Cheney's Cheney

The vice president and his chief aide often shared bits of secret information, so perhaps it was unremarkable that on June 12, 2003 (according to the indictment handed up last week), Dick Cheney told Scooter Libby that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the Counterproliferation Division in the CIA's secret Directorate of Operations, also known as the Clandestine Service. Libby had been agitating to find out more about Wilson, an ex-diplomat who had been telling reporters that the administration's main case for going to war in Iraq--that Saddam had WMDs--was bogus.

It is a good bet that Cheney and Libby did not think they were conspiring to trash a political foe by ruining his wife's career as an undercover agent. Given their view of themselves and their roles in the world, especially post 9/11, it is much more likely they believed that they were somehow safeguarding the republic. It's also a good bet that they did not foresee the disastrous consequences of their conversation, as well as a series of others between Libby and government officials and several reporters in the summer of 2003. Libby, as well as his boss, operated, at least in their own minds, on a higher plane.

"Bureaucrat" is the last word I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby would ever use to describe himself. The vice president's former chief of staff and national-security adviser was no risk-averse, paper-pushing time-server. He identified with an earlier generation of brilliant amateurs who came out of private law firms and investment banks to serve their country in its hours of peril, who operated discreetly, even secretly, and cut through red tape. One sensed, listening to him talk about duty and honor in the tense months after 9/11, that his models ran deeper, to Roman centurions and Plato's Men of Silver, idealized guardians who cared nothing for celebrity or money but lived only to serve. His office in the Old Executive Office Building, Libby proudly noted, was once occupied by both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt when they served as assistant secretaries of the Navy. Portraits of the Roosevelts adorn his walls.

His greatest hero is Winston Churchill. Talking to a NEWSWEEK reporter two months after 9/11, Libby pointed to the portrait of Winston Churchill directly behind his desk. When the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers, Libby said, the portrait shook. He grinned to show that he was kidding--but he wasn't, really. He felt an enormous spiritual kinship, he said, with the small band of men around Churchill who warned in the 1930s about the gathering Nazi storm, who were ignored and shunned--but then vindicated at England's finest hour. Libby compared Vice President Cheney to Churchill--a born leader who was instantly aware, in the moment of crisis, that destiny had called him to defend his country.

There were, it appeared to this NEWSWEEK reporter who spoke to him from time to time, two Scooter Libbys. There was the diffident (though slightly sarcastic), buttoned-up, lawyerly man-behind-the-curtain. Then there was the daredevil. Libby cautioned his colleagues not to speak to reporters, but he cultivated them, and was seen buying shots for reporters at a White House Correspondents' Dinner after-party. An avid (though not particularly accomplished) skier, he preferred icy vertical slopes. Fascinated with the Japanese ("He likes their inscrutability," said his Yale roommate Jackson Hogen), he wrote an erotically charged murder mystery set in Japan at the turn of the last century. In February 2002, at an A-list party at the vice president's mansion to celebrate the publication of Libby's novel, Cheney toasted his top aide. "I am proud to serve," Libby responded. He spoke quietly, but there was a thrill in his voice.

A man with such a heroic, romantic sense of his boss and his own role in history is bound to take some chances. The question is how Libby could have been so foolish as to do what he stands accused of doing in a five-count indictment for perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice. (Libby issued a statement that he is "confident" he will be "totally exonerated.") It seems obvious from the facts alleged in the indictment that Libby ran an enormous risk of getting caught in a lie. Possibly, when the investigation began, he shrugged it off as the umpteenth Washington leak investigation that would go nowhere. If so, he received an unhappy and unlucky surprise in the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, son of a doorman and scourge of the powerful, a modern-day Inspector Javert whose only loyalty is to the law.

But it is more likely that Libby was caught up in an ancient trap of the Best and the Brightest, the belief that they do not have to play by normal rules when they serve a higher calling, and that small lies can be told to protect higher truths. "National security" is usually the justification (see Watergate, Iran-contra). Judging from the indictment and what we know about Libby's own zeal, the vice president's chief of staff believed that he was protecting his boss in a great cause, the defeat of Islamo-fascism. If so, Libby's hubris may backfire. It's doubtful that Cheney has any legal exposure from his subordinate's alleged crimes, but the sensation over Libby's indictment is sure to bring renewed investigation into deeper and more serious charges of wrongdoing: that the Bush administration, and in particular the powerful, secretive vice president, willfully bent the facts to lead America into the Iraq war. Libby has always been known as Cheney's Cheney. He does not seem like the sort to go freelancing.

The two years of legal maneuvering over the question of who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, CIA undercover operative, has left most Americans thoroughly confused, if occasionally entertained by a colorful cast that included an undercover spy who posed (in dark glasses and a scarf around her blond hair) in the pages of Vanity Fair magazine. But as usual, the real story is the behind-the-scenes or "backstory"--in this case, a drawn-out, toxic and at times nonsensical tug of war between the CIA and the so-called neocons, the neocon-servatives who have played such an important role in the administration of George W. Bush.

