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Waterlogged

News analysis | In the CIA/Scooter Libby scandal, when is a leak one leak too many?

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

In the soggy saga that led to Lewis "Scooter" Libby's indictment last week, just which leak was it that breached the once scandalproof hull of the White House ship? The public's mind lists at the inebriating effect of two years' worth of Wilson-Plame-Miller-Cooper-Novak-Libby-who-knows-who's-next revelations.

How ironic that leak-loving Washington reporters will be covering a federal trial growing out of a leading official's purported leak to reporters. After all, word of the indictment itself leaked to The New York Times hours before special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald announced it.

Mr. Libby, who until the Oct. 28 indictment was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, is accused of serious crimes: one count obstruction of justice, three counts of giving false statements, and one count of perjury. The charges notably do not include disclosure of the identity of covert intelligence personnel, the original intent of the investigation ordered by the Justice Department two years ago. Specifically, did White House officials knowingly identify Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA officer? The charges against Mr. Libby arose instead from his conduct during the Fitzgerald investigation.

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That investigation would not exist were it not for Valerie Plame Wilson's own husband leaking presumably classified news of a 2002 trip to Africa. Four months after the 2003 State of the Union address, where President George W. Bush cited a British report claiming Saddam Hussein tried to buy milled uranium oxide, or yellowcake, in Africa, retired diplomat Joe Wilson met New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof over lunch. The CIA sent Mr. Wilson to Niger to track down the Saddam-uranium purchase report, Mr. Wilson told Mr. Kristof. Most in the diplomatic community already doubted the report, and after meeting with U.S. embassy officials in Niamey, the capital, and with business and government leaders, Mr. Wilson reached that conclusion, too.

Tipped that Mr. Wilson liked what he didn't find, Mr. Kristof wrote his story four days later this way: "I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the CIA and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged."

Next The New York Times granted Mr. Wilson op-ed space to expand on what he described as "a discreet but by no means secret" trip. That July 6 column recounted the Niger excursion, noting, "It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place." Mr. Wilson acknowledged that he did not file a written report of the 10-day trip. What he did not acknowledge was that the CIA office ordering the trip was the unit where his own wife worked. Later leaks to the press would reveal that Mrs. Wilson recommended her husband for the trip.

In all the subsequent investigating, what's never been properly explained is whether Mr. Wilson's trip to Niger was official-and perhaps should have been classified-or not. He traveled at CIA expense but was not paid for his time. He met with U.S. embassy officials in Niamey and business leaders, but all were colleagues and contacts stemming from his tenure at U.S. posts, including ambassador to Gabon. He filed no official report with the CIA, yet wondered anyway-given the president's State of the Union reference-if his finding had been ignored "because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq." If Mr. Wilson were for real, why didn't he talk with the White House before he talked with The New York Times?

Concerns about Saddam's WMD arsenal were all too real among U.S. and British officials at that time. In April 2003 two Iraqi scientists employed by Iraq's Nuclear Energy Authority and newly freed by U.S. forces went on al-Jazeera to point out that nuclear facilities in Tawitha included 200 barrels of yellowcakes, or milled uranium oxide, and had been looted. The scientists themselves watched vandals empty the barrels' contents into nearby waterways and cart the barrels away. One scientist later saw one of the emptied barrels full of tomatoes.

Other WMD-related finds in Iraq in those months after initial combat included:

  • "10 or 12 sarin and mustard rounds"
  • a 7-pound block of cyanide salt
  • "a vial of live C. botulinum Okra B. from which a biological agent can be produced. . . . hidden in the home" of an Iraqi biological weapons scientist
  • and "1.77 metric tons of low-enriched uranium and roughly 1000 highly radioactive sources."

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