WASHINGTON — The saga of the CIA/Leak probe has been largely shrouded for almost three years. Since I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's indictment in October of 2005, disclosures in court filings allege no wrongdoing by Vice President Dick Cheney. But, they place the vice president closer than has been known before to events at the heart of the case.
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Libby's possible motive is only one of many unknowns which may be disclosed in the upcoming trial. But witnessing Libby, one of the most powerful figures in the White House testifying in his own defense, and Cheney, the most powerful vice president in recent history, defending his one-time chief of staff, will make this trial an historic event.
The following are some of the milestones leading up to Libby's indictment.
On Feb. 12, 2002, Cheney received an expanded version of an unconfirmed Italian intelligence report which was shared with British intelligence, and then passed on to Washington. It said Iraq's then-ambassador to the Vatican had led a mission to Niger in 1999 and sealed a deal for the purchase of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium in July 2000. Cheney's office asked for more information.
The CIA chose a former ambassador to Africa to undertake the mission.
Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was sent by the CIA to the West African nation of Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium for a weapons program.
Immediately upon his return, in early March 2002, Wilson briefed the CIA and State Department and reported that the documents in the Italian report were bogus. It is unclear if that information was passed on to the White House or if the administration chose to ignore the report discrediting sales of yellowcake uranium to Iraq and undercutting an element of the administration's belief that Iraq was readying weapons of mass destruction which could threaten the U.S.
But at the time, the Vice President's office did not know the name of the envoy sent on the mission.
The "16" Words
By summer 2002, the White House Iraq Group began to describe the "grave and gathering danger" of Iraq's allegedly "reconstituted" nuclear weapons program. That claim, along with repeated use of the "mushroom cloud" image by top officials beginning in September, became the emotional heart of the case against Iraq.
President Bush invoked the mushroom cloud in an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati. References to African uranium remained in his speech until its fifth draft, but a last-minute intervention by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet excised them.
On January 28, 2003 President Bush delivered his State of the Union address, which included the infamous "sixteen words" asserting that, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
In May 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof first wrote that an unnamed ambassador traveled to Niger to investigate uranium sales. The envoy, Kristof writes, reported to the CIA and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
Who is Wilson?
Libby then asked an under secretary of state for information concerning the trip. The under secretary told Libby that the ambassador was Joseph Wilson.
Libby and Cheney made separate inquiries to the CIA about Wilson's wife, and each confirmed independently that she worked there. It was Cheney, the indictment states, who supplied Libby the detail "that Wilson's wife worked... in the Counterproliferation Division".
Libby claims that he did not remember details of briefings where he and Cheney were separately told that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA The briefings he received were presented by CIA and State Department officials.
Prosecutors say, Libby learned about Plame's CIA employment in June 2003 from Cheney, Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and at least one senior CIA official, according to court papers.
Libby says the crush of national security issues and classified briefings he was receiving at the time overshadowed what he now describes as "insignificant" details about Wilson and his wife, which he says he simply forgot. This will form the essence of Libby's memory defense at trial when defense attorneys and Libby himself will detail how he was so preoccupied with terrorist threats, Iraq's new government and emerging nuclear programs in Iran, Pakistan and North Korea to remember details of his conversations about a CIA operative, Valerie Plame.
But, according to prosecutors, handwritten notes by Libby's CIA briefer indicate that Libby referred to "Joe Wilson" and "Valerie Wilson" in a conversation on June 14.
Cheney ordered NIE to be released
Later in June 2003, Cheney instructs Libby to disclose a portion of a secret National Intelligence Estimate, which the vice president tells Libby was just declassified, to several reporters to refute the claims made by Wilson in his report to the CIA
The National Intelligence Estimate, which was done in October 2002, said that Iraq ''will probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade,'' but it included some dissenting views.
Libby testified in the grand jury that he had contact with reporters in which he disclosed the content of the "NIE" in June and July 2003.
According to prosecutors, on June 23, Libby crossed his first big line. At a meeting in his office with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, he said Wilson's wife might be a CIA employee. Libby will met again with Miller on July 8 and July 12, 2003.
The first leaker
A week earlier, on June 13, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward first learns of Plame in a meeting with deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage in his State Department office. During the course of that meeting, Armitage tells Woodward that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA as an analyst on weapons of mass destruction.
Woodward never wrote about the case, even after it became the most prominent story in Washington, although he made public statements dismissing its importance.
Armitage publicly revealed only in 2006 that he was the first to leak Plame's identity to Woodward and syndicated columnist Bob Novak. But Armitage was not charged with any crime, saying it was an inadvertent slip.
