In early fall 2003, George W. Bush joined in what appears to have been a criminal cover-up to conceal the role of his White House in exposing the classified identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.

That is the logical conclusion one would draw from a new statement by then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan when it is put into a mosaic with previously known evidence.

McClellan says President Bush was one of five high-ranking officials who caused McClellan to lie to the public in clearing Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby of any responsibility for the leak of Plame’s employment as an undercover intelligence officer.

“The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” McClellan said. “So I stood at the White House briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

“There was one problem. It was not true.

“I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the Vice President, the President’s chief of staff, and the President himself.”

McClellan’s comments were part of a press release from his publisher regarding McClellan’s memoir, which is scheduled to reach the book stores next April.

Though the press release didn’t add more details about Bush’s role, earlier evidence already had implicated Bush in the outing of Plame after her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had gone public in July 2003, disclosing that Bush had used false information to frighten the American people about Iraq’s alleged nuclear program.

To discredit Wilson, Bush administration officials began telling reporters about Plame’s CIA job to suggest that an early 2002 investigation that Wilson undertook for the CIA into reports about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger was the result of nepotism.

Though several reporters balked at blowing Plame’s covert identity, right-wing columnist Robert Novak revealed it in a column on July 14, 2003. It was later learned that Novak was relying on information from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and his friend, Karl Rove. Libby and other White House officials had been peddling the same information to other journalists.

At the time, the smear campaign represented a classic dirty trick by Bush’s White House, which was becoming famous for using hard-ball tactics against political adversaries. However, this time, the collateral damage included the destruction of a sensitive intelligence network that Plame managed.

CIA Protest

The case took another serious turn in September when 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.

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 had leaked the classified material.

“The President has set high standards, the highest of standards, for people in his administration,” 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 his determination 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.

Also, since the various conspirators knew that Bush already was in the know, they would have read his comments as a signal to lie, which is what they did. In early October, press secretary McClellan said he 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 press secretary 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 had gone public.

This White House cover-up might have worked, except in late 2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and Deputy Attorney General James Comey picked Patrick Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – to serve as special prosecutor.

Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively. Over the next three-plus years, the Plame-gate affair would become a slow-growing infection eating away at White House credibility, despite the best efforts of the President’s political and media allies to confuse the issue or to shift the blame onto Wilson.

In October 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Libby on five counts of lying to federal investigators and obstructing an investigation. Libby was convicted on four of five counts in March 2007 and sentenced to 30 months in jail, but Bush commuted Libby’s sentence to spare him any jail time. That also eliminated any incentive for Libby to turn state’s evidence against Bush and Cheney.

Now, however, McClellan has become the first White House insider to acknowledge the original lies that senior administration told about the Plame-gate affair – and to put the President in the middle of the cover-up.

The next question might reasonably be: what are the Democrats in Congress going to do about it?

[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com's "Time to Apologize to Wilson/Plame" or our new book, Neck Deep.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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