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

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Disclosures Are Called Unrelated To Plame Case

The revelation of former White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's involvement in authorized disclosures of sensitive intelligence information does not undermine Libby's contention that he innocently forgot about conversations he may have had with reporters regarding covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, Libby's attorney said yesterday.

The lawyer, William Jeffress, was responding to allegations by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald in a court filing Wednesday that President Bush authorized Libby to disclose classified intelligence information on Iraq to a reporter. That was done, Fitzgerald alleged, because an angry White House was seeking to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who claimed in a July 2003 newspaper article that the administration had deliberately distorted intelligence about Iraq.

Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, was indicted last October on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to a grand jury and investigators about his conversations with reporters that mentioned Plame's name. Jeffress argued that the information in Fitzgerald's filing is irrelevant to Libby's defense: that he forgot about those conversations as he dealt with crucial national security issues.

Jeffress said Fitzgerald's revelation about Libby's disclosure of information from a CIA National Intelligence Estimate "is a complete sidelight" to his accusation that Libby deliberately lied. "It's got nothing to do with Wilson's wife," Jeffress said in a brief interview, adding that Libby continues to expect to be exonerated at trial.

Fitzgerald said in Wednesday's court papers that Libby secretly divulged sensitive information to reporters drawn from the previously classified NIE about Iraq -- and that Cheney told him Bush had declassified the information and authorized the effort.

Fitzgerald's filing was meant specifically to undermine Libby's claim that the issue of the CIA's employment of Plame was of "peripheral" interest to Libby at the time. He said in the filing that leaks regarding Plame were meant to embarrass Wilson by suggesting his wife had organized a CIA-sponsored trip by Wilson to probe Iraq's alleged purchase of nuclear material -- in short, to suggest his trip resulted from nepotism.

Fitzgerald argued, in essence, that the White House effort to rebut Wilson's criticism was so intense, and so preoccupying, that Libby could not have forgotten what he said about Plame. Fitzgerald also noted that Plame's employment was specifically raised as a relevant matter by Cheney, who had directed Libby to disclose information from the NIE.

Lawyers who have been closely following the case offered contrasting views of the impact Fitzgerald's allegations would have on Libby's defense.

Republican lawyer and former federal prosecutor Joseph E. diGenova said "it is not material in any way to what he charged, which is perjury." But Richard A. Sauber, a lawyer who represents Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, one of the reporters who wrote about Plame after talking to Libby, said "the whole thing undercuts Libby's defense that he was too busy on other things" to recall the Plame matter.

"You cannot say that it is unimportant and something you forgot" when the president and vice president were directly involved in a related issue, Sauber said.

The filing also posed challenges yesterday for White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who struggled to reconcile conflicting statements he made about whether and when the government had declassified the sensitive intelligence information at issue.

According to Fitzgerald, Libby testified before a grand jury that President Bush and Cheney authorized the release of that information shortly before Libby's meeting with New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003. The information was drawn from the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the CIA about Iraq's interest in weapons of mass destruction.

But 10 days later, McClellan told reporters at the White House that the estimate had been "officially declassified today" -- July 18, 2003 -- making no mention of the earlier declassification that Libby described in his sworn testimony. If that statement was correct, reporters pointed out, then the material was still classified at the time Libby disclosed it.

McClellan yesterday declined to give a detailed explanation for the contradiction, explaining that the White House never comments on pending investigations. But he also tried to clarify his 2003 remarks to reporters, stating that what he meant on July 18 of that year when he said the material had been declassified that day was that it was "officially released" that day.

"I think that's what I was referring to at the time," he said.

McClellan said he would not comment directly on the report that Bush declassified intelligence data to rebut a war critic, but he insisted the president has the constitutional right to do so. He also said the White House draws a distinction between leaking classified information that jeopardizes U.S. sources, methods and lives and disclosing sensitive information "when it is in the public interest."

One former administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing political strategy, said rebutting Wilson and other critics was an obsession of Cheney, Libby and many others then inside the Bush White House. Other officials said there were frequent discussions about declassifying information to buttress the Bush argument for war. In several cases, this resulted in release of such information, but only after it went through the usual declassification process.

The declassification divulged by Fitzgerald was unusual, the prosecutor said. Libby testified that he understood that only three officials -- Bush, Cheney and Libby -- knew about it. No one outside the White House was consulted.

Libby also leaked information from the National Intelligence Estimate to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post prior to the date that the White House said it was officially declassified. In sworn testimony, Woodward told Fitzgerald that on June 27, 2003 -- 11 days before the Libby-Miller conversation -- Libby told him about the CIA estimate and an Iraqi effort to obtain "yellowcake" uranium in Africa, according to a statement Woodward released on Nov. 14, 2005.

In an interview, Woodward said his notes, which were not released publicly but were shown to Fitzgerald, included Libby using the word "vigorous" to describe the Iraqi effort. Libby used similar language when he provided the NIE information Bush declassified to Miller at their July 8, 2003, meeting, according to Fitzgerald's filing.

The precise status of the information at the time Libby provided it to Woodward is unclear because of conflicting accounts of the declassification process provided by Libby and McClellan. Fitzgerald's court filing does not provide the date when Bush and Cheney -- who have both been interviewed by the special prosecutor -- said they authorized Libby's disclosures.