To most Americans, the CIA conjures up images of James Bond--maybe a Bond who can't shoot straight, but a spooky operator nonetheless. To neocons, the CIA is a hopeless bureaucrat who couldn't find a terrorist if a jihadist asked him to strap a bomb under his coat. Chief neocon Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of Defense in the first term of this Bush administration, has been contemptuous of the CIA for many years--at least since Wolfowitz and other hard-liners accused the agency of underestimating the Soviet threat in the late 1970s.

Wolfowitz was Libby's favorite professor at Yale in the early '70s, and in 1981, Wolfowitz recruited his former star student to work for him at the Pentagon. At the time, Libby was a bored lawyer. He happened to be reading a book, "A Man Called Intrepid," which, he says, inspired him to enter public service. "Intrepid" was the code name for a British intelligence chief who had been part of that small band around Churchill in the 1930s. Intrepid and his boss secretly conspired to get America into the fight against the Nazis in part by warning that Germany was building an atom bomb. Sound familiar?

Libby has twice more sacrificed his lucrative legal career to take low-paying anonymous jobs in government. Wolfowitz brought Libby back from his law practice in 1991 to work for the then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in President George H.W. Bush's administration. In their own "wilderness years" during the Clinton administration, Libby was one of a small group of neocons who persistently agitated for taking out Iraq's Saddam Hussein before the Iraqi dictator could use the weapons of mass destruction he was supposedly building against Israel and the West.

In 2001, Vice President Cheney hired Libby to be his top aide, with an extra title, assistant to the president. Libby's ideology is actually closer to Cheney's than to Wolfowitz's. Libby is less interested in spreading democracy through the Middle East than he is in protecting America from attack. Like his boss, Libby has been almost obsessively focused on the dangers of germ warfare. He feared that Saddam was building "bioweapons" with small-pox and botulism strains. In December 2002, the veep and his top advisers met at the vice president's mansion to discuss whether every American should be vaccinated against smallpox. In light of later revelations about Libby and his relationship as a source for New York Times reporter Judith Miller, it is probably no coincidence that a few days before this meeting, a story appeared in the Times, under Miller's byline, with the headline C.I.A. HUNTS IRAQ TIE TO SOVIET SMALLPOX. The chilling story related an unnamed informant's allegation that a Russian scientist had given Iraq "a particularly virulent strain of smallpox."

Libby continued to ring warning bells about Iraq and bioterrorism during the buildup to war. At a briefing for President Bush in the Oval Office, Libby predicted that the Iraqis would launch multiple simultaneous smallpox attacks on several U.S. cities, according to a participant in the meeting who declined to be identified discussing sensitive information. Other administration officials pushed back against immunizing the whole country (the vaccine can be dangerous). No evidence was found that Saddam was working on a smallpox weapon, at least within the last 20 years.

Libby was convinced that there were ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam. He did his best not only to persuade the president, but certain high-profile reporters on the national-security beat. At a 2003 Christmas party at the home of Vanity Fair journalist Christopher Hitchens, Libby spent more than a half hour arguing with a NEWSWEEK reporter that hijacker Muhammad Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague before 9/11. By then, the claim had been publicly debunked by both the FBI and the CIA. During the conversation with the reporter, Libby repeatedly questioned the CIA's competence and objectivity. When he was finished, he suggested, in a flattering way, that the reporter think about joining the CIA, presumably on the theory that the agency needed A Few Good Men.

In his position as the vice president's national-security adviser, Libby had tremendous access to raw intelligence. He would comb through agent reports and phone conversations intercepted by the National Security Agency. From time to time, he would get on the phone and reach deep into the bureaucracy, asking midlevel analysts to interpret what he was seeing and reading. His manner was always polite, even courtly, recalled officials who had been on the receiving end, but also relentless.

Libby's critics in the intelligence community accuse him of "cherry-picking" from the evidence to present a case against Saddam that was more menacing than the known facts. It was Libby who wrote a 38-page draft of Secretary of State Colin Powell's case for war before the United Nations in February 2003. Powell was wary of Libby's information, and he brought in CIA analysts to scrub the speech. After furious debate, much of Libby's information--particularly the alleged links between Al Qaeda and Saddam--was taken out. But not enough: Powell has subsequently told reporters that he was "embarrassed" and "furious and angry" that he had been misled by his own government.

The prewar intramural struggles in the Bush administration happened well out of public view. There were occasional hints in the press about infighting between the neocons and the intelligence bureaucracy, but they were drowned out by the rush to war. The first real indication of internal conflict came after the war. In his January 2003 State of the Union, President Bush had cited a British intelligence report that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium--used to make a nuclear bomb--from the African country of Niger. But in July--well after the late-March invasion of Iraq--CIA Director George Tenet took the very unusual step of publicly declaring that the short passage (just 16 words) was based on bogus intelligence and should not have been included in the president's speech. Tenet, who played the loyal servant to Bush, manfully took responsibility. But anonymously, CIA officials blamed the White House for the inclusion of the "16 words."

