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Friday, August 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

The CIA leak: Infighting, grudges, justifying a war

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Toward the end of a steamy summer week in 2003, reporters were peppering the White House with phone calls and e-mail, looking for someone to defend the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

About to emerge as a key critic was Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who said the administration had manipulated intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.

At the White House, there wasn't much interest in responding to critics such as Wilson that Fourth of July weekend. The communications staff faced more pressing concerns: the president's imminent trip to Africa, growing questions about the war and declining ratings in public-opinion polls.

Wilson's charges were based on an investigation he undertook for the CIA. But he was seen inside the White House as a "showboater" whose stature didn't warrant a response.

"Let him spout off solo on a holiday weekend," one White House official recalled saying. "Few will listen."

In fact, millions were paying attention that Sunday as Wilson — on NBC's "Meet the Press" and in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post — accused the administration of ignoring intelligence that didn't support its rationale for war.

Underestimating the impact of Wilson's charges was one in a series of misjudgments by White House officials.

They soon would cast doubt on Wilson's CIA mission to Africa by suggesting to reporters that his wife was responsible for his trip. In the process, her identity as a covert CIA agent was divulged, possibly illegally.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for 20 months has been looking into how the media learned that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative. Top administration officials, along with several influential journalists, have been questioned.

Beyond the whodunit, the affair raises questions about the credibility of the Bush White House, the tactics it employs against critics and the justification it used for going to war.

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What motivated President Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove; Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby; and others to counter Wilson so aggressively? How did their roles remain secret until after the president was re-elected? Have they cooperated fully with the investigation?

The answers remain elusive. Few witnesses have spoken publicly. White House officials declined to comment for this article, citing the inquiry.

But a close examination of events inside the White House two summers ago and interviews with administration officials offer new insights into the White House response, the people who shaped it, the deep disdain Cheney and other administration officials felt for the CIA and the far-reaching consequences of the effort to manage the crisis.

Wilson goes public

What made ex-diplomat's view dangerous to the administration

Ten weeks after Bush landed aboard an aircraft carrier adorned with a "Mission Accomplished" banner to declare an end to major combat operations in Iraq, Wilson created his own media moment by questioning one of the central reasons for going to war.

He told how the CIA dispatched him in February 2002 to investigate a claim that Iraq had sought large quantities of uranium from Niger. Wilson told "Meet the Press" that he and others had "effectively debunked" the claim, only to see it show up nearly a year later in the president's State of the Union speech.

That speech had been a pillar of the case for war, and Wilson was raising questions about a key element of it: the claim Iraq was a nuclear threat.

At the time of Wilson's disclosure, U.S. and U.N. officials had yet to turn up evidence of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. A ragtag Iraqi insurgency had begun to strike back.

In public, the White House was predicting weapons of mass destruction would be found.

Behind the scenes, officials were worried about the failure to find those weapons and the possibility that the CIA would blame the White House for prewar intelligence failures.

Wilson seemed a credible critic: His diplomatic leadership as charge d'affaires in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq before the 1991 bombing of Baghdad had earned him letters of praise from President George H.W. Bush.

That made him dangerous to the administration.

Rove takes notice

Response seems to focus on Wilson, not his words.

Within 24 hours, the White House reversed its view of the damage Wilson could do. He began to receive the attention of Rove, a man with a reputation for discrediting critics and disciplining political enemies, and of Libby, a longtime Cheney adviser and CIA critic.

There were grounds to challenge the former diplomat on his uranium findings: Wilson had no special training for that kind of mission; his conclusions about Niger were not definitive and were based on a few days of informal interviews; and they differed from the conclusions of British intelligence.

But it appears Rove was more focused on Wilson's background and political views.

Rove mentioned to reporters that Wilson's wife had suggested or arranged the trip. The idea apparently was to undermine its importance by suggesting the mission was really "a boondoggle set up by his wife," as an administration official described the trip to a reporter, according to an account in The Washington Post.

But this approach depended on perpetrating a falsehood: that Wilson had claimed Cheney sent him to Niger. Wilson had never made such a claim.

Libby reportedly told prosecutors that he did not know Plame's identity until a journalist told him. His lawyer did not return calls for comment for this article.

Rove's lawyer has said his client did not know Plame's name or her undercover status when he first talked with reporters after Wilson's public statements.

