, 2003 – Armitage called Carl W. Ford Jr., the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, at home and asked him to send a copy of Grossman’s memo about Wilson to Secretary of State Powell. Since Powell was preparing to leave with Bush on a state visit to Africa, Ford forwarded Grossman’s memo to the White House for delivery to Powell. [NYT, July 16, 2005]

The next day, July 7, Libby took the unusual step of inviting White House press secretary Ari Fleischer out to lunch. There, Libby told Fleischer that Wilson’s wife worked in the CIA’s counter-proliferation division, where most CIA officers operate in a covert capacity. Libby “added that this was something hush-hush or on the QT, that not many people knew this information,” Fleischer later testified.

Giving this sensitive information to a press secretary suggested that Libby was looking for ways to disseminate the news to the media. Fleischer then joined the presidential party on a five-day state visit to African capitals.

Get Wilson

Administration officials who stayed behind in Washington also stepped up their efforts to counteract Wilson’s Op-Ed.

Libby later testified before a federal grand jury that he was told by Cheney that Bush had approved a plan in which Libby would brief a specific New York Times reporter about portions of a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD.

On July 8, Libby spoke again with Times reporter Judith Miller about the NIE and about the Wilsons. In a two-hour interview over breakfast at the elegant St. Regis Hotel near the White House, Libby told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation.

Miller wrote down the words “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

That same day, Novak had his interview with Armitage. Novak later recalled that Armitage divulged Plame’s identity toward the end of an hour-long interview.

Armitage “told me unequivocally that Mrs. Wilson worked in the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division and that she had suggested her husband’s mission,” Novak wrote, adding that Armitage seemed to want the information published.
Armitage “noted that the story of Mrs. Wilson’s role fit the style of the old Evans-Novak column – implying to me that it [the column] continued reporting Washington inside information,” Novak wrote. [Novak’s column, Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2006]

Feeling encouraged by Armitage to disclose the Plame connection to Wilson’s trip, Novak contacted Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove, who confirmed the story as Novak’s second source.

“I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” Novak later told Newsday, adding that Bush administration officials “thought it was significant, they gave me the name.”

Meanwhile, to the administration’s dismay, the Niger-yellowcake deceit was dogging Bush’s Africa trip. At every stop, questions were asked about how the infamous “sixteen words” had ended up in the State of the Union speech.

Fleischer was finally forced to concede that the yellowcake allegation was “incorrect” and should not have been included in the speech. On July 11, CIA Director Tenet took the fall for the State of the Union screw-up, apologizing for not better vetting the speech.

“This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches,” Tenet said. The admission was one of the first times the Bush team had retreated on any national security issue. Administration officials were embarrassed, incensed and determined to punish Wilson.

Out of Africa

In later court testimony about the Plame leak, Ari Fleischer said he decided to give the CIA-wife-sent-Wilson-to-Africa tip to two reporters, NBC’s David Gregory and Time correspondent John Dickerson, as they strolled down a road in Uganda.

“If you want to know who sent the ambassador to Niger, it was his wife; she works there,” at the CIA, Fleischer said.

Dickerson said Fleischer was one of two administration officials who urged him to pursue the seemingly insignificant question of who had been involved in arranging Wilson’s trip.

But Dickerson didn’t recall Fleischer specifically identifying Wilson’s wife at that time, only prodding him to look in that direction. Both officials urged him to “go ask the CIA who sent Wilson” and that “Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee,” Dickerson recalled.

“At the end of the two conversations I wrote down in my notebook: ‘look who sent.’” Dickerson wrote. “What struck me was how hard both officials were working to knock down Wilson.” [John Dickerson, “Where’s My Subpoena?,” Slate, Feb. 7, 2006]

Back in Washington on July 11, Dickerson’s Time colleague, Matthew Cooper, was getting a similar earful from Rove, who tried to steer Cooper away from Wilson’s information on the Niger deception and toward the notion that the Niger trip was authorized by “Wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency [CIA] on WMD issues,” according to Cooper’s interview notes. [Newsweek, July 18, 2005, issue]

Cooper later got the information about Wilson’s wife confirmed by Cheney’s chief of staff Libby, who was peddling the same information to Judith Miller. On July 12, in a telephone conversation, Libby and Miller returned to the Wilson topic.

Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” apparently another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife, Valerie. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

But Miller, who was on the defensive inside The New York Times for her credulous reporting on the administration’s WMD claims, lacked the clout to push through the story about Wilson’s wife.

Naming Names

Two days later, on July 14, 2003, Novak published a column, citing two unnamed administration sources (Armitage and his ally Rove) outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilson’s Niger trip as a case of nepotism.

The disclosure of Plame’s identity effectively meant the end of her CIA career, exposure of her CIA front company Brewster Jennings, and put the lives of her overseas contacts in jeopardy. But the White House counterattack against Wilson had only just begun.