Armitage said, he made a terrible mistake in revealing Plame's employer at the time. Armitage added, "Oh I feel terrible. Every day, I think I let down the president. I let down the Secretary of State. I let down my department, my family and I also let down Mr. and Mrs. Wilson." But he said he didn't even know Plame's name. "I didn't know the woman's name was Plame. I didn't know she was an operative," he said.
On June 27 2003, according to prosecutors, Woodward has conversations with Libby about Wilson's wife.
The Wilson bombshell
But it was Wilson himself who so exorcized the office of the vice president in the summer of 2003, when he wrote a highly charged column in the New York Times dismissing what the Bush administration had portrayed as Iraq's reach in West Africa for yellowcake uranium, fuel for a weapons program.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson's article titled, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," said the Bush administration "twisted" some intelligence about Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
Embarrassment from the statement that slipping into the President's speech months before no doubt hit a raw nerves in the White House when Wilson's column hit the news stands.
Cheney's handwritten notes
Prosecutors say Libby's memory defense, misremembering White House conversations about Wilson and Plame is hard to imagine, being that Wilson's column was such an irritant to the Vice President at the time, and whose handwritten notes on a clipping of the article make clear Cheney was personally concerned, and suspected, that Wilson's wife orchestrated the Niger trip for her husband.
The notes written by Cheney on the margins of the newspaper clipping seemingly question the CIA's motivation for sending Wilson on the fact-finding trip. Cheney writes, "Have they done this sort of thing before? Send an Ambr (ambassador) to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?"
Fleischer's ‘weird’ lunch
A day later, on July 7 then White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer recalls that over lunch at the White House, Libby told him the Vice President did not send Ambassador Wilson to Niger and it was the CIA who sent Wilson on the trip. According to Fleischer's grand jury testimony, Libby tells him Wilson's wife, who works in the counter proliferation area of the CIA, sent Wilson.
Fleischer described the lunch as "kind of weird" noting that Libby typically "operated in a very closed-lip fashion." Fleischer recalled that Libby "added something along the lines of, you know, this is hush-hush, nobody knows about this. This is on the q.t."
Though Libby remembers the lunch meeting, and even said he thanked Fleischer for making a statement to the press about the Niger issue, he denied discussing Wilson's wife with him.
‘Former Hill staffer’
A day later, in his second meeting with Miller, when the conversation turns to Wilson, Libby asks to be identified as a ''former Hill staffer'' if she writes about the subject. Miller, who spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify in the leak case, has told the grand jury that Libby told her about Wilson's wife at the same meeting.
Libby testified that the only purpose of his July 8 meeting with Miller was to transmit information concerning the NIE that discussed Iraq's nuclear weapons capability.
On July 10, 2003, Libby spoke to NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert to complain about press coverage of Niger by MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Russert testifies to the grand jury that Libby did not discuss Wilson's wife with him at all.
But Libby maintains that he believed he was learning about Wilson's wife's identity for the first time when he spoke with Russert in July regarding coverage of the Niger issue by Matthews.
When Libby testified before the grand jury on March 5, 2004, he said, according to the government's indictment: "Mr. Russert said to me, did you know that Ambassador Wilson's wife, or his wife works at the CIA? And I said, no, I don't know that. And then he [Russert] said, yeah -- yes all the reporters know it. And I said, again, I don't know that."
Cooper told Plame name coming from reporters
On July 12, 2003 Libby spoke with reporter Matt Cooper of Time Magazine. Cooper asked whether Libby had heard that Wilson's wife was involved in sending Wilson on the trip to Niger. Libby, according to prosecutors confirmed to Cooper, without elaboration or qualification, that he had heard this information too.
"I was very clear to say reporters are telling us that because in my mind I still didn't know it as a fact. I thought I was -- all I had was this information was coming in from reporters," Libby told the grand jury, according to the indictment.
Miller's last conversation
That same day Libby spoke again to New York Times reporter Judy Miller. Prosecutors say Miller asked Libby again about Plame's wife. According to his grand jury testimony, Libby stated, "I said to her that, that I didn't know if it was true, but that reporters had told us that the ambassador's wife works at the CIA, that I didn't know anything about it."
Novak makes Plame public
It is not until July 14, 2003 that columnist Robert Novak publicly reveals that Wilson's wife, ''Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.'' Novak's column prompts an investigation into whether government officials disclosed her identity.
CIA leak probe begins
On September 26, 2003 the Department of Justice authorized the FBI to commence a criminal investigation into the possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information regarding the disclosure of Valerie Wilson's affiliation with the CIA to various reporters in the spring of 2003.
On October 28, 2005 Libby is charged with:
Joel Seidman is an NBC producer based in Washington, D.C.
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