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Context of 'February 15, 2007: Former Senator Says NSA Leak Investigation Led to Naming of Special Prosecutor'

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Richard Shelby (R-AL), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, leaks highly classified information to Fox News political correspondent Carl Cameron just minutes after his committee learns it in a closed-door hearing with NSA Director Michael Hayden, according to later testimony. Shelby learns that telephone calls intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 warned of an imminent al-Qaeda attack, but the agency failed to translate the intercepts until September 12, the day after the 9/11 attacks (see September 10, 2001). Cameron does not report the story, but instead gives the material to CNN reporter Dana Bash. A half-hour after Cameron’s meeting with Bash, CNN broadcasts the story, citing “two Congressional sources” in its report. CNN does not identify Shelby as a source. Moments after the broadcast, a CIA official upbraids committee members who have by then reconvened to continue the hearing. USA Today and the Washington Post publish more detailed stories on the NSA intercepts the next day. White House and intelligence community officials will quickly claim that the leak proves Congress cannot be trusted with classified information, but experts in electronic surveillance will later say the information about the NSA’s intercepts contains nothing harmful because it does not reveal the source of the information or the methods used to gather it. (Lengel and Priest 8/5/2004; Waas 2/15/2007) The next day, a furious Vice President Dick Cheney will threaten Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) with termination of the White House’s cooperation with the 9/11 Congressional inquiry unless Graham and his House Intelligence Committee counterpart, Porter Goss (R-FL), push for an investigation (see June 20, 2002). Shelby will deny any involvement in the leak (see August 5, 2004).

Vice President Dick Cheney phones Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham (D-FL). Cheney’s call comes early in the morning, and Graham takes it while still shaving. Cheney is agitated; he has just read in the newspaper that telephone calls intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 warned of an imminent al-Qaeda attack. But, the story continues, the intercepts were not translated until September 12, the day after the 9/11 attacks (see September 10, 2001). Cheney is enraged that someone leaked the classified information from the NSA intercepts to the press. As a result, Cheney says, the Bush administration is considering terminating all cooperation with the joint inquiry by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on the government’s failure to predict and prevent the attacks (see September 18, 2002). (Graham co-chairs the inquiry.) Classified records would no longer be made available to the committees, and administration witnesses would not be available for interviews or testimony. Furthermore, Cheney says, unless the committee leaders take action to find out who leaked the information, and more importantly, take steps to ensure that such leaks never happen again, President Bush will tell the citizenry that Congress cannot be trusted with vital national security secrets. “Take control of the situation,” Cheney tells Graham. The senator responds that he, too, is frustrated with the leaks, but Cheney is unwilling to be mollified.
Quick Capitulation - At 7:30 a.m., Graham meets with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss (R-FL), and the ranking members of the committees, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL, who will later be accused of leaking the information) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). They decide to request that the Justice Department conduct a criminal inquiry into whether anyone on either committee, member or staffer, leaked the information to the press. One participant in the meeting later says, “It was a hastily made decision, made out of a sense of panic… and by people with bleary eyes.” Another person involved in the decision later recalls: “There was a real concern that any meaningful oversight by Congress was very much at stake. The political dynamic back then—not that long after September 11—was completely different. They took Cheney’s threats very seriously.” In 2007, reporter Murray Waas will observe that Cheney and other administration officials saw the leak “as an opportunity to undercut Congressional oversight and possibly restrict the flow of classified information to Capitol Hill.”
Graham: Congress Victimized by White House 'Set Up' - In 2007, after his retirement from politics, Graham will say: “Looking back at it, I think we were clearly set up by Dick Cheney and the White House. They wanted to shut us down. And they wanted to shut down a legitimate Congressional inquiry that might raise questions in part about whether their own people had aggressively pursued al-Qaeda in the days prior to the September 11 attacks. The vice president attempted to manipulate the situation, and he attempted to manipulate us.… But if his goal was to get us to back off, he was unsuccessful.” Graham will add that Goss shared his concerns, and say that in 2003, he speculates to Goss that the White House had set them up in order to sabotage the joint inquiry; according to Graham, Goss will respond, “I often wondered that myself.” Graham will go on to say that he believes the NSA leak was not only promulgated by a member of Congress, but by White House officials as well; he will base his belief on the fact that Washington Post and USA Today reports contain information not disclosed during the joint committee hearing. “That would lead a reasonable person to infer the administration leaked as well,” he will say, “or what they were doing was trying to set us up… to make this an issue which they could come after us with.”
White House Goes Public - The same day, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tells reporters, “The president [has] very deep concerns about anything that would be inappropriately leaked that could… harm our ability to maintain sources and methods and anything else that could interfere with America’s ability to fight the war on terrorism.”
Investigation Will Point to Senate Republican - An investigation by the Justice Department will determine that the leak most likely came from Shelby, but Shelby will deny leaking the intercepts, and the Senate Ethics Committee will decline to pursue the matter (see August 5, 2004). (Waas 2/15/2007)

