Trial Spotlights Cheney’s Power at the White House

JIM RUTENBERG

New York Times

February 19, 2007

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 — A picture taking shape from hours of testimony and reams of documents in the trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. shatters any notion that the White House was operating as a model of cohesion throughout President Bush’s first term.

The trial against Mr. Libby has centered on a narrow case of perjury, with days of sparring between the defense and prosecution lawyers over the numbing details of three-year-old conversations between White House officials and journalists. But a close reading of the testimony and evidence in the case is more revelatory, bringing into bolder relief a portrait of a vice president with free rein to operate inside the White House as he saw fit in order to debunk the charges of a critic of the war in Iraq.

The evidence in the trial shows Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Libby, his former chief of staff, countermanding and even occasionally misleading colleagues at the highest levels of Mr. Bush’s inner circle as the two pursued their own goal of clearing the vice president’s name in connection with flawed intelligence used in the case for war.

The testimony in the trial, which is heading for final arguments as early as Tuesday, calls into question whether Mr. Cheney, known as a consummate inside player, operated as effectively as his reputation would hold. For all of his machinations, Mr. Cheney’s efforts sometimes faltered as he tried, with the help of Mr. Libby, to push back against critics during a crucial period in the early summer of 2003, when Mr. Bush’s initial case for war was beginning to fall apart. In some of their efforts, Mr. Cheney and his agent, Mr. Libby, appeared even maladroit in the art of news management.

While others on the White House team were primarily concerned about Mr. Bush, the evidence has shown that Mr. Libby had a more acute concern about his own boss. Unbeknownst to their colleagues, according to testimony, the two carried out a covert public relations campaign to defend not only the case for war but also Mr. Cheney’s connection to the flawed intelligence.

In doing so, they used some of the most sensitive and classified intelligence data available, information others on Mr. Bush’s team was not yet prepared to put to use in a public fight against a war critic.

A Quiet Scramble

At one point in the trial an adviser to Mr. Cheney recounted leaving a room in discomfort when she heard Mr. Libby sharing information from one of the government’s most highly classified documents, not knowing Mr. Libby had secret presidential approval in hand. In his own testimony, Mr. Libby told of a failed effort to stanch negative coverage from Chris Matthews of MSNBC by trying to exploit a rivalry between him and Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief at NBC News.

Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby were trying in particular to distance the vice president from an assertion that Saddam Hussein had sought large quantities of nuclear material in Africa that was ultimately deemed questionable.

Mr. Cheney was given ownership of the claim by a former ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who wrote in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on July 6, 2003, that he had been dispatched to Africa because of questions by Mr. Cheney’s office. Mr. Wilson wrote that he returned from Africa highly doubtful about the claim and reported that to the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

When Mr. Bush repeated the claim months later — in a 16-word sentence of his 2003 State of the Union address weeks before the Iraq invasion — Mr. Wilson wrote that he was compelled to question publicly whether Mr. Cheney had ignored his findings because they were inconvenient to the case against Iraq.

Even prosecution witnesses have testified that while Mr. Cheney had asked for more information about the accusation that Mr. Hussein sought uranium in Africa more than a year before the invasion, he did not know that Mr. Wilson was sent to investigate. And, witnesses said at trial, he did not learn about the trip until Mr. Wilson began to make his case publicly. This might explain why Mr. Cheney was so intent on debunking Mr. Wilson.

News of Mr. Wilson’s mission, its findings and Mr. Cheney’s supposed role in his assignment first surfaced two months before he stepped forward with his article, in reports that described him only as an anonymous former ambassador. Mr. Wilson decided to reveal himself after concluding that his anonymous account was not being taken seriously enough, according to testimony.

But those earlier reports prompted a quiet scramble by Mr. Libby to figure out who this anonymous ambassador was, who had sent him on his mission and what had happened with his findings. By the time Mr. Wilson came forward, Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney knew that Mr. Wilson had been dispatched to Africa by the C.I.A. unit where his wife, Valerie, worked. The eventual exposure of her identity as a covert operative set forth the investigation that led to Mr. Libby’s trial this year.

Mr. Libby faces charges that he lied to authorities who were looking into whether, in defending against Mr. Wilson’s accusations, the administration intentionally exposed the identity of Mrs. Wilson to undercut her husband and clear Mr. Cheney. A jury will decide if Mr. Libby misled investigators or, as his defense asserts, lost track of what he said or learned amid a hectic schedule.

White House officials denied several requests for comment about the testimony and the story it generally tells, citing a reluctance to comment on anything involving the trial.

Declassifying and Leaking

Mr. Wilson’s July 6 article was, in Mr. Libby’s view, “a very serious attack.” In his grand jury testimony, which was shared in the current trial, he said the charges amounted to a potentially severe blow to the administration credibility.

And the day after the Op-Ed article ran, the president’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said the White House had lost confidence in the uranium assertion.