On July 20, 2003, NBC’s correspondent Andrea Mitchell told Wilson that “senior White House sources” had called her to stress “the real story here is not ‘the sixteen words’ but Wilson and his wife.”

The next day, Wilson said he was told by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says and I quote, ‘Wilson’s wife is fair game.’”

However, by September, CIA officials, angered by the damage done to Plame’s spy network, struck back. They lodged a complaint with the Justice Department that the leaks may have amounted to an illegal exposure of a CIA officer.

A White House official told The Washington Post that the administration had informed at least six reporters about Plame. The official said the disclosure was “purely and simply out of revenge.” [Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2003]

But the initial investigation was under the control of Attorney General John Ashcroft, considered a right-wing Bush loyalist. So, the President and other White House officials confidently denied any knowledge of the leak. Bush even vowed to fire anyone who leaked classified material.

“The President has set high standards, the highest of standards, for people in his administration,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said on Sept. 29, 2003. “If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.”

Bush personally announced 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 on Sept. 30. “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 Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters.

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 role and possibly to signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.

‘Sacrificial Lamb’

That is exactly what key White House officials did. In early October, press secretary McClellan said he had made inquiries and could report that political adviser Karl Rove and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams were not involved in the Plame leak.

That comment riled Libby, who feared that he was being hung out to dry. Libby went to his boss, Dick Cheney, and complained that “they’re trying to set me up; they want me to be the sacrificial lamb,” Libby’s lawyer Theodore Wells later said.

Cheney scribbled down his feelings in a note to McClellan: “Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others.” In the note, Cheney initially was ascribing Libby’s sacrifice to Bush but apparently thought better of it, crossing out “the Pres” and putting the clause in a passive tense.

On Oct. 4, 2003, McClellan added Libby to the list of officials who have “assured me that they were not involved in this.”

So, Libby had a motive to lie to the FBI when he was first interviewed about the case. He had gone to the mat with his boss to get his name cleared in the press, meaning it would make little sense to then admit involvement to FBI investigators.

“The White House had staked its credibility on there being no White House involvement in the leaking of information about Ms. Wilson,” a federal court filing later noted. For his part, Libby began claiming that he had first learned about Plame’s CIA identity from NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert after Wilson’s Op-Ed had appeared.

This White House cover-up might have worked, except in late 2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and Patrick Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as the special prosecutor.

Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively, even demanding that journalists testify about the White House leaks.

Attack Machine

Still, from 2003 to 2005, as the Plame-gate case grew into a political embarrassment for Bush, Republican operatives and their right-wing media allies continued to attack Wilson, sometimes joined by mainstream publications like the editorial page of The Washington Post.

Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay – and for reporting accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims – the Bush administration and its allies were unrelenting in tearing down the former ambassador.

The Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made derogatory claims about Wilson’s honesty in a report issued about the WMD controversy on July 7, 2004.

Contradicting Wilson’s assertion that he had found no evidence of an Iraqi-Niger uranium deal, the committee report said that “for most [intelligence] analysts, the information in the [Wilson] report lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal.”

That was a reference to the comment by former Prime Minister Mayaki that he had thought an Iraqi delegation might have been interested in yellowcake, although the topic was never raised and no negotiations were ever held.

The committee’s reference to “most analysts” referred to the CIA officials who were then pushing the Niger story and had latched on to this one inconsequential point. The committee report noted that “State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research analysts believed that the [Wilson] report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq.”

After the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, Wilson’s media enemies hurled the phrase “most analysts” against him, though it made no sense to blame Wilson for the fact that the CIA analysts who were wrong about the Niger-Iraq yellowcake suspicions outnumbered the State Department analysts who were right.

Indeed, the fact that the committee’s Republicans could push through this odd notion that a misguided majority somehow trumped an accurate minority shows how far the traditional concept of intelligence had drifted off course in George W. Bush’s Washington.

Committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, stood out as the most partisan leader to run the traditionally non-partisan intelligence oversight panel in its three-decade history.

Not satisfied with the slaps at Wilson in the full report, Roberts joined with two other right-wing Republicans, Christopher Bond and Orrin Hatch, to attach additional views to the report, asserting that Wilson’s criticism of the administration’s use of intelligence “had no basis in fact.”

A year later, on July 14, 2005, the Republican National Committee posted an article at the RNC Web site entitled “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which relied on glaring inaccuracies and misstatements of its own to further undermine Wilson’s credibility.

The RNC’s list led off with what had become one of the GOP’s favorite canards, that “Wilson insisted that the Vice President’s office sent him to Niger.” But Wilson had never made such an assertion and not even the RNC’s own citations supported the accusation.

To back up its charge, the RNC stated, “Wilson said he traveled to Niger at CIA request to help provide response to Vice President’s office.”

That was followed by a quote from Wilson: “In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report. … The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the Vice President’s office.”

