Libby Story Stretches from Iraq to Domestic Politics

A timeline of events shows that the Valerie Plame leak story began with an assertion that Iraq was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. It now encompasses the indictment of a key Bush administration official.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea and media correspondent David Folkenflik have been following this story since its early days. Together, they've filed a review of key events. We'll hear both their voices in this report beginning with Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA reporting:

We'll start with President Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003. This was less than two months before the Iraq War and the White House was going all out making the case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to be confronted. His speech included the following line.

(Soundbite of State of the Union address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: (From January 2003) The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

GONYEA: Those 16 words would come back to haunt the White House.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had been a skeptic of the decision to invade Iraq. In May 2003, he wrote that a former US ambassador had been dispatched to Niger the year before because Vice President Dick Cheney had wanted an investigation of that uranium deal. Kristof wrote `the diplomat reported the claim of a deal was wrong and that it relied on forged documents.'

GONYEA: By the summer of 2003, months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it was increasingly clear that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. That's when the unnamed ambassador in the Kristof column decided to go public.

FOLKENFLIK: Joseph Wilson shed his cloak of anonymity in July with an opinion piece in The Times, headlined `What I Didn't Find In Africa.' Wilson said the president seemed to be misrepresenting his findings in Africa to justify the invasion. Here was Wilson that same day on NBC's "Meet the Press."

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press")

Ambassador JOE WILSON (Former US Ambassador): If they were referring to Niger when they were referring to uranium sales from Africa to Iraq, that information was erroneous and that they knew about it well ahead of the president's State of the Union address.

GONYEA: One day later, President Bush left on a trip to Africa to promote economic ties in AIDS prevention. On board Air Force One on that flight was a State department briefing book containing some classified information, including the fact that Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, works for the CIA.

FOLKENFLIK: The next day, Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller. According to Miller, Libby condemned the CIA, which he said was trying to distance itself from the case the White House made for war. Libby also sought to undercut Ambassador Wilson, saying that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby also said Vice President Cheney had no part in sending Wilson to Africa.

GONYEA: On July 11th, still in Africa, President Bush insisted that his State of the Union speech had been cleared by intelligence services, putting the onus on the CIA.

FOLKENFLIK: Back in Washington on the same day, Rove warned Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in an off-the-record conversation not to put too much stock in Wilson's charges. Rove also told the Time magazine reporter that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. And then on July 14th, 2003, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative and that she recommended her husband for the CIA mission to Niger. Novak attributed the information to two senior administration officials.

GONYEA: As summer turned to fall, the White House faced questions about the leak. Joseph Wilson portrayed the outing of his wife as retaliation by the administration for his criticism.

FOLKENFLIK: In September 2003, Vice President Cheney appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert.

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press" from September 2003)

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Host, "Meet the Press"): Were you briefed on his findings in February, March of 2002?

Vice President DICK CHENEY: No. I don't know Joe Wilson. I've never met Joe Wilson and I don't know who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was peppered with questions about who in the White House was involved. Speculation centered on Rove and Libby. McClellan said anyone involved in the leak will, quote, "no longer be part of this administration," declaring outright that Libby and Rove were not involved.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): I've made it very clear that it was a ridiculous suggestion in the first place and I said it is simply not true. I mean, it's public knowledge, I've said that it's not true and I have spoken with Karl Rove.

GONYEA: But that statement from the president's press secretary would later be proven false. It can be a felony for a federal official to knowingly disclose the identity of an undercover agent. The CIA asked for an investigation, which at first was handled by the Justice Department, but eventually Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself because of his ties to Rove. The case was turned over to a special prosecutor, US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who convened a grand jury and began interviewing White House officials.

FOLKENFLIK: During the spring, prosecutor Fitzgerald also subpoenaed several reporters. Rove and Libby told Fitzgerald's grand jury they believed they first learned of Plame's identity from reporters, but couldn't remember who.

GONYEA: In June of '04, prosecutors spent just over an hour interviewing President Bush in the Oval Office. It was not grand jury testimony. He was not under oath. Separately, Vice President Cheney was also interviewed, and, in August, Karl Rove, the president's political architect, testified before the grand jury. His attorney said he had been told he was not a target of the investigation. Ultimately, Rove would make four grand jury appearances. In the last half of 2004 when the country was focused on the presidential election, the investigation seemed to fade from public view. But this past summer, the story really took off again. That's when journalists Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller were threatened with jail.

FOLKENFLIK: The two reporters argued the First Amendment should protect them from having to testify about sources. Here's Judith Miller on the courthouse steps after a hearing.

Ms. JUDITH MILLER (The New York Times): The central issue for me as a reporter is still the public's right to know. Can people feel comfortable to come to Matt and to me and to other journalists and know that we will protect their sources?

FOLKENFLIK: In late June, the US Supreme Court refused to hear their appeals. Cooper and Time magazine ultimately cooperated with Fitzgerald. Cooper had already testified about his conversation with Libby. At this point, it was confirmed that Cooper's second source was Karl Rove.

GONYEA: That revelation meant White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan suddenly had to face questions about his unequivocal statement from two years earlier that Karl Rove and Lewis Libby had nothing to do with the leak.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Unidentified Woman: Given the fact that you had previously stood at that podium and said these men did not discuss Valerie Plame or a CIA agent's identity in any way, does the White House have a credibility problem?

Mr. McCLELLAN: No. You just answered your own question. You said we don't know all the facts. And I would encourage everyone...

GONYEA: Fitzgerald's case began to gain momentum, but Judith Miller went to jail for refusing to identify her source.

FOLKENFLIK: She would remain there for 85 days, only walking free when Lewis Libby, her source, personally gave her permission to testify. Miller wrote in The Times that her notes suggest someone other than Libby first gave her Valerie Plame's name. But Miller also said she couldn't remember who that other person is. And in a recent development, The Washington Post disclosed that Rove testified under oath that he and Libby had discussed Plame before her identity was ever revealed in the press.

GONYEA: In recent weeks, White House officials have stressed how eager they were for the investigation to be complete. It is for Lewis Libby, not for Karl Rove who has not been indicted but who could still face criminal charges. I'm Don Gonyea.

FOLKENFLIK: And I'm David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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