Scooter Libby, Judy Miller and those turning aspens

What did Libby mean in his cryptic letter to Miller? She provides some clues.

Published January 31, 2007 1:25PM (EST)

Scooter Libby's September 2005 letter to the then imprisoned Judy Miller created one of the great enduring mysteries of the Valerie Plame saga. Urging Miller to give up her fight against Patrick Fitzgerald's subpoena, Libby wrote: "You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover -- Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work -- to life."

What did Libby mean by the all the tree talk? Miller hasn't been asked about the letter in Libby's trial yet, but the answers she gave Tuesday to another line of questions seem to have provided some clues.

Fitzgerald asked Miller if she'd ever had occasion to talk with Libby after the two meetings at which she said he told her that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Yes, she said, she ran into him in August 2003 at a rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Miller said she didn't recognize Libby at first; he was wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a black T-shirt and sunglasses, and she'd only seem him in suits before. Once Libby identified himself -- "Judy ... it's Scooter" -- Miller said that they talked for a bit. Fitzgerald asked Miller what they discussed. "It was just some banter about the meeting at Aspen I had just come from ... a meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group."

The Aspen Strategy Group was and is a veritable who's who of the Washington foreign policy-media establishment. Its co-chairmen are Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor for George H.W. Bush, and Joe Nye, who served in the State Department under Jimmy Carter and in the Defense Department under Bill Clinton. In August 2003, its members included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Jane Harman, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Times reporter David Sanger, a slew of think tank and foundation types -- and Miller herself.

So are members of the Aspen Strategy Group the "aspens" of which Libby wrote? They meet "out west," where Libby had seen Miller on vacation. And like arboreal aspens, the members of the group are closely "connected," not only at the "roots" -- early members of the group included Walter Mondale, Paul Nitze, Les Aspin, Zbigniew Brzezinski and and Robert McNamara -- but also at the branches. A profile of the group posted on its Web site says it's "credited" with launching many careers, including that of Condoleezza Rice; Scowcroft invited her to start attending meetings in the 1980s because, he said, "I thought I should get to know her better and introduce her to some of these groups who would move her along."

But if the members of the Aspen group are the aspens in Libby's letter, what did he mean when he said that they would "already be turning"? Some have suggested that Libby meant to say -- in between his not-so-subtle hints that Miller should testify that they had never talked about Joseph Wilson's wife -- that someone affiliated with the Aspen group had "turned" and begun cooperating with Fitzgerald's investigation. Maybe that's right, although the only flipped witness we've seen so far is Ari Fleischer, and he's not so Aspeny.

Libby may also may have been referring more generally to the growing unease about the war in Iraq among the Aspen group and other Americans.

The meeting Miller had attended in August 2003 focused on an "American Grand Strategy for the Middle East." According to a report from the meeting, members of the group reached a consensus that it was "imperative" for the United States to "succeed" in Iraq; that leaving the country in "tatters" would make the war appear to be a "cynical and perhaps fundamentally illegitimate use of American power"; and that "after setting the bar in terms of democratization and economic development so high," the United States was obliged to make "every possible effort to make Iraq a success both to validate American pre-war aims and to create a potential beacon in a troubled region."

But as Aspen Strategy Group director Kurt Campbell wrote in that report, "the entire security agenda" for the Middle East had "changed substantially" within five months of the group's meeting. Campbell had written before the meeting that a "successful transition to democracy and the establishment of a responsible, secular government in Iraq" could provide a "democratic domino effect across the desert." After the meeting ended, he wrote, bombings in Iraq and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire had both increased the stakes for the United States and made it "all the more difficult to implement a successful American grand strategy for the troubled region."

By the time Libby wrote to Miller in September 2005, Scowcroft had declared in an interview that the Iraq war was a "failing adventure" and that the Bush administration's go-it-alone approach was hurting relations with Europe. That may not have been a "turn," exactly -- Scowcroft had been a war skeptic from the beginning -- but true believers in the Office of the Vice President could well have seen it as a betrayal anyway.

Is that the sort of thing Libby meant when he said that aspens would be turning? Maybe we'll find out more when Miller's testimony resumes today or if and when Libby takes the stand later in the trial. Or maybe, as with so much else about Plamegate and the president's rush to war, we'll never really know.

By Tim Grieve

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

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