Ewen MacAskill / The Guardian – 2007-03-06 22:50:44
The CIA Agent, Her Husband and a Leak:
How High-flying Bush Aide Fell to Earth
WASHINGTON (March 7, 2007) — The downfall of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, one of the leading figures in the Bush administration, was completed yesterday. The man who had swaggered round the White House as chief of staff to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, was subdued as he listened to the verdict in courtroom 17 of the US district court, within walking distance of his former office.
Libby had looked confident when he appeared in court to hear the verdict. But as he was found guilty on the first of five charges he blinked and seemed surprised. As each verdict was announced, the blinking became more pronounced.
And so ended the political career of one of the Bush ideologues, part of the original neoconservative group known as the Vulcans who advocated an aggresessive foreign policy, in particular the invasion of Iraq.
The six-week trial, with its parade of witnesses from the administration, offered a rare insight into the workings of the obsessively secretive White House. It also provided more than a glimpse of the often unsavoury relationship between the administration and the media insiders.
Witnesses provided a view of daily life inside the White House, revealing an administration paranoid about the media, and extremely sensitive about criticism.
A White House staffer revealed what Washington journalists have long suspected: that bad news should be released late on a Friday when most of the media are not paying attention or on the assumption that most stories that appear on a Saturday are not followed up.
Run-up to War
But the real importance of the trial was the insight it offered into the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The case coincided with a shift in US public opinion from support for the war to scepticism and outright hostility, and confirmed the growing suspicion that the public had been misled.
The case was complex but it began simply enough with 16 words uttered by Mr Bush in his state of the union speech two months before the invasion. He said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
That statement was untrue. The CIA advised the president that it was sceptical about the claim – advice which Mr Bush ignored. Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador opposed to war, went to Niger to check the claim He concluded it was nonsense, and said so in an article in the New York Times shortly after the invasion.
This appears to have enraged Mr Bush and Mr Cheney, according to witnesses during the trial. In what could have been an act of retribution, there was a leak to the press that Mr Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was apparently a CIA covert agent. As a result of her identity being made public, she was out of a job.
Disclosing the identity of CIA agents is a criminal offence and the FBI and a grand jury conducted investigations. In the speculation about who might have leaked Ms Plame’s identity, Libby’s name regularly came up.
The 56-year-old lawyer had long been involved with many of the individuals who would become key figures in the Bush adminstration. He had been taught at Yale by Paul Wolfowitz, who would later become the intellectual powerhouse of the neoconservatives.
Mr Wolfowitz invited Libby to join him at the state department in the 1980s. In 1997, Libby became a founding member of the Project for the New American Century, the neoconservative team seeking to reshape US policy in the Middle East.
He joined Mr Cheney, the most hawkish member of the Bush administration, as chief of staff in 2001. He was also national security adviser, shaping policy on Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and other hotspots.
Under oath, Libby told the investigators looking into the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity that he learned her identity from a reporter, Tim Russert. The television presenter denied this. Another reporter, Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, spent three months in jail for refusing to disclose her sources for Ms Plame’s identity. She was freed after Libby allowed her to name him as the source.
During the trial, prosecutors said Libby had lied. The defence claimed he had suffered a memory lapse. The jury refused to give him the benefit of the doubt and he faces a sentence of up to 25 years. But in reality he may never go to jail. His lawyers can string out the appeal long enough for Mr Bush, before he leaves office in January 2009, to grant a pardon to his loyal follower. But his time as one of the leading advocates of the neoconservative revolution and a leading player at the White House is long over.
Key Figures: Spies and Whistleblowers
Lewis “Scooter” Libby
The former aide has different explanations for how he came by his nickname — either from his father, impressed by the agility of his son, or comparison to a well-known Yankees player. Until his fall, the lawyer was one of Washington’s most powerful neocons, tutored at Yale by Paul Wolfowitz. He was so close to the vice-president that he was known as “Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney”.
The spy at the heart of the affair. As far as her neighbours in suburban Washington were concerned, she was a civil servant and mother. In fact she was an undercover CIA agent trying to find evidence to back up claims about Iraqi WMD. Her cover was blown in July 2003 by officials briefing journalists. Her husband Joe Wilson annoyed the White House enough to provoke the leak.
He was a flamboyant ex-ambassador sent to Niger in 2002 to chase claims from Mr Cheney’s office that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in West Africa, but found a dead end. He was shocked to hear the claim repeated by Bush and blew the whistle in July 2003. Later journalists were told by officials that he had no qualifications to go on the Niger trip, other than a well-placed wife in the CIA.
The Machiavelli in the court of Bush had also told journalists about Plame’s identity, but unlike the lawyer, he belatedly admitted it and avoided charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The leak itself was not, in the end, considered a crime.
The journalist who blew Plame’s cover.
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