Cheney and Libby, a little vague on the details

For a man said to be obsessed with Joseph Wilson, the vice president's chief of staff sure seems to have a hard time remembering how it all started.

Topics: Dick Cheney, War Room,

When Dick Cheney appeared on “Meet the Press” on Sept. 14, 2003, he gave the impression that he didn’t know much about Joseph Wilson. Tim Russert asked the vice president if he’d been briefed on Wilson’s report from Niger. Cheney said no. “I don’t know Joe Wilson,” he said. “I’ve never met Joe Wilson.” He explained how Wilson’s report might have come to be, but then he reiterated that he didn’t know Wilson and didn’t know who had hired him to go to Niger. When Russert interrupted and said, “The CIA did,” Cheney said, “Who in the CIA, I don’t know.”

In fact, it now appears that Cheney knew quite a lot about Wilson by September 2003. Three months earlier, on June 12, 2003, the Washington Post had run a front-page story in which it said that a former diplomat — it was Wilson, but the Post didn’t use his name — was questioning the administration’s use of intelligence on Iraq. Later that same day, the New York Times reports, Cheney had a conversation about Wilson with his chief of staff, Scooter Libby. In that conversation, Libby’s notes show, Cheney revealed to Libby that he knew that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and that she may have helped arrange his trip to Niger.

Cheney told Libby that he learned about Valerie Plame — he didn’t use her name — from then CIA Director George Tenet, Libby’s notes say. The notes don’t say when Cheney got this knowledge or why the vice president and the director of the CIA might have been discussing the marital status of those involved in assessing the intelligence that led to the Iraq war. But there are clues. As the Washington Post reported back in July, Wilson was “on the administration’s radar screen” long before the Post’s June 12, 2003, story appeared. On May 6, 2003, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in which he said that a source had told him that Cheney’s office had asked for an investigation of Iraq’s alleged uranium deal with Niger and that “a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger” to check it out. Kristof said that the ambassador’s report had been “passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted — except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.”

Did Kristof’s column or the Post’s June 12, 2003, story prompt Cheney to ask Tenet for details? That seems likely: If you were the vice president and your office was being implicated in a story that involved the debunking of claims the president made as he took the nation to war, you’d probably want a little more information, too. But once Cheney knew about Wilson’s wife, why did he feel the need to tell Libby? What did he want his chief of staff to do with that information? Libby’s notes don’t say much on that point, and neither does Libby: After all, he has apparently told the grand jury that he learned Wilson’s wife’s identity from journalists.

Why did Libby say that journalists told him about Plame when it now appears that the vice president did? We don’t know the answer to that one, either, but it’s hard to think that the testimonial misdirection was an innocent mistake. As the Los Angeles Times reported the other day, Libby was so angry when Wilson went public with his criticism in July 2003 that he began monitoring all of Wilson’s public comments and urging the White House to launch an aggressive campaign against him. The intensity of Libby’s interest in Wilson left colleagues “puzzled,” the L.A. Times says, and he pushed until at least April 2004, when White House staffers were told to stand down and leave Wilson alone.

You get yourself so obsessed about somebody, you’d think you’d have a pretty good memory of how the whole thing started. So how is it that Libby found himself saying that a journalist told him about Plame, even though all the journalists identified as candidates so far have said that they didn’t? Probably the same way that his boss found himself suggesting that he didn’t know much about Wilson, either. They don’t call Scooter Libby “Cheney’s Cheney” for nothing.

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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