What Did Cheney Know, and When Did He Know It?

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

November 1, 2005

Come on, Mr. Vice President, tell us what happened.

A federal indictment charges that criminality swirled around your office, and it demeans this administration and the entire country when you hide in your bunker and refuse to say whether you knew of any such activities.

Five lawyers I've consulted all agree that there is no compelling legal reason why you should not discuss the situation. It's urgent that you clear the air by answering these questions in a televised news conference:

Did you ask Scooter Libby to undertake his inquiries about Ambassador Joseph Wilson? Mr. Libby made such a concerted push to get information, from both the State Department and the C.I.A., that I suspect that you prodded him. Is that right? If so, why?

Why did you independently ask the C.I.A. for information about the Wilsons? The indictment states that on June 12, 2003, you advised Mr. Libby that you had learned, apparently from the C.I.A., that Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie, worked in the agency. So did you ask George Tenet, then the director, about Mr. and Mrs. Wilson? Did you review the related documents that the C.I.A. faxed to your office?

Did you know that Mrs. Wilson was a covert officer? The indictment states that you knew she worked in the C.I.A.'s counterproliferation division. You would think that anyone as steeped in intelligence issues as you are would know that meant she worked in the Directorate of Operations and was perhaps a spook's spook.

Did you advise Mr. Libby to leak information about Mrs. Wilson's work in the C.I.A. to journalists? Mr. Libby flew with you on Air Force Two on July 12, 2003, and according to the indictment, one of the issues Mr. Libby discussed onboard the plane (with you?) was how to deal with the news media. Within hours, the indictment charges, Mr. Libby told two reporters that Mrs. Wilson worked in the agency.

When Mr. Libby made his statements in the inquiry - allegedly committing perjury - were you aware of what he was saying? Mr. Libby rode to work with you almost every morning, but this topic never came up?

Was Mr. Libby fearful of disclosing something about your behavior in the summer of 2003? Mr. Libby is renowned for his caution, yet he is alleged to have suddenly embarked upon a high-risk campaign of leaks and lies. If he did do that, was it a misguided attempt to protect you? The alleged lies shielded you by indicating that the information you gave him about Mrs. Wilson instead came from reporters.

Would the truth have been so potentially damaging to your position that Mr. Libby chose perjury instead?

My guess is that there was no malevolent conspiracy to "out" Mrs. Wilson. Rather, my hunch is that you and Mr. Libby were enraged at what you perceived as false suggestions that you had been personally responsible for sending Mr. Wilson to Niger and had then ignored his findings.

I'm speculating that you may have thought that you were just knocking down unfair exaggerations and rumors - and then Mrs. Wilson's identity was disclosed to suggest that she was more responsible for sending him to Niger than you were.

And once a criminal investigation began, perhaps Mr. Libby didn't want to acknowledge that you were knee-deep in actions that at a minimum looked petty and unseemly.

Whatever happened, Mr. Vice President, the American public deserves some reassurance. If you had nothing to do with any of this, then say so. But don't cower behind your lawyers. As it is, you're pleading "no contest" in the court of public opinion, and that's painful for all of us who want to believe in the integrity of our government.

When Richard Nixon was a candidate for vice president and embroiled in scandal, he addressed the charges in his Checkers speech: "The best and only answer to a smear or to an honest misunderstanding of the facts is to tell the truth." (Mr. Vice President, any time a columnist quotes Nixon to you in an exhortation to be honest, you're in trouble.)

Even when Spiro Agnew was embroiled in a criminal investigation, he tried to explain himself, repeatedly. Do you really want to be less forthcoming than Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew?

We don't need to try to turn this into Watergate, and we don't need gloating from the Democrats. But we do need straight talk from you. The indictment has left a cloud that impedes governing, and if we're to move on, we need you to clear the air.

So, Mr. Cheney, tell us what happened. If you're afraid to say what you knew, and when you knew it, then you should resign.