Dick Cheney: An Irascible Witness

When the FBI questioned Vice President Dick Cheney about his knowledge of the CIA leak affair, the vice president proved to be an irascible and at times uncooperative witness: he repeatedly claimed memory loss on key questions, refused to answer others because they involved "privileged" conversations, and complained that he was "pressed for time." In the end, he rejected a standard bureau request that he not discuss his testimony with other witnesses in the case.

These and other details of Cheney's May 28, 2004, interview with the FBI are contained in a redacted 28-page report that was released by the Justice Department late Friday afternoon.

They contain no bombshells that will change the public's basic understanding of the leak investigation, which led to the indictment and conviction of Cheney's top aide, Scooter Libby, on perjury charges. But they do flesh out a portrait of a vice president who made little secret of his disdain for key players in the saga: the CIA, the news media (including NEWSWEEK), and apparently the FBI agents who had been authorized to investigate the matter.

"It was amateur hour at the CIA," Cheney told the FBI when he was questioned about the agency's decision to dispatch former ambassador Joe Wilson to Niger to look into claims that Saddam Hussein was buying yellowcake uranium (after Cheney had expressed an interest in the subject).

Libby had been forced to respond to media inquiries about the affair because "of the incompetence of the CIA," Cheney said at another point.

Asked if he had authorized Libby to provide information about the issue to NEWSWEEK as well as Time, Cheney said "he could not conceive" of doing so because "he does not have a very favorable view of NEWSWEEK." (Cheney appeared to have expressed similar views of The New York Times, although for reasons that are not clear, portions of the passage in which he discusses the newspaper are redacted.)

Although it now seems long ago, the CIA leak affair gripped Washington in the summer of 2003 after former ambassador Wilson charged that the White House had distorted the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of destruction. One week later, stories by the late columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine questioned Wilson's credibility by reporting that his wife worked at the CIA—and therefore may have been instrumental in dispatching him on the agency-sponsored trip to Niger. Soon thereafter, the FBI launched a criminal investigation into whether somebody at the White House had "outed" Valerie Plame Wilson, who was an undercover CIA officer at the time. Suspicion soon centered on Libby, Cheney's top aide.

But when questioned about his conversations with Libby about the matter, Cheney told the FBI (and special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who participated in the interview), he couldn't remember much.

The vice president acknowledged that it was then-CIA director George Tenet who told him that Wilson's wife had worked for the CIA. (Cheney said that Tenet sounded "defensive and embarrassed" about the issue.) But Cheney "does not recall discussing Valerie Wilson" with Libby prior to Novak's column about her—even though Libby's own notes showed that he did. Cheney had "no specific recollection" of knowing that Libby had talked to reporters about the Wilson controversy prior to Novak's column—even though trial evidence showed that Cheney had indeed directed Libby to talk to reporters about the issue. (Cheney also could not recall details of conversations he had about Joe Wilson with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card, and political adviser Karl Rove—although he acknowledged such conversations probably took place.)

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the interview occurred toward the end, when Cheney was asked about President Bush's decision in June 2003 to declassify portions of a National Intelligence Estimate about Iraqi WMD. The federal investigators wanted to know what he had told Libby about the president's decision. (The declassification led to Libby's selective leaking to New York Times reporter Judy Miller about some portions of the NIE that appeared to bolster the White House position about Iraqi WMD.)

But Cheney "declined to answer" questions about declassification because he did not want to share "potentially privileged conversations between himself and the president." When it was "clarified" for Cheney that he was only being asked about what he had discussed with Libby, not the president, he still refused. "Vice President Cheney repeated his assertion that he must refrain from commenting to the investigators about any private and/or privileged conversations he may have had with the president," the report states.

It was after that when Cheney began complaining that he was "pressed for time." He then refused the FBI's request that he sign a waiver that would allow reporters to talk about confidential discussions they might have had with him. He also refused the bureau's request that he promise that he would not discuss the subject of his testimony with any other witnesses in the case. His lawyer, Terry O'Donnell, interjected that he understood the bureau's request but "could not make a binding commitment" to refrain from such discussions. The refusal prompted Fitzgerald to emphasize that it was important that the recollections of other witnesses not be "influenced" by Cheney.

And on that contentious point, the interview with the uncooperative witness ended.