What the Libby testimony proves (and doesn't prove)

A deeper look at what the vice president's former chief of staff's grand jury testimony tells us about the Plame case.


Farhad Manjoo
April 6, 2006 11:24PM (UTC)

Like people all over the blogosphere today, I've spent the past few hours keenly reviewing documents filed by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the ongoing Valerie Plame leak case. (The court filing was obtained by the New York Sun; Salon has posted a PDF version here; Talking Points Memo has a handy clickable Web version here.) As I noted earlier, the blockbuster news is that Libby has testified that President Bush specifically allowed him to provide to the press information from the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a classified document. But this news sparks many questions.

What does this have to do with the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity? Not that much. As I pointed out earlier, Libby has not testified that President Bush or Dick Cheney told him to tell reporter Judith Miller that Joseph Wilson was married to an undercover operative named Valerie Plame. What we know about who leaked Plame's status to the press is this: That an unnamed official talked to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward about Plame in mid-June of 2003, and that, according to prosecutors, Libby discussed her status with Miller on July 8, 2003. The new document doesn't add anything to this.

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So is there any news here about the Plame leak? Yes. What this does tell us is what Bush and Cheney knew about Libby's meeting with Miller on July 8, when, according to prosecutors, he disclosed to her that Plame worked for the CIA.

To put it simply, the document suggests that the president and the vice president knew a lot more than they've let on in the past; it directly contradicts the White House's assertion that there was no high-level effort to fight back against Wilson's claims. We now know that, according to Libby, Bush and Cheney were aware that he was going to meet with a reporter to discuss why the administration believed that what Wilson was saying was bogus. Indeed, Bush, according to Libby, took the step of specifically declassifying information so that Libby could present a stronger case to the reporter. This doesn't mean that Bush authorized the leaking of Plame's identity, but it does suggest he wasn't sitting on the sidelines when the White House was fighting Wilson's claims.

Indeed, the document indicates that the White House viewed Wilson's claims as very damaging to public support for the war, and that the steps it took to fight back were extraordinary. Libby testified that "this July 8th meeting was the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the President's authorization that it be disclosed," the court filing states.

The document sheds particular light on Cheney's role in the administration's fight against Wilson's claims: Cheney was deeply involved. For instance, on July 12, 2003, Cheney asked Libby to replace Cathie Martin, who usually handled communications for the vice president, and talk to reporters personally "regarding the NIE and Wilson." The court document says: "Defendant was instructed to provide what was for him an extremely rare 'on the record' statement, and to provide 'background' and 'deep background' statements, and to provide information contained in a document defendant understood to be the cable authored by Mr. Wilson." ("Defendant" here means Libby.)

Did Bush break the law in allowing Libby to talk about the NIE? Probably not. An executive order issued by Bush in March 2003 gives the president and vice president specific authority to declassify documents at will. (See Sec. 1.3 here.) It is plausible, if not likely, that the president's authorization of Libby to talk to Miller about the NIE amounted to declassifying the document.

What is somewhat peculiar about the declassification, though, is how secretive the president and vice president were about it. According to the court filing, Libby told the grand jury that "at the time of his conversations with Miller and [Matthew] Cooper, he understood that only three people -- the President, the Vice President and defendant -- knew that the key judgments of the NIE had been declassified." The filing continues: "Defendant testified in the grand jury that he understood that even in the days following his conversation with Ms. Miller, other key officials -- including Cabinet level officials -- were not made aware of the earlier declassification even as those officials were pressed to carry out a declassification of the NIE, the report about Wilson's trip and another classified document dated January 24, 2003."

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It was only on July 18 -- more than a week after Libby met with Miller and discussed the document -- that the White House gave the declassified NIE to other reporters and conducted a briefing on it.

Does this contradict Bush's statements on what might happen to leakers? It isn't clear. Bush has repeatedly claimed that he didn't know who leaked Plame's identity and that anyone who did so would be punished.

Think Progress lists his very definitive statements on this: Sept. 30, 2003: "There's just too many leaks, and if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is." Oct. 8, 2003: "I want to know the truth I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is, partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers." Oct. 28, 2003: "I'd like to know if somebody in my White House did leak sensitive information."

The new filing doesn't technically contradict these statements for two reasons: 1) We still don't know if Bush knew who leaked Plame's identity, and 2) if Bush authorized Libby to disclose the information in the NIE, then you could argue that by definition Libby wasn't leaking because the information was no longer classified and Libby had permission.

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Of course, this would be a very legalistic way to avoid admitting that Bush lied -- not very different from arguing about the definition of "is." Indeed, it will be interesting to see if the White House defends Bush's previous tough-on-leaks position in light of this evidence that he played a key role in disclosing intelligence data as part of a public relations effort.

That, though, can only happen if reporters ask the White House about this new document. Which, as Think Progress points out, they did not do today.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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