"The one thing that's absolutely clear is that Karl was not the source for the leak and there's no basis for any additional speculation," attorney Robert Luskin said, adding that he was told Rove is not a target of the inquiry.

A Rove ally has said it was necessary for Rove to counter Wilson's claims about the import of his mission. However, some of Rove's colleagues say he and others used poor judgment in talking about Wilson's wife.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear our focus should have been on Wilson's facts, not his conclusions or his wife or his politics," said one official who was helping with White House strategy at the time.

In one White House conversation, investigators have learned, Rove was asked why he was focused so intently on discrediting the former diplomat.

"He's a Democrat," Rove said, citing Wilson's campaign contributions. By that time, Wilson had begun advising Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign.

The Niger trip

Wilson is sent to look into yellowcake claims.

Wilson's mission to Africa was launched in early 2002, after the Italian government came into possession of documents — later found to have been forged — suggesting Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Cheney had been briefed about this, a Senate Intelligence Committee report said, and he had asked for more information. CIA officials cast about for ways to respond to the vice president's interest. An official recommended sending Wilson to Niger because of his experience there, including a previous mission for the CIA.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper wrote that when he first asked Rove about Wilson on July 11, the presidential adviser told him Wilson's wife was "responsible" for her husband's trip.

It is not clear why her role would have been relevant to Wilson's uranium findings. But it was important in the campaign to discredit him.

Plame was working in Washington under "nonofficial cover," meaning she posed as a nongovernment employee. A review of official documents shows that she had mentioned her husband as a possible investigator, stressing his familiarity with Niger and later writing a note to the chief of the CIA's counterproliferation division.

"My husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines, ... both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity," she wrote.

Wilson says his wife wrote that note at the request of her boss after he had been suggested by others. CIA officials have said Plame was not responsible for sending Wilson.

Wilson's résumé suggested he was a logical candidate. He had served as ambassador to Gabon and in U.S. embassies in Congo and Burundi; he had experience with the trade of strategic minerals; and he was senior director for Africa on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

On his trip, he interviewed Niger officials and citizens and talked with French mine managers. He also spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, who recently had examined the Iraq uranium claim herself, as had a four-star general, Carlton Fulford, deputy commander of the U.S.-European Command.

Like Fulford and the ambassador, Wilson said, he concluded there was little reason to believe Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake from Niger. He did learn, however, that Iraqi officials had met previously with counterparts from Niger.

Wilson presented his report orally to CIA officers. They wrote up his findings, gave him a middling "good" rating for his performance and, on March 9, routinely sent a copy to other agencies — including the White House — without marking it for the attention of senior officials.

Wilson would write later that his trip led him to believe the administration had lied about the reasons for going to war. But the Senate Intelligence Committee said his report was inconclusive.

Cheney and the CIA

Vice president's antipathy to agency may have played a role in events.

At the Pentagon and in Cheney's office, an ingrained antipathy toward the CIA may help explain the hostile reaction to Wilson's public claim that he and others had debunked the reported Iraqi interest in uranium from Niger.

In their days at the Pentagon, Cheney and Libby had observed more than a decade of CIA blunders.

The atmosphere prevailed even though the CIA joined the White House and Pentagon in concluding, incorrectly, that Saddam Hussein was making progress in developing weapons of mass destruction.

"It's part of the warp and woof and fabric of DOD [Department of Defense] not to like the intelligence community," said Larry Wilkerson, a 31-year military veteran who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Cheney was secretary of defense and Libby was a deputy to Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense for policy.

After the 1991 Gulf War, U.N. inspectors discovered Saddam had far greater capabilities in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons than the CIA had estimated.

This experience shaped Cheney's and Libby's skepticism about the CIA, said a person who spoke with Libby about it years later.

"Libby's basic view of the world is that the CIA has blown it over and over again," said the source, who declined to be identified because he had spoken with Libby on a confidential basis. "Libby and Cheney were [angry] that we had not been prepared for the potential in the first Gulf War."

On the eve of the Iraq war, with Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, these men were fighting another battle with the CIA, this time over the credibility of Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi.

Rumsfeld, Libby and Wolfowitz were longtime supporters of Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who was a key source of the now-discredited intelligence that Saddam had hidden huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The CIA viewed Chalabi as a "fake," said Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council staff member.

