News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005 News - International - Cheney drawn into row on exposure of CIA agent


DICK Cheney, the United States vice-president, yesterday found himself drawn uncomfortably deeper into a web of allegations over how a covert CIA operative came to be unmasked.

Previously undisclosed notes of a conversation between Mr Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on 12 June, 2003, have put the spotlight on the vice-president's possible role in the unmasking of Valerie Plame and appear to run counter to Mr Libby's testimony to a federal grand jury that he first learned about her from newspaper reporters.

A federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, is investigating whether Ms Plame's identity was improperly disclosed, and the latest development came as he appeared close to indicting top White House officials in the two-year investigation, lawyers involved in the case said.

Mr Fitzgerald's investigation has focused largely on Mr Libby and Karl Rove, George Bush's closest political adviser, and their conversations with reporters about Ms Plame in June and July 2003. Her identity was leaked to the media after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, challenged the Bush administration's pre-war intelligence on Iraq, especially concerning the purchase of uranium.

Ms Plame had been working as an analyst for a Boston-based energy company - "a working soccer mom", in the view of one of her neighbours. In reality, however, she was a clandestine CIA agent and an expert on weapons of mass destruction.

Any indictments against top White House officials would be a severe blow to an administration already at a low point in public opinion, and would put a spotlight on aggressive tactics it has used to counter critics of its Iraq policy.

The New York Times reported yesterday that notes of the 2003 conversation between Mr Libby and Mr Cheney appear to differ from the former's testimony that he first heard of Ms Plame from journalists. The paper said its sources were lawyers involved in the case.

Yesterday, the White House was evasive on the matter, which Mr Bush has described as "very serious". The president's press secretary, Scott McClellan, said. "We're not having any further comment on the investigation while it's ongoing."

Mr McClellan said Mr Cheney was doing a "great job" as vice-president and that his public comments had always been truthful.

Mr Libby has been at the centre of Mr Fitzgerald's criminal investigation in recent weeks because of his conversations about Ms Plame with a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. She said Mr Libby spoke to her about Ms Plame and her husband on three occasions - although not necessarily by name and without indicating that he knew she was undercover.

Ms Miller was imprisoned for 85 days for contempt for refusing to reveal who gave her information about Ms Plame until Mr Fitzgerald apparently interceded with her source, Mr Libby, to give her a personal waiver and allow her to testify about their conversations.

Mr Libby's notes show that the vice-president knew Ms Plame worked at the CIA more than a month before her identity was publicly exposed by Robert Novak, a newspaper columnist.

At the time of the Cheney-Libby conversation, Ms Plame had been referred to - but not by name - in the New York Times and on 12 June, 2003, on the front page of the Washington Post.

According to yesterday's New York Times, Mr Libby's notes indicate Mr Cheney got his information about Ms Plame from George Tenet, then director of the CIA, but said there was no indication he knew her name. The notes contain no suggestion that the vice-president or his chief of staff knew at the time about Ms Plame's undercover status or that her identity was classified.

Disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent can be a crime, but only if the person who discloses it knows the agent is classified as working undercover. Lawyers involved in the case are reported as saying they had no indication Mr Fitzgerald was considering charging the vice-president with a crime.

But the New York Times said any efforts by Mr Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Mr Cheney might be viewed by a prosecutor as an attempt to impede the inquiry, which could be a crime.

A former intelligence official close to Mr Tenet says the former CIA chief has not been in touch with Mr Fitzgerald's staff for more than 15 months and was not asked to testify before the grand jury, even though he was interviewed by Mr Fitzgerald and his staff. Mr Tenet has declined to comment publicly on the investigation.

Mr Fitzgerald is expected to decide this week whether to seek criminal indictments in the case. Mr Fitzgerald quizzed Mr Cheney under oath more than a year ago, but it is not known what the vice-president told him.

Mr Cheney has said little in public about what he knew. In September 2003, he told NBC television he did not know Joseph Wilson or who sent him on a trip to Niger in 2002 to check into intelligence that Iraq may have been seeking to buy uranium there. "I don't know Mr Wilson ... I have no idea who hired him," he said.

The Cheney-Libby conversation occurred on the same day the Washington Post published a front-page story about the CIA sending a retired diplomat to Africa, where he was unable to corroborate intelligence that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium yellowcake from Niger. That diplomat was Mr Wilson.

A year after his trip, Mr Bush cited British intelligence in his State of the Union address as suggesting that Iraq was pursuing uranium in Africa.


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