For a writer who covered the trial of I. Lewis Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheneys interview in the CIA leak case is disappointing. The recently released FBI transcript and handwritten notes by FBI agents show Cheney directly, personally stonewalling the investigation into who conveyed Valerie Plames name to reporters.
That in itself is not a surprise. But the big disappointments are surprising.
First, Cheneys March 8, 2004, meeting with FBI agents and Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald was an interview, not an interrogation. Repeatedly the man in the vice presidents chair refused to answer FBI questions, mostly pleading lack of memory. Cheney repeatedly claimed he could not recall key incidents, actions or conversations, sharing nothing of use with investigators.
The grand jury on the CIA leak was sworn Oct. 31, 2003; testimony began January 2004; and Cheney and Bush were invited to meet with investigators. Bush did not appear, while Cheney was not sworn and did not speak under oath. By law, however, one is not supposed to mislead investigators in a criminal matter.
Immovable and complacent, the stonewalling exhibits Cheney at his most implacable, making no effort to fool investigators. Cheney was not just uncooperative but openly so; his denials in transcript are the kind of brazen contempt for investigation that insults everybody in the room, the kind that taunts, Im stonewalling. You know Im stonewalling. I know you know, and Im not bothering to hide that either; I also know you cant do anything about it, and Im not going to hide that. He could have been answering questions from Tim Russert rather than from federal authorities.
Spokesman Randall Samborn, responding for Fitzgerald, declined politely to comment on the Cheney interview.
Second, the Cheney interview establishes how much of what the special counsel presented in the Libby trial, January to March 2007, was already known in May 2004.
Third, the FBI transcript also suggests that Cheney felt he had little to fear in stonewalling. Cheney turns out to have been right: Scooter Libby was convicted, in what turns out to have been largely an intra-Republican contest, but Bush and Cheney were spared impeachment or other legal jeopardy.
For context on Cheneys memory lapses about the CIA leak, set aside the legal matter and recall Cheney the seasoned politician. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were alumni of the Nixon White House, along with George H.W. Bush, who as RNC head had resisted Watergate investigation to the bitter end. The three men quietly survived Watergate. Cheney became assistant to the president under Jerry Ford, Fords chief of staff, and Fords campaign manager. In the Ford White House, Cheney encouraged Rumsfeld to use the Justice Department to attack Seymour Hersh, who was then a New York Times reporter. According to author Lamar Waldron, Cheney as Fords chief of staff and Rumsfeld as Fords secretary of defense pressured CIA to mislead Congress in its investigation of CIA abuses. Assisted by CIA director George H. W. Bush, who was appointed by Ford when Ford switched Rumsfeld from the White House to the Pentagon, the Church Commission was effectively shunted off.
Cheney himself became SecDef under the first Bush, where he helped develop policy that benefited Halliburton, then moved to Halliburton as CEO, then back into government with the second Bush. Reportedly his infighter skills included ferreting out divisions and playing off competitors against each other. And Scooter Libby held a unique combination of three positions under Cheney and Bush both chief of staff and national security advisor for the vice president, and special assistant to the president.
This vice president could not recall whether the Wilson trip was discussed during any of the visits he made to the CIA with ... Libby when they met with intelligence analysts to discuss various issues such as weapons of mass destruction ... (page 2)?
This vice president repeated that he was not familiar with a reporter from Time magazine by the name of Matthew Cooper (page 20)?
The characteristic that will define the Bush-Cheney administration for historians is that Bush and Cheney transmuted each government agency from policy management to political handling. This is not news. The tragedy is that it worked, and the question is how it worked. A premier example is the CIA leak investigation that let Bush and Cheney off the hook, leaving only a cloud over the Office of the Vice President.
What did they know, and when did they know it?
In May 2004 investigators already knew much, including the following:
Cheney had tried by multiple means to research Joseph Wilsons trip to Niger, including talking with DCI George Tenet.
Cheney tore Joe Wilsons New York Times op-ed out of the paper and kept it, with his handwritten notes on it.
Cheneys handwritten notes included the question, Or did his wife send him on a junket?
CIA briefer Craig Schmall briefed Cheney and Libby about the purported Niger-Iraq uranium deal (Schmall kept the index of headings from his briefing books, which according to his testimony still exist).
Cheneys office had received multiple faxes about the Niger story, and the FBI had the faxes.
Cheney had documents from the Joe Wilson de-briefer after Wilsons trip to Africa, with Wilsons name jotted in handwriting on the docs.
Scooter Libby had discussed Wilsons Africa trip with Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, had discussed Valerie Plame with White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, had discussed related documents with Judith Miller, and had discussed the Wilson matter with White House Adviser Karl Rove.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage knew about the Wilsons.
Cheney noted in longhand his concern over Elliot Abrams and Scooter Libbys exposure to the press meat grinder, after WH Press Secretary Scott McClellan exonerated Rove; the FBI had the note.
Armed with this knowledge proven by multiple documents in FBI possession, and with the additional boon of Libbys grand jury testimony three days earlier, investigators were then gifted on March 8 with Cheneys impersonation of a Mafia don feigning memory loss.
Yet the kid gloves stayed on. There was no impeachment hearing, Cheney was not named unindicted co-conspirator not for outing Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, not for Cheneys concealing information that the Niger uranium story was false, as the FBI interview makes clear he knew.
Instead, the GOP-appointed special counsel agreed to a series of defense motions delaying the Libby trial until after 2004 and then until after 2006, basically slow-walking the prosecution until two national election cycles were safely past and until Cheneys popularity in opinion polls had dropped to a safe level.
In the interim, the disgraceful performances kept on coming:
In November 2005, as the first CIA leak grand jury disbanded, the Washington Posts Bob Woodward that he had also been a recipient of the Plame leak, without reporting it. So much for Watergate.
In May 2006 Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales opened up transmissions from DOJ criminal investigations to many federal agencies including the Office of the Vice President. So much for preserving the integrity of the investigation.
In August 2006 sources revealed that Plames CIA position was told Woodward by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. So much for relentless prosecution of leaks.
Margie Burns is a Texas native who now writes from Washington, D.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See her blog at www.margieburns.com.
From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2010
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