Rumsfeld's Pentagon established an independent intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans, which essentially provided the Defense Department and White House with an alternative to CIA and State Department intelligence. The competing operations would create confusion in preparations for the invasion of Iraq.

One administration official said the disclosure of Wilson's CIA mission to Niger reminded a tightknit group of Bush neoconservatives of their longtime battles with the agency and underlined their determination to fight.

Many of those officials also were members of the White House Iraq Group, established to coordinate and promote administration policy. It included the most influential players who would represent two elements of the current scandal: a hardball approach to political critics and long-standing disdain for CIA views on intelligence matters.

The group consisted of Rove; Libby; White House chief of staff Andrew Card; then-national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice; her deputy, Stephen Hadley; and Mary Matalin, Cheney's media adviser. All are believed to have been questioned in the leak case; papers and e-mail about the group were subpoenaed.

Before the war, the White House Iraq group promoted the view that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was seeking more. In September 2002, the White House embraced a British report asserting that "Iraq has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But the CIA was skeptical. When White House speechwriters showed the CIA a draft of a presidential speech in October that referred to Iraqi uranium acquisition, then-CIA Director George Tenet asked that the reference be removed. The White House pulled it.

However, the National Intelligence Estimate he ordered up to assess Iraq's weapons programs before the war seemed to embrace a different view, perhaps because of a mistake in assembling the document.

Released in October 2002, the estimate was meant to reflect a consensus of the nation's intelligence-gathering agencies. It included a description of Britain's account of the Niger deal.

The British information went unchallenged in that chapter of the intelligence estimate. But the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, disagreed with much of the nuclear section of the estimate and decided to convey its views in text boxes to highlight the dissent.

However, the text box on the African uranium claim was "inadvertently separated" and moved into another chapter of the intelligence estimate, where it could be overlooked, the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

A couple of months later, a White House speechwriter consulted the estimate while preparing the State of the Union speech, according to one source.

The speech

President utters 16 words that light a match to a debate.

As the Jan. 28, 2003, speech — and the invasion of Iraq — drew near, CIA officials decided the uranium allegation was "overblown"; they notified the White House. But the decision was made to leave it in the address, attributed to the British.

Wilson remembers being puzzled on hearing the now-famous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

At first, Wilson thought, "Either they are wrong, or I'm wrong and there is some additional evidence I don't know about from some other country in Africa."

When he learned later that the speech was based on the claims about Niger, his puzzlement turned to resolve to make the government correct the record. In coming months, he would talk to reporters and others to get the word out about his mission to Niger.

Powell at the U.N.

Secretary of state addresses the U.N., but speech is a toned-down version of original outline.

On Feb. 5, Powell appeared before the United Nations and made the case for war. His speech was tough but did not mention the British intelligence on uranium. He did say, generally, that Iraq had sought weapons of mass destruction.

The original outline of the speech, given to Powell by Libby, had been much stronger.

The competing intelligence estimates created a nightmare for Powell's top aide, Wilkerson. His job was to make sure Powell got his facts right.

A week before the speech, Powell had walked into Wilkerson's office with the 48-page document provided by Libby that laid out the intelligence on the Iraqi weapons program.

Most of it was rejected because its facts could not be verified. Wilkerson believes that draft was based at least in part on data provided to Cheney by Rumsfeld's intelligence group.

"Where else did they get this 48-page document that came jam-packed with information that probably came first from the [Iraqi National Congress], Chalabi and other lousy sources?" Wilkerson asked.

To sort out the conflicting intelligence, Wilkerson convened a three-day meeting that included Powell; Rice; Libby; Tenet; Rice's deputy Hadley; Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; and Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin.

Powell and his team were skeptical of most of the Libby document. Rice, Tenet and Hadley were trying to reinsert bits of intelligence that could not be corroborated. Hadley offered an unsubstantiated report of alleged meetings between Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague shortly before the attacks.

"The whole time, people were trying to reinsert their favorite ... pet rocks back into the presentation, when their pet rocks weren't backed up by anything but hearsay, or Chalabi or the [Iraqi National Congress] or both," Wilkerson said.

Powell agreed with Tenet to rely mainly on the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which the CIA had vetted. Wilkerson came to believe that Pentagon officials and their allies in the White House doubted what the intelligence community said because "it didn't fit their script" for going to war.