Behind the scenes, a classic war of Washington leak and counterleak was raging. It began with Joseph Wilson, a flamboyant ex-diplomat with a taste for publicity. In 2002, Wilson had been sent to Niger by the CIA to check out reports that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium. Wilson privately reported back that he didn't see much sign of it. But when, in the winter of 2003, he saw the president trumpeting "British intelligence" reports, he decided to put out, anonymously at first, his own version of the story. He began leaking to reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times his own judg-ment that Saddam had not tried to buy uranium in Africa and that the so-called 16 words were based on documents that were probably forged.

It appears from the facts laid out in the indictment last week that Libby took an immediate and keen interest in these leaks. He began asking State Department and CIA officials about this mysterious diplomat who had been talking to the press. He learned about Wilson and Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip. He also learned that Wilson had been sent at the recommendation of his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA.

It is not clear from the indictment that Libby knew that Plame had been an undercover agent for the CIA. He learned from the vice president himself that Plame worked in the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA. (Che-ney had been making his own inquiries, and learned this information from a senior officer of the CIA.) Libby, however, was apparently sensitive to the need not to bandy Plame's identity about. According to the indictment, Libby's deputy asked him whether "information about Wilson's trip could be shared with the press." Libby responded that there would be "complications at the CIA in disclosing that information publicly," according to the indictment.

Libby does not appear to have taken his own advice. Four days later, on June 23, he met with Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller is the author of "Germs," a book about the dangers of biowarfare. According to the indictment, Libby disparaged what he called "selective leaking" by the CIA--and promptly leaked the fact that Wilson's wife worked at the agency. Wilson went public with his case against the administration on July 6, and the administration scrambled to respond. Libby told White House spokesman Ari Fleischer about Wilson and his wife on July 7, and the next day met with the Times's Miller again to complain about the CIA, according to the indictment. On July 10, Libby met with the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove (identified, Rove's lawyer confirms, in the indictment as "Official A"). Rove told Libby that columnist Robert Novak was about to write about Wilson's wife. Novak had picked up the story somehow (it's still not clear how), and discussed it with Rove. A press inquiry had come in from Time's Matt Cooper, and Libby and "other officials" discussed what to do about it on a trip with Cheney to Virginia on July 12. Cooper, who had already spoken to Rove, asked Libby if he had heard about Wilson's wife. Libby confirmed that he had.

When Valerie Plame Wilson was exposed as an undercover officer in the news media, the CIA requested a leak investigation. The administration basically stonewalled. Through a White House spokesman, Libby and Rove put out the word that they had had nothing to do with outing Wilson's wife.

The White House may have assumed that not much would come of the leak investigation. They almost always peter out because prosecutors don't want to ask reporters to identify their sources. When the FBI interviewed Libby in September, he told them he had first heard about Wilson's wife from a reporter--NBC's Tim Russert.

That might have been the end of it. But when Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself in December, the Justice Department had to appoint a special counsel. Patrick Fitzgerald, a hard-nosed choirboy of a prosecutor from Chicago, broke with custom and began subpoenaing reporters. After some legal dickering, several agreed to testify. Most damaging to Libby was Russert, who told the grand jury that he never discussed Wilson at all with Libby. The vice president's aide had called to harangue him about MSNBC's coverage of other matters altogether.

Libby continued to dig himself into a hole by contradicting Russert's version before the grand jury. The Times's Miller was the one reporter who had gone to jail rather than testify, but early this fall, Libby wrote her a letter waiving her prom-ise of confidentiality. His letter concluded on an oddly personal note. "Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work--and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers."

The conspiracy theorists immediately assumed that Libby was somehow signaling Miller to cover for him. (She did not; her testimony provided the prosecutor with key evidence against Libby.) It is perhaps more likely that Libby's poetic side was showing. His defense is sure to be that he did not mean to mislead the grand jury, that he simply could not remember details of long-ago conversations. Interestingly, Rove may be an important witness for Libby. According to a source familiar with Rove's testimony, who declined to be identified disclosing grand-jury information, Libby told Rove that he had heard about Wilson from Tim Russert. This squares with what Libby himself told the grand jury and suggests that Libby's story was at least consistent--not cooked up to mislead the Feds. Of course, Fitzgerald may just argue that Libby was lying to Rove, too.

Libby's trial, which may be a year away, promises to offer more glimpses into one of the most secretive administrations in modern times. Cheney may be called as a witness. If so, a jury--and the American public--will get a chance to decide if the conversations between those two guardians served the republic--or shamed it.