The RNC then quoted Cheney as saying, “I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson.”

But nothing in the comments by Wilson and Cheney were in contradiction. Wilson simply said CIA officials sent him on a mission because of questions from Cheney’s office. Cheney said he didn’t know Wilson. Both statements were true, yet the RNC juxtaposed them to support a charge of dishonesty against Wilson.

This talking point and similar ones then reverberated through the giant right-wing echo chamber, creating a widespread public impression that Wilson was a liar. 

Libby Indicted

The drawn-out legal battle that arose from the Bush administration’s war on Wilson finally reached a head in fall 2005 after Fitzgerald forced many of the reporters who had received administration leaks to divulge what they knew.

Though Judith Miller never wrote about Plame’s identity, her conversations with Libby became central to Fitzgerald proving that Libby lied when he told FBI investigators that he first learned of Plame’s identity from Tim Russert.

After 85 days in jail for her refusal to reveal her source, Miller received from Libby what she regarded as an adequate waiver of her pledge of confidentiality. Even Libby’s waiver, however, suggested a conspiratorial relationship between the journalist and her source.

Libby sent Miller a friendly letter that read like an invitation to testify but also to stick with the team. “Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,” Libby wrote. “They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.”

On Oct. 28, 2005, after securing the reluctant testimony of Judith Miller, special prosecutor Fitzgerald obtained a five-count indictment of Lewis Libby for lying to the FBI, perjury before the grand jury and obstruction of justice.

Fitzgerald opted for a narrow criminal case centered on run-of-the-mill charges rather than daring to run the potential legal gauntlet of the largely untested Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

That law had been enacted with the goal of punishing CIA enemies, the likes of rogue CIA agent Philip Agee and others who outed covert agents as a means to sabotage U.S. intelligence activities.

In writing the law, Congress never anticipated the facts of the Plame case, that senior U.S. government officials would divulge the identity of a covert CIA officer as a way to discredit a spouse.

Despite those unusual circumstances, the law would seem to apply to the facts of the Plame case. Many of the Bush administration participants were aware of Plame’s covert status and knew that the U.S. government had classified her identity.

Arguably, Fitzgerald could have used the law to build a conspiracy case against some of the top administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, political adviser Rove, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage and conceivably Bush himself.

But Fitzgerald surely would have encountered a ferocious political counterattack, not to mention daunting legal obstacles. For instance, there might have been constitutional issues about a President’s inherent authority to declassify information and whether that power could be delegated to the Vice President.

If Libby, Rove and possibly Armitage were operating under instructions from Cheney or Bush, would that authorization constitute a defense? Could defense lawyers sabotage the case by demanding classified White House documents about the Wilson matter and then have Bush refuse to release the material? Might legal challenges over these issues tie up the case for years?

Iran-Contra

During the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had faced similar problems when defendants, such as former White House aide Oliver North, identified documents needed for the defense while old friends in the White House knew that by refusing to declassify the documents they could frustrate and kill the case.

Eventually, Walsh was forced to jettison his more ambitious criminal charges related to arms trafficking and money-laundering and focus only on narrower issues, such as North’s lying to Congress and accepting an illegal gift.
Rather than follow Walsh’s trail – starting out with ambitious charges and then retreating to more mundane ones – Fitzgerald started with the garden-variety crimes of perjury and obstruction, and only indicted Libby.

Some Americans, especially Iraq War critics, were deflated by Fitzgerald’s insistence that he would prosecute only clearly defined crimes stemming from the Plame case, not venture into a fuller narrative about the Bush administration’s justifications for war.

While denouncing Libby’s deceptions as a serious crime, Fitzgerald splashed cold water on the notion that his investigation might unravel a larger government conspiracy, even though one of his subsequent court filings asserted that the White House had engaged in a “concerted” effort to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” Wilson because of his criticism of the administration.

In the end, the consequences from the Bush administration’s determination to discredit a troublesome critic have already been severe. Libby’s conviction on four of the five counts means that he stands as a convicted felon. The White House also has suffered grave political damage.

However, the price exacted by the administration and its allies against the Wilson-Plame family has been steep, too. Valerie Plame was first sidetracked at the CIA because of the outing of her identity and finally quit the agency on Dec. 9, 2005.

Because of the administration’s bandying about of Plame’s covert identity in 2003, the CIA’s capability to track and expose nuclear proliferation networks was weakened. That has left the U.S. government partially blinded on other WMD questions, such as Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb.

Viewing that national security damage in the additional context of nearly four years of unrelenting bloodshed in Iraq, the even larger question being asked by many Americans remains: Why aren’t Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Richard Armitage and possibly George W. Bush in the dock alongside Libby?

As Denis Collins, one of the Libby jurors, explained after the verdict, “we’re not saying that we didn’t think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. But it seemed like he was … the fall guy.”

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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