The day of Powell's speech, U.S. officials provided the U.N.'s nuclear-watchdog arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, with documents supporting the claim that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium ore from Niger. Within weeks, the agency determined the documents were clumsy fakes. The episode never has been explained.

"It was very clear from our analysis that they were forgeries," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the atomic-energy agency. "We found 20 to 30 anomalies within a day."

But the British have stood by their claim.

About two weeks after the atomic-energy agency report, Bush issued a statement saying Iraq continued "to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

Two days after that, on March 20, he sent troops into Iraq.

Private to public

Wilson at first tries to get his story out by working behind the scenes.

At first, Wilson worked behind the scenes to press his case.

He says he spoke to Walter Pincus of The Washington Post and to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on a not-for-attribution basis, telling both about his mission and questioning why the administration would continue to cite the Niger connection.

As news reports proliferated about the CIA fact-finding trip to Niger, more people in the administration became familiar with Wilson as the unnamed source.

By summer 2003, with the Republican nominating convention a year away, the stories were creating a problem for a White House trying to cope with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Bush's poll ratings were beginning to take a hit.

After a June 12 Washington Post story referred to the Niger uranium inquiry, Armitage asked intelligence officers in the State Department for more information. He was sent a copy of a memo classified "secret" that included a description of Wilson's trip for the CIA, his findings, a brief description of the origin of the trip and a reference to "Wilson's wife."

The memo was kept in a safe at the State Department along with notes from an analyst who attended the CIA meeting at which Wilson was suggested for the Niger assignment. Wilson went public with his charges less than a month later.

The next day, July 7, the memo and the notes were removed from the safe and sent to Powell on Air Force One. Powell was on the way to Africa with the president, and his aides knew the secretary would be receiving questions.

Back-tracking

White House acknowledges problems with the uranium claim.

Fitzgerald is investigating the memo, which is the earliest known document seen by administration officials revealing that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Powell told prosecutors he circulated the memo among those traveling with him in the front section of Air Force One. It is believed all those officials had high-level security clearance.

At first, White House personnel responding to Wilson's New York Times op-ed article July 6 made no reference to Wilson's wife. Then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters the next day that the former diplomat's article contained nothing new — "zero, nada, nothing" — and that the vice president knew nothing about Wilson's trip to Africa. But Fleischer acknowledged that the president's State of the Union statement on African uranium may have relied on bad information.

That evening, officials decided that to defuse the pressure, they would issue a formal acknowledgment to selected journalists that, as The New York Times reported the next morning, the White House "no longer stood behind Mr. Bush's statement about the uranium, the first such official concession on the sensitive issue of the intelligence that led to the war."

But that only fueled interest in Wilson's charges and the broader concern about the reliability of prewar intelligence. Soon, however, the public's attention would turn away from Wilson's charges and toward him and his wife.

Enter Robert Novak

Rove reportedly claims he first heard Plame's name from columnist.

Early that week, someone in the administration told syndicated newspaper columnist Robert Novak that Wilson's CIA operative wife had instigated his trip to Niger. "I didn't dig it out; it was given to me," Novak said later. "They thought it was significant."

On July 9, according to a source close to Rove, Novak told Rove what he had heard.

"I heard that, too," or words to that effect, Rove replied, according to the source. Rove said Novak told him Plame's name, the first time Rove had heard it, the person said.

The blame game

CIA accepts responsibility for the error — sort of.

The delegation to Africa was distracted daily by reporters pressing Bush for his reply to Wilson's allegations and the mistake in the State of the Union address.

On July 11, the traveling White House launched a coordinated effort to end the controversy. First, Rice told Tenet she and the president planned to tell the media that Bush's speech "was cleared by intelligence services," as the president said that day in Uganda.

Hours later, Tenet — traveling in Idaho — released his own statement that at first appeared helpful to the White House. It took responsibility for allowing the uranium claim into the State of the Union.

"This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed," Tenet said. He also described Wilson's trip as inconclusive, said it was authorized by lower-level CIA officials and never was flagged for review by top officials.

But Tenet added that the CIA had provided earlier cautions about using the Niger evidence to conclude Iraq had obtained uranium. In effect, he was pointing a finger at the White House for failing to heed previous warnings.