Vice President Dick Cheney writes talking points for press secretary Ari Fleischer and other White House officials to use with the press to address the recent New York Times op-ed by former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who revealed that during a 2002 fact-finding mission to Africa, he found nothing to support administration claims that Iraq had attempted to purchase weapons-grade uranium from Niger (see July 6, 2003). After Wilson’s op-ed, the White House was forced to back away from its claims about the uranium purchase (see July 6-7, 2003, July 7, 2003, and July 8, 2003), a move that Cheney and other White House officials believed damaged the administration’s credibility over its justifications for the Iraq invasion. Cheney then rewrites the talking points to provide White House officials with more information that can be used to discredit Wilson, and to maximize the chances that reporters will conclude that Wilson’s wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, sent her husband on a “junket” to Niger (see July 7, 2003 or Shortly After). The lead talking point changes from the original version as drafted by Cheney press aide Cathie Martin: “The vice president’s office did not request the mission to Niger,” to Cheney’s: “It is not clear who authorized Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger.” Cheney will admit that in rewriting the talking points to draw attention to Plame Wilson’s putative role in arranging for the Niger mission, reporters might find out that she was a CIA officer. However, he will deny that he did anything on purpose to give reporters that information. FBI investigators will not be convinced by Cheney’s explanation.
Telling Reporters Cheney, Aides Knew Nothing of Wilson Mission - Another reason for revising the talking points is to give the impression that Cheney had little to no role in Wilson’s mission to Niger, and knew nothing of the trip before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq (see March 5, 2002). Cheney will later admit to FBI investigators that he rewrote the talking points to lead reporters to that conclusion—a conclusion that he hopes will paint Wilson’s trip to Niger as a nepotistic jaunt envisioned to discredit the administration. That conclusion is false (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, and October 17, 2003). Cheney’s subsidiary talking points include: “The vice president’s office did not request the mission to Niger”; the “vice president’s office was not informed of Joe Wilson’s mission”; Cheney’s office was not briefed about the mission until long after it occurred; and Cheney and his aides, including his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, only learned about the mission from reporters a year later. (Froomkin 2/21/2007; Waas 12/23/2008)
Talking Points Revised Just before Libby Outs Plame Wilson to Reporter - Cheney revises the talking points on July 8, hours before Libby reveals Plame Wilson’s CIA identity to reporter Judith Miller and tells Miller that Plame Wilson sent her husband to Niger (see 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003). Both Cheney and Libby will later testify that Libby’s purpose in meeting with Miller is to leak classified intelligence information that the White House hopes will discredit Wilson’s allegations that the White House manipulated intelligence to bolster its justification for the invasion (see July 12, 2003).
Talking Points Used in Morning 'Press Gaggle' - In the July 8 morning briefing for the White House press corps, informally known as the “press gaggle,” Fleischer reiterates the talking points, telling the reporters: “The vice president’s office did not request the mission to Niger. The vice president’s office was not informed of his mission and he was not aware of Mr. Wilson’s mission until recent press accounts… accounted for it. So this was something that the CIA undertook.… They sent him on their own volition.”
'Growing Body of Evidence' that Cheney Directed Libby to Out Plame Wilson - In 2008, reporter Murray Waas will write, “That Cheney, by his own admission, had revised the talking points in an effort to have the reporters examine who sent Wilson on the very same day that his chief of staff was disclosing to Miller Plame [Wilson]‘s identity as a CIA officer may be the most compelling evidence to date that Cheney himself might have directed Libby to disclose Plame [Wilson]‘s identity to Miller and other reporters.” Waas will write that Cheney’s admission adds to the “growing body of evidence that Cheney may have directed Libby to disclose Plame [Wilson]‘s identity to reporters and that Libby acted to protect Cheney by lying to federal investigators and a federal grand jury about the matter.” Cheney’s admission is not, Waas will note, the “smoking gun” that would prove he directed Libby to leak Plame Wilson’s identity. Neither does it prove that Libby outed Plame Wilson on his own by acting “overzealously” to follow Cheney’s “broader mandate” to besmirch and discredit Wilson. Waas will write that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald believes that Libby lied and placed himself in criminal jeopardy in order to protect Cheney, perhaps to conceal the fact that Cheney had told him to leak Plame Wilson’s identity to the press. (Waas 12/23/2008)

