National Security & Defense

The Runaway Prosecutor Who Almost Lost Iraq

The truth about Dick Cheney, “Scooter” Libby, and Valerie Plame.

The most explosive story in Washington, D.C., this week isn’t about Iran but about Iraq. It’s about how a runaway special prosecutor wrecked America’s chances of defeating the insurgency in the early days of the Iraq war, and left the region — and American foreign policy in the Middle East — in a shambles ever since.

These revelations come from veteran New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s new book, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey. It tells how special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald rigged the 2007 perjury trial of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in the Valerie Plame case, and inadvertently condemned thousands of Americans to be killed and maimed needlessly in Iraq.

The Plame case has been shrouded in a fog of media-generated myth for almost a decade. The myth maintains that Cheney and Libby deliberately set out to blow the cover of CIA employee Valerie Plame in retaliation for an explosive op-ed that her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, published in the New York Times in July 2003. In that op-ed, Wilson contradicted the Bush administration’s assertion that Saddam Hussein had been trying to obtain yellowcake uranium in Niger in order to build an atomic bomb. The leak of Plame’s identity to columnist Robert Novak — so goes the story — led special prosecutor Fitzgerald on a two-year investigation to find the culprit, culminating in the trial and conviction of Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice.

We now know — and not just from Miller’s book — that virtually every element of that story is false.

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The truth is, Joe Wilson’s New York Times piece actually lied about the results of his investigative mission to Niger in 2002: In fact, what he found is that Saddam’s agents had indeed tried to obtain yellowcake uranium. Plame was one of the CIA officials who had sent Wilson to Niger. She had read the report, knew all along that her husband had lied, but still did nothing to correct the record — although the Robb-Silberman Commission on WMDs in Iraq and the Senate Intelligence Committee later did.

The truth is, Scooter Libby had called up reporters to refute the falsehoods Wilson was spreading. A long list of reporters, including Bob Woodward, testified under oath at Libby’s trial that at no time in their conversations with Libby did he ever mention Plame’s CIA employment or even confirm it when asked.

The truth is, Fitzgerald knew even before his investigation started who had “outed” Valerie Plame. It was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who leaked her identity to Novak, and the CIA’s own spokesman had confirmed that information for Novak’s column. But Fitzgerald didn’t go after Armitage because he had someone else in his prosecutorial cross hairs. That was Vice President Dick Cheney, by 2003 the most unpopular man in Washington. Bringing down Cheney for the Plame leak, Fitzgerald figured, would make his career, especially among liberals and go a long way toward justifying a two-year-long witch hunt that was — in the words of the CIA’s own acting general counsel, John Rizzo — “a colossal waste of time and money.”

The way to get Cheney, Fitzgerald believed, was to go after his chief of staff, Scooter Libby: not for leaking Plame’s identity (no evidence supported that charge) but for lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with three reporters — NBC’s Tim Russert, Time’s Matt Cooper, and Miller — regarding Wilson and WMDs in Iraq. Fitzgerald as much as told Libby’s lawyers that was his game plan, when he said he would drop all charges if Libby would testify that the vice president had ordered the leak. When Libby refused to lie to save his own skin, Fitzgerald indicted him.

And now, thanks to Miller’s book, we know the final, most devastating truth about Fitzgerald’s tainted prosecution.

Miller reveals that at one point in her notes on a June 23, 2003, conversation with Libby, she had a parenthetical reference that said, “wife worked at Bureau?” Fitzgerald eagerly seized on those four words, and demanded to know, “What did Bureau mean?” He asked Miller repeatedly, “Could it be FBI?”

He knew it couldn’t. Eventually, under Fitzgerald’s prodding, Miller came to believe that “Bureau” had to mean the CIA. On the witness stand during Fitzgerald’s direct examination, she finally said Libby had told her that.

When one count of lying about another conversation with Miller was thrown out, and the jury acquitted Libby of confirming anything about Plame’s identity in the Cooper case, Miller’s testimony on that June 23 conversation became crucial for Fitzgerald to get a conviction on the last remaining count. It implied that Libby had indeed leaked Plame’s identity to someone, namely Miller; and it undercut Libby’s testimony that he had been “surprised” when Russert told him on July 12, 2003, that Plame was either at the CIA or instrumental in sending her husband to Niger, or both — a year later, Libby couldn’t remember which.

It was on conflicting versions of that conversation that Fitzgerald finally got his conviction, arguing in part that Libby couldn’t have been surprised if days earlier he had told Judith Miller that Plame worked for the CIA.

Fitzgerald didn’t stop there. He told the jury that Dick Cheney had ordered Libby to talk to Miller, implying that it was the vice president who had incited his chief of staff to leak Plame’s identity. In his closing statement, he proclaimed that, thanks to Miller’s testimony, a “cloud of suspicion” now hung over the second-highest office in the country.

Yet every part of that testimony was false, and Fitzgerald knew it. He had withheld from Miller a crucial fact: that Plame had once worked undercover as an employee of the State Department, which, unlike the CIA, is divided into bureaus. Fitzgerald also withheld that same vital information from Libby’s lawyers — an unforgivable breach of ethics as well as the law.

That subterfuge convinced Miller to testify that the notes said something they did not, and which Libby vehemently denied: namely, that he had revealed Plame’s CIA employment. Indeed, before meeting Libby, Miller had talked to people at State who recalled Plame working there. One of them, she later realized, may well have passed along the information about Plame’s being in one of the State Department bureaus — something Libby never knew.

Today, Miller admits she can’t remember who told her about Plame, except that it couldn’t have been Libby. But she is certain that her false testimony helped to convict an innocent man, and she hopes that The Story can now set the record straight.

Still, the implications of the case go far beyond Fitzgerald’s withholding exculpatory evidence from a witness and defense attorneys.

That summer of 2003, Libby was the one person of the seven in the president’s War Council arguing for a change in strategy in the American occupation of Iraq to deal with mounting violence and a growing Sunni insurgency. Libby argued for a counterinsurgency using both U.S. and Iraqi forces. As early as June, Libby was pushing hard to reexamine the threat, the U.S. strategy, and the kinds and levels of U.S. and Iraqi forces needed — that is, until the Plame investigation pulled him into testifying to the FBI and grand juries, and tainted him with a crime he didn’t commit.

Libby’s “strong voice,” as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Miller, was badly missed in the debate on what to do in Iraq. At least one other participant in those meetings, General Jack Keane — who four years later would be one of the architects of the Petraeus surge — concurs. “Without Scooter’s relentless early efforts,” he told Miller, “I’m not sure the White House would have admitted failure and changed the military strategy” when it finally did — but only after we had lost more than 3,000 lives, and the public’s patience with the war was exhausted.

That in turn led to Barack Obama’s election and the premature pullout of American forces from Iraq, which opened the door for ISIS and the resumption of bloodshed on a hideous scale.      

Contrary to Fitzgerald’s assertion during the Libby trial, there never was a cloud over Vice President Cheney — any more than Libby was guilty of any crime. The real cloud was over Fitzgerald and his prosecutorial misconduct. Today an even uglier cloud hangs over Iraq and American foreign policy, thanks to Fitzgerald’s recklessness.


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