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Cheney, CIA Long at Odds

Times Staff Writers

For more than a decade, Dick Cheney has tussled with the CIA, first as secretary of Defense and later as vice president. Now that long and tortured history forms the backdrop of a federal probe into who named an undercover agency officer -- an inquiry that is centering in part on Cheney’s office.

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has interviewed not only the vice president but also his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and several other current and former Cheney aides as he seeks to learn who told reporters about the agent and whether anyone obstructed his inquiry.

Cheney’s long relationship with Libby, and their shared doubts about the CIA, help explain why the vice president and his staff would draw the prosecutor’s interest. Fitzgerald is in the final stages of deciding whether to issue indictments, according to defense lawyers in the case, and his decision could roil a White House struggling with sinking poll numbers, a troubled Supreme Court nomination and other problems.

Fitzgerald is trying to determine who revealed the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover officer and the wife of former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had publicly accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to rally support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Initially, Fitzgerald was investigating whether Plame was unmasked in an effort to undermine her husband’s credibility by suggesting that a fact-finding mission he undertook for the CIA was the result of nepotism. However, the inquiry has broadened to questions of perjury, obstruction of justice and possibly conspiracy to violate laws on classified materials.

Fitzgerald has learned about ongoing tensions between Cheney’s circle and the CIA. According to a former White House official interviewed by The Times, Libby and others in the White House were incensed by Wilson’s public criticism, in part because they saw it as a salvo fired by the CIA at administration officials, including Cheney, who was perhaps the most outspoken advocate of the case against Iraq.

Witnesses have told Fitzgerald about those tensions. New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote recently that she told the grand jury that Libby had been angry with the CIA in the months after the invasion of Iraq, saying that President Bush might have made inaccurate statements about Iraqi weapons programs because the agency did not discuss its doubts.

Cheney and Libby have worked together for years. As secretary of Defense for President George H.W. Bush, Cheney hired Libby in a senior role. As vice president, Cheney brought Libby on as his top aide and national security advisor. The two are said to be so close personally and ideologically that some refer to Libby as “Cheney’s Cheney.”

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In addition to Cheney and Libby, Fitzgerald has interviewed aides Mary Matalin, John Hannah and Cathie Martin. Jennifer Millerwise, a former media aide now working as CIA communications director, was questioned two years ago.

The fact that Cheney has only been questioned once could suggest that the prosecutor, though interested in Cheney’s office, is not focused on the vice president. Fitzgerald has shown strong interest in senior White House advisor Karl Rove, who has testified to the grand jury four times.

Cheney’s skepticism of the CIA dates to the late 1980s, when the agency failed to predict the Soviet Union’s breakup, according to a source familiar with Cheney’s thinking. When then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and the first Bush administration began to ponder its military options, it became clear to Cheney that the intelligence community had a poor understanding of Iraq’s arsenal.

Libby, who was working for Cheney, assigned an aide to conduct a secret investigation of Hussein’s biological warfare capabilities and his likely reactions to a U.S. invasion.

“Libby’s basic view of the world is that the CIA has blown it over and over again,” said the source, who declined to be identified because he had spoken with Libby confidentially. “Libby and Cheney were [angry] that we had not been prepared for the potential in the first Gulf War.”

In the view of the officials who went on to form George W. Bush’s war Cabinet, the CIA continued to blunder through the 1990s. In 1998, for example, the CIA failed to anticipate India’s testing of a nuclear weapon.

After President George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, Cheney immediately established the vice president’s office as a second base of foreign policy and intelligence inside the White House, in addition to the National Security Council. Cheney not only received a daily briefing from the CIA, he frequently sat in on the president’s briefing and the “principals’ meetings” held to assess serious foreign policy and national security issues.

Leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Cheney worked with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s then-deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, to challenge CIA findings that countered their expectations or that disagreed with information they had received through their own intelligence channels.

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Cheney traveled from the White House to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., a dozen times, most often to discuss Iraq’s possible links to nuclear weapons and terrorism. Agency veterans have said that Cheney’s visits were more frequent than those of any other president or vice president, including the first president Bush, a former director of the agency.

When Cheney visited the CIA, Iraq was his main focus, particularly in the months before the war. Unlike Libby and others working with the vice president, Cheney was reportedly always polite. But in his quiet way, he was insistent, sometimes asking the same question again and again as if he hoped the answer would change, according to people familiar with his contacts with the CIA.

Cheney’s visits perked up agency analysts who often worked anonymously, said one former official. Many reportedly enjoyed the challenge of a smart questioner and appreciated his interest. But Cheney’s visits and his clinging to certain views became noticeable and drew expressions of concern, according to the former official.

For example, CIA officials repeatedly told Cheney and others in his circle that they did not think Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi agents in Prague, Czech Republic, before the attacks.

Nonetheless, the agency continued to receive dozens of inquiries on the topic from top officials -- several times from Cheney himself. Despite the agency warnings, Cheney made reference to the Atta meeting as if it were a sure thing.

“It’s been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack,” Cheney said Dec. 9, 2001, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The allegation was not backed up with reliable intelligence, as Cheney and his staff had been repeatedly told, according to a former CIA official. The matter was addressed in public when senators asked CIA Director Porter J. Goss during his confirmation hearings last year to assess the accuracy of Cheney’s allegations.

“I don’t think it was as well-confirmed perhaps as the vice president thought,” said Goss, a Florida Republican who had been chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “But I don’t know what was in the vice president’s mind, and I’ve certainly never talked with him about this. So I don’t know how we came to that conclusion.”

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Asked by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) whether the assertion was “worthy of correction,” Goss said he might have intervened had he been in charge at the time. “If I were confronted with that kind of a hypothetical, where I felt that a policymaker was getting beyond what the intelligence said, I think I would advise the person involved,” Goss said.

Cheney also frequently spoke with certainty throughout 2002 about Iraq and its pursuit of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Addressing Korean War veterans in Texas that August, he predicted that Hussein, armed with nuclear weapons, would “be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, to take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, and to directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.”

“Simply stated,” Cheney continued, “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies and against us.”

A presidential commission on intelligence led by senior federal Judge Laurence H. Silberman concluded that questioning of intelligence analysts by outsiders was healthy, and said in March in its final report on the Iraq war that the “intelligence community did not make or change any analytical judgments in response to political pressure to reach a particular conclusion.”

Nonetheless, the tensions between the vice president’s office and the CIA increased as investigators failed to find weapons of mass destruction. White House staffers feared they would be blamed by the CIA for encouraging misleading intelligence estimates, one former official said.

Then, Wilson’s account of his CIA mission to Niger embarrassed the White House by undermining the administration’s claim that Iraq had sought nuclear materials from Africa.

Fitzgerald has been told that Wilson’s public disclosure of his findings in Niger reminded Libby and other neoconservatives in the White House of their longtime battles with the CIA, according to someone familiar with the case. And it led some to fear that the agency was trying to shift the blame to the White House for intelligence failures before the war.

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Times staff writer Sonni Efron and researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this report.


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