Vice President Dick Cheney either authorizes or gives the green light to his chief of staff Lewis Libby to leak classified information to New York Times reporter Judith Miller (see 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003). Libby understands that the authorization for the leak comes directly from President Bush (see March 5, 2004 and March 24, 2004). (US District Court for the District of Columbia 5/5/2006 pdf file; US Department of Justice 2/2007 pdf file; Marcy Wheeler 2/18/2007)

Vice President Dick Cheney’s communications director, Cathie Martin, takes notes on “spin options” available to the White House regarding the administration’s admission that its claims of an Iraq-Niger uranium connection are false. Cheney has already rejected a draft of a statement to be released by CIA Director Tenet, taking responsibility for the false claim (see July 11, 2003). On the second page, Martin takes copious notes documenting the administration’s options. The first in the list is to put Cheney on NBC’s Meet the Press to dodge the claim, with annotations as to the pros and cons of that particular effort. The second option is to leak information from the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s WMD programs (see October 1, 2002) to reporters. Two reporters, the New York Times’s David Sanger and the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, are mentioned as possible targets of the planned leak. (Office of the Vice President 7/11/2003 pdf file; National Public Radio 3/7/2007) In 2007, Martin, will testify as to the strategies discussed by Mary Matalin (see July 10, 2003) and the communications staff (see January 25-29, 2007). One option is to have Cheney go on “Meet the Press;” notes from the strategy discussion cite the pros of going on that show as “best format, we control the message,” but Martin and others fear having Cheney coming across as defensive. Another option is to approach Sanger, whom the notes say is working on “what he thought was a definitive piece, we could go to Sanger and tell him our version of this.” The discussion also cites the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus as a possible leak recipient. Another option is to have either National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hold a press conference. Finally, they can have a sympathetic third party write an “independent” op-ed for a national newspaper such as the Post or the New York Times that would promote their message. Martin also speaks with Time’s Matthew Cooper, and informs him that the administration is backing away from its claims that Iraq was attempting to procure uranium from Niger (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003). (Marcy Wheeler 1/25/2007)