Mr. Libby’s notes from a White House meeting of senior presidential advisers on the morning of July 8 — the sort of meeting that staff members rarely discuss publicly — read, “Uranium story is becoming a question of the president’s trustworthiness.” The notes quote Karl Rove, the presidential adviser tasked with Mr. Bush’s re-election, as lamenting, “Now they have accepted Joe Wilson as credible expert.” The notes reflected a general concern that the White House was not moving swiftly enough to contain the damage.

What others present at that White House meeting did not know was that Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney were already conducting their own quiet campaign. Its purpose was to show not only that the White House had ample reason to believe the flawed intelligence even after Mr. Wilson’s mission but also to defend against Mr. Cheney’s alleged connection to the uranium claim.

Mr. Libby testified to the grand jury that an angry Mr. Cheney had by then already directed him to approach a reporter he regarded as suitable, Judith Miller of The New York Times, to make his case. Mr. Libby was under instruction to describe the vice president’s ignorance of Mr. Wilson’s mission and to discuss parts of the National Intelligence Estimate from October 2002 as well as another intelligence document showing the C.I.A. continued promoting the theory about Iraq’s efforts to acquire uranium months after Mr. Wilson’s trip.

The release of the intelligence estimate was a sensitive issue. Others in the administration had considered doing so that spring when Mr. Wilson’s claim first surfaced, but faced resistance from the C.I.A. One investigator questioned in the trial testified that Mr. Libby’s notes indicated that George J. Tenet, then director of central intelligence, was personally opposed to doing so.

Mr. Libby said he found a way around that resistance by getting backdoor approval from the president. In a hush-hush meeting described in testimony, Mr. Libby asked the vice president’s chief counsel, David S. Addington, whether the president could declassify intelligence personally, effectively without C.I.A. knowledge or approval.

Mr. Addington testified that as he explained to Mr. Libby that indeed the president could do so, Mr. Libby shushed him. “He extended his hands out and pushed down a little like that, that would indicate, ‘Hold your voice down,’ ” Mr. Addington said at the trial. Mr. Libby testified that Mr. Cheney then went to Mr. Bush and got a presidential declassification.

White House officials have said Mr. Bush did not know how Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby intended to use the intelligence.

Mr. Libby’s attempt to use the newly declassified data with Ms. Miller failed. He met with her for two hours at the St. Regis Hotel on July 8.

But, as Mr. Libby told the grand jury, going to Ms. Miller was “a poor choice” because she never used the information.

Cathie Martin, Mr. Cheney’s former communications director, recalled her discomfort at seeing Mr. Libby reading from the estimate later in the day while he called back reporters covering the story, at Mr. Cheney’s direction, among them Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.

Other senior officials were perplexed when they apparently saw some of Mr. Libby’s handiwork from those phone calls in action. After Ms. Mitchell reported that night on NBC News that “The White House blamed an October C.I.A. report for ignoring Wilson’s information,” the president’s deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, indicated that he had got an earful from Mr. Tenet, according to Ms. Martin’s testimony.

Ms. Martin testified that at a senior staff meeting the following morning Mr. Hadley strongly hinted he thought she was responsible and told her the finger-pointing had been a disservice to the president. According to Ms. Martin’s testimony, Mr. Libby let her take the blame and “looked down” as Mr. Hadley shared his chagrin. Mr. Cheney, she said, later told her not to worry about it.

Spinning Wheels

It was one of several times when Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney were portrayed as disregarding Mr. Hadley, who now holds Condoleezza Rice’s former title of national security adviser but was then her second in command.

At a meeting on July 10, Mr. Hadley had suggested to Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney that the intelligence estimate could be leaked to a friendly reporter, Mr. Libby testified that his notes said. But neither he nor Mr. Cheney told Mr. Hadley that they had started trying to do so days earlier.

But all the same, their effort was by no means a smashing success.

Mr. Libby was frustrated that Mr. Matthews of MSNBC, for instance, was continuing to assert that Mr. Cheney had ignored Mr. Wilson’s findings.

His notes indicate that Mary Matalin, the longtime Cheney political adviser, suggested that he call Mr. Russert to complain. NBC is a co-owner of MSNBC. “Call Tim. He hates Chris,” Mr. Libby’s notes read, according to testimony. His later call to Mr. Russert, he lamented to the grand jury, did not bear fruit.

The notes also indicated that Ms. Matalin said the White House needed a “Tenet-like” statement to clear the president. In fact, Mr. Tenet released a statement the following day — after tense negotiations with Mr. Libby and Mr. Hadley — taking responsibility for the bad intelligence.

Mr. Fleischer testified that he was pleased with the statement as the president’s spokesman; Ms. Martin testified that it did not go far enough from the perspective of her office. And under the direction of the vice president, Mr. Libby continued his public relations push.

With the West Wing and the C.I.A. seemingly in open feud, it ultimately fell to Mr. Hadley to step forward and say on July 22 that it was his fault that the questionable claim wound up in the president’s speech.