WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday sidestepped questions about whether Vice President Dick Cheney passed on to his top aide the identity of a CIA officer central to a federal grand jury probe.
Notes in the hands of a federal prosecutor suggest that Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, first heard of the CIA officer from Cheney himself, The New York Times reported in Tuesday’s editions.
A federal prosecutor is investigating whether the officer’s identity was improperly disclosed.
The Times said notes of a previously undisclosed June 12, 2003, conversation between Libby and Cheney appear to differ from Libby’s grand jury testimony that he first heard of Valerie Plame from journalists.
“This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation and we’re not having any further comment on the investigation while it’s ongoing,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Pressed about Cheney’s knowledge about the CIA officer, McClellan said: “I think you’re prejudging things and speculating and we’re not going to prejudge or speculate about things.”
McClellan said Cheney — who participated in a morning video conference on the Florida hurricane from Wyoming, where he is speaking at a University of Wyoming dinner tonight — is doing a “great job” as vice president. The spokesman also said Cheney’s public comments have always been truthful.
The New York Times identified its sources in the story as lawyers involved in the case.
Libby central to investigation
Libby has emerged at the center of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal investigation in recent weeks because of the Cheney aide’s conversations about Plame with Times reporter Judith Miller.
Miller said Libby spoke to her about Plame and her husband, Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson, on three occasions — although not necessarily by name and without indicating he knew she was undercover.
Libby’s notes show that Cheney knew Plame worked at the CIA more than a month before her identity was publicly exposed by columnist Robert Novak.
At the time of the Cheney-Libby conversation, Wilson had been referred to — but not by name — in the Times and on the morning of June 12, 2003 on the front page of The Washington Post.
The Times reported that Libby’s notes indicate Cheney got his information about Wilson from then-CIA Director George Tenet, but said there was no indication he knew her name.
The notes also contain no suggestion that Cheney or Libby knew at the time of their conversation of Plame’s undercover status or that her identity was classified, the paper said.
Was a crime committed?
Disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent can be a crime, but only if the person who discloses it knows the agent is classified as working undercover.
The Times quoted lawyers involved in the case as saying they had no indication Fitzgerald was considering charging Cheney with a crime.
But the paper said any efforts by Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Cheney might be viewed by a prosecutor as attempt to impede the inquiry, which could be a crime.
According to a former intelligence official close to Tenet, the former CIA chief has not been in touch with Fitzgerald’s staff for more than 15 months and was not asked to testify before the grand jury even though he was interviewed by Fitzgerald and his staff.
The official told the Times that Tenet declined to comment on the investigation.
Libby’s lawyer, Joseph Tate, did not return phone calls and e-mail to his office.
Indictment decision expected this week
Fitzgerald is expected to decide this week whether to seek criminal indictments in the case. Lawyers involved in the case have said Libby and Karl Rove, President Bush’s senior adviser, both face the possibility of indictment. McClellan said both Rove and Libby were at work on Tuesday.
Fitzgerald questioned Cheney under oath more than a year ago, but it is not known what the vice president told the prosecutor.
Cheney has said little in public about what he knew. In September 2003, he told NBC he did not know Wilson or who sent him on a trip to Niger in 2002 to check into intelligence — some of it later deemed unreliable — that Iraq may have been seeking to buy uranium there.
“I don’t know who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back,” Cheney said at the time. “... I don’t know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him.”
Asked Tuesday whether Cheney always tells the truth to the public, McClellan said, “Yes.”
“Frankly I think it’s a ridiculous question,” he said. “The vice president, like the president, is a straightforward plainspoken person.”
The Cheney-Libby conversation occurred the same day that The Washington Post published a front-page story about the CIA sending a retired diplomat to Africa, where he was unable to corroborate intelligence that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium yellowcake from Niger. The diplomat was Wilson.
A year after Wilson’s trip, President Bush cited British intelligence in his State of the Union address as suggesting that Iraq was pursuing uranium in Africa.
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