"We're screwed," said one White House official, reading the statement on his Blackberry. Blame-shifting intensified.

That same day, Rove took the call from Time magazine's Cooper and, in response to a question, told him Wilson's wife was in the CIA and was responsible for her husband's mission. Cooper says Rove did not use her name.

Rove e-mailed Hadley, Rice's deputy, to tell him he had "waved Cooper off" Wilson's Niger claims.

The next day, a Saturday, Libby, responding to a question, told Cooper he had heard the same thing about Plame. Another official, whose identity is not publicly known, mentioned Wilson's wife in passing to Pincus of The Washington Post, telling him she had arranged the trip.

The intended message: Contrary to the image the White House said Wilson promoted, he was not a well-qualified analyst who was sent to Niger by the vice president. He went to Niger on a boondoggle arranged by his wife.

On Monday, July 14, Wilson saw Novak's column, which said in part: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."

Wilson later recalled that Plame suppressed her anger by compiling a list of the things she had to do to protect information and two decades' worth of contacts overseas. An entire career, she told her husband, had gone down the tubes, "and for no purpose."

Wilson says there was a purpose: to smear him, intimidate critics and distract the public from charges that prewar intelligence had been manipulated.

Novak's disclosure touched off a flood of questions about prewar intelligence, the State of the Union speech and the release of Plame's identity. The following week, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan denied any White House role in leaking Plame's name. "I'm telling you, flatly, that that is not the way this White House operates."

He later qualified the statement to deny any role in "illegally" leaking information. Months later, Bush said "yes" when asked whether he would fire whoever was responsible for the leak. He also would qualify this later to say, "if someone committed a crime."

But on July 21, according to Wilson, MSNBC "Hardball" anchor Chris Matthews said Rove had told him Plame was "fair game." McClellan later called suggestions of Rove's involvement "ridiculous."

On July 30, the CIA notified the Justice Department that federal law may have been breached with the disclosure of Plame's identity. By the end of December 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft, a former client of Rove's, recused himself from the matter; the department named Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for Chicago, as a special prosecutor.

Those who knew Fitzgerald predicted he would charge hard and range far. Nonetheless, his investigative sweep startled the White House. He asked immediately for White House telephone logs, call sheets, attendance lists for meetings of the Iraq group, party invitation lists and phone logs from Air Force One.

Fitzgerald also asked for something unusual: a generic waiver of confidentiality agreements from all White House employees for the journalists with whom they had spoken during the period in dispute.

When most reporters made it clear the generic waiver was unacceptable because it was viewed as coercive, the prosecutor worked with individual sources, reporters and their lawyers to get their testimony.

Pincus testified after being assured he would not have to name his source, even though Fitzgerald knew who it was. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler and NBC's Tim Russert also testified after receiving a waiver from Libby.

After reading about their testimony, Time magazine's Cooper approached Libby about a waiver for himself.

Libby agreed, and Cooper soon talked to prosecutors.

Cooper discussed his conversation with Libby, describing the vice-presidential aide's response to questions about Wilson. Asked about others Cooper had talked to inside the White House, though, he shut down. He had received no clearance from his other source, now known to be Rove.

Without a waiver, Cooper and his editors believed they could not reveal the source.

Cooper did not ask Rove for a waiver, in part because his lawyer advised against it. In addition, Time editors were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year.

Rove's attorney, meantime, took the view that contacting Cooper would have amounted to interfering with the court battle between reporter and prosecutor.

Although Fitzgerald said Cooper's testimony was necessary to conclude his investigation, he did not ask Rove to give the reporter a waiver, said Rove's attorney, Luskin.

The result was that Cooper's testimony was delayed nearly a year, well after Bush's re-election. "The reason this resolution was delayed had nothing to do with anything Karl did or failed to do," Luskin said.

Rove granted the waiver this summer after Cooper's attorney called Luskin hours before Cooper was to be sent to jail; the reporter testified July 6. Reporter Judith Miller of The New York Times, meanwhile, was jailed for refusing to testify.

Cooper wrote afterward that he told the jury he had called Rove in July 2003 and that, in response to his query about Wilson and his claims, Rove informed him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and "she was responsible for sending Wilson."

People close to the case say Fitzgerald is likely to wrap up his inquiry this fall.

Los Angeles Times staff reporters Douglas Frantz and Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.

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