Vice President Dick Cheney authorizes his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, to leak to the press selected portions of a highly classified CIA report: the debriefing of former ambassador Joseph Wilson upon his return from Niger (see March 4-5, 2002 and March 5, 2002). This will become public in 2006, when material from Libby’s grand jury testimony in the Plame Wilson leak investigation is made known (see March 5, 2004, March 24, 2004 and October 28, 2005). Cheney intends to undermine the credibility of Wilson (see June 2003), a prominent war critic, by using the report to contradict his statements that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence to bolster its claims that Iraq was in possession of WMD (see July 6, 2003), especially his claims that Iraq had not, as the administration has repeatedly claimed (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003), tried to buy uranium from Niger. The CIA debriefing report does not mention Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, a covert CIA agent, nor does it say that Plame Wilson arranged for her husband to go to Niger, as Cheney, Libby, and others will claim. (Waas 6/14/2006; Waas 1/12/2007) After Libby is indicted for perjury (see October 28, 2005), criminal defense lawyer Jeralyn Merritt will write on the progressive blog TalkLeft, “It sure sounds to me like the mechanics of the plan to leak the information about Wilson was cemented, if not formed, on Air Force Two, as a follow up to Ari Fleischer’s press gaggle attack on Wilson from Africa (see 3:20 a.m. July 12, 2003), and that the plan was to call reporters and leak the information about Wilson and his wife as gossip coming from other reporters, while shielding themselves by claiming to the reporters that they couldn’t be certain the information was true.” (Jeralyn Merritt 10/31/2005)
Leaking Plame Wilson's Identity - Hours after Cheney instructs Libby to disclose information from the CIA report, Libby informs reporters Judith Miller (see Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003) and Matthew Cooper (see 2:24 p.m. July 12, 2003) that Plame Wilson is a CIA agent and she was responsible for selecting her husband for the Niger mission (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, and October 17, 2003).
Denials - Both Libby and Cheney (see May 8, 2004) will testify that Cheney did not encourage or authorize Libby to reveal Plame Wilson’s CIA status. Reporter Murray Waas will write, “But the disclosure that Cheney instructed Libby to leak portions of a classified CIA report on Joseph Wilson adds to a growing body of information showing that at the time Plame [Wilson] was outed as a covert CIA officer the vice president was deeply involved in the White House effort to undermine her husband” (see July 7, 2003 or Shortly After, July 7-8, 2003, and July 8, 2003 and After). The same day, Cheney, Libby, and Cheney’s press spokesperson Cathie Martin discuss ways to rebut and discredit Wilson (see July 12, 2003). President Bush has already authorized Libby to disclose information from a classified intelligence estimate on Iraq in part to discredit Wilson (see March 24, 2004). (Waas 6/14/2006; Waas 1/12/2007) Senior White House officials, including Deputy National Security Director Stephen Hadley and White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who have both worked with Cheney and Libby to formally declassify information in the effort to discredit Wilson (see July 6-10, 2003), will testify that they knew nothing of Cheney’s attempts to declassify the Wilson briefing. (Waas 1/12/2007)

Patrick Fitzgerald.Patrick Fitzgerald. [Source: US Department of Justice]Citing potential conflicts of interest, Attorney General John Ashcroft formally recuses himself from any further involvement in the investigation of the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see September 26, 2003 and September 30, 2003). The Justice Department names Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney for the Chicago region, to handle the investigation. In a letter to Fitzgerald authorizing the position, Deputy Attorney General James Comey writes: “I hereby delegate to you all the authority of the attorney general with respect to the department’s investigation into the alleged unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee’s identity, and I direct you to exercise that authority as special counsel independent of the supervision or control of any officer of the department.” Many believe that Ashcroft’s continued involvement has become politically untenable, and that the investigation has reached a point where his potential conflicts of interest can no longer be ignored. The White House steadfastly denies that any of its officials leaked Plame Wilson’s name to conservative columnist Robert Novak, who first outed Plame Wilson in his column (see July 14, 2003), or any other member of the press. The FBI has already spoken to White House political adviser Karl Rove, suspected of being one of Novak’s sources; Rove has close political ties to Ashcroft. Upon Ashcroft’s recusal, the investigation was given over to Comey, who immediately named Fitzgerald to head the investigation. Fitzgerald and Comey, himself a former Manhattan prosecutor, are close friends and colleagues. (Office of the Deputy Attorney General 12/30/2003 pdf file; Margasak 12/30/2003; Lichtblau 12/31/2003)
Appearance of Conflict of Interest - Comey tells the press: “The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation. I agree with that judgment. And I also agree that he made it at the appropriate time, the appropriate point in this investigation.” Comey says that while Ashcroft denies an actual conflict of interest exists, “The issue that he was concerned about was one of appearance.” White House officials say that President Bush had no role in the decision; some White House and law enforcement officials were surprised upon learning of Comey’s decision.
Investigation Reaching into White House? - Some Democrats believe that Ashcroft’s recusal is an indication that the investigation is moving into the White House itself. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) says of Comey’s decision, “This isn’t everything that I asked for, but it’s close.” In regards to Fitzgerald, Schumer says, “I would have preferred to have someone outside the government altogether, but given Fitzgerald’s reputation for integrity and ability—similar to Comey’s—the glass is three-quarters full.” Governor Howard Dean (D-VT), a leading Democratic contender for the presidency, says Ashcroft’s decision “is too little, too late.” For the last three months, the investigation has been run by John Dion, the Justice Department’s chief of counterespionage. Whether Fitzgerald will ask Dion or other Justice Department investigators to remain on the case remains to be seen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought maybe he ought to keep some or all of the career folks involved,” says Comey. Fitzgerald has the authority to issue subpoenas and grant immunity on his own authority, Comey confirms. “I told him that my mandate to him was very simple. Follow the facts wherever they lead, and do the right thing at all times. And that’s something, if you know this guy, is not something I even needed to tell him.” (Lichtblau 12/31/2003)
Fitzgerald's 'Impressive Reputation' - Fitzgerald has earned an “impressive reputation,” in Plame Wilson’s words, as a government prosecutor. In 1993, he won a guilty plea from Mafia capo John Gambino, and a conviction against Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see July 3, 1993). He put together the first criminal indictment against Osama bin Laden. In 2003 he indicted former Illinois Republican governor George Ryan on fraud and conspiracy charges; in 2005, he indicted several aides of Chicago Democratic mayor Richard Daley on mail fraud. He brought charges of criminal fraud against Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black. As Plame Wilson will write, “Fitzgerald was not easily intimidated by wealth, status, or threats.”
'Belated Christmas Present' - In 2007, Plame Wilson will write: “It was a belated but welcome Christmas present. Ashcroft had clearly given some thought to his extensive financial and personal ties to Karl Rove, who even then was believed to have had a significant role in the leak, and made the right decision.” She will also add that several years after the recusal, she hears secondhand from a friend of Ashcroft’s that Ashcroft was “troubled” and “lost sleep” over the administration’s action. (Wilson 2007, pp. 174-175)

Bob Graham (D-FL), the former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that the White House found it almost impossible to refuse to appoint a special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak investigation (see December 30, 2003) because of the Bush administration’s insistence on an aggressive investigation of a Congressional leak in 2002 (see June 19, 2002 and June 20, 2002). The strongest push for a leak investigation came from Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, Graham recalls: “They [the administration] would have had a certain exposure to hypocrisy if they hid behind executive privilege” when the Plame Wilson investigation began, or if they had fought the appointment of a special prosecutor, Graham says. “It made it politically untenable to avoid having a strong investigation, because they had demanded it of us. With us, they said we should call out the meanest, leanest dogs. The example that they set with us became the boomerang that came around and hit them.” Both Cheney and Libby are central suspects in the Plame Wilson outing, though no one has been charged with leaking her CIA status to the press. Cheney is known to have selectively leaked and declassified intelligence to bolster the administration’s case for war and later to defend against charges that he misrepresented prewar intelligence (see 7:35 a.m. July 8, 2003, (July 11, 2003), and July 12, 2003). And evidence points to the conclusion that Cheney ordered Libby to leak Plame Wilson’s name to the press (see July 7-8, 2003 and July 12, 2003). Senior Justice Department officials and Senate Democrats all pushed for Attorney General John Ashcroft to recuse himself and name a special prosecutor. According to several senior Congressional staffers, Democrats made their case based in part on Cheney’s personal insistence that senators and their staffers be investigated over the NSA leak. (Waas 2/15/2007)


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