Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff was so angry about the public statements of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a Bush administration critic married to an undercover CIA officer, that he monitored all of Wilson’s television appearances and urged the White House to mount an aggressive public campaign against him, former aides say.
Those efforts by the chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, began shortly after Wilson went public with his criticisms in 2003. But they continued into last year -- well after the Justice Department began an investigation in September 2003, into whether administration officials had illegally disclosed the CIA operative’s identity, say former White House aides.
While other administration officials were maintaining a careful distance from Wilson in 2004, Libby ordered up a compendium of information that could be used to rebut Wilson’s claims that the administration had “twisted” intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq before the U.S. invasion.
Libby pressed the administration to publicly counter Wilson, sparking a debate with other White House officials who thought the tactic would call more attention to the former diplomat and his criticisms. That debate ended after an April 2004 meeting in the office of White House Communications Director Daniel Bartlett, when staffers were told “don’t engage” Wilson, according to notes taken during the meeting by one person present.
“Scooter had a plan to counter Wilson and a passionate desire to do so,” said a second person, a former White House official familiar with the internal deliberations. Like other former White House staff, this person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal investigation.
Libby’s actions and those of top White House political advisor Karl Rove are being scrutinized as special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald concludes his 22-month investigation into the exposure of Wilson’s wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Fitzgerald is examining whether Plame’s name was leaked to the media by administration officials in violation of a federal law that prohibits knowingly disclosing the identity of a covert agent.
Libby’s anger over Wilson’s 2003 charges has been known. But new interviews and documents obtained by The Times provide a more detailed view of the depth and duration of Libby’s interest in Wilson. They also show that the vice president’s office closely monitored news coverage.
On one occasion, the office prohibited a reporter from traveling with Cheney aboard Air Force Two, because the vice president’s daughter said Cheney was unhappy with that newspaper’s coverage.
Libby “would see something had appeared in the newspaper or on television and wanted to use the White House operation to counter it,” one former official said.
After Wilson published a book criticizing the administration in April 2004, during the closely fought presidential campaign, Libby became consumed by passages that he believed were inaccurate or unfair to Cheney, former aides said. He ordered up a meticulous catalog of Wilson’s claims and public statements going back to early 2003.
The result was a packet that included excerpts from press clips and television transcripts of Wilson’s statements that were divided into categories, such as “political ties” or “WMD.”
The compendium used boldfaced type to call attention to certain comments by Wilson, such as one in the Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa student newspaper, in which Wilson was quoted as calling Cheney “a lying son of a bitch.” It also highlighted Wilson’s answers to questions from television journalists about his work with Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The intensity with which Libby reacted to Wilson had many senior White House staffers puzzled, and few agreed with his counterattack plan or its rationale, former aides said.
Though the White House did not respond to Wilson’s claims, the Republican National Committee did strike back with a series of press releases attacking his credibility.
One prominent former Cheney aide defended Libby on Thursday, saying he was zealous and passionate about everything he worked on -- not just the Wilson episode.
“Scooter is the most methodical, detail-oriented and comprehensive worker of anybody I’ve ever worked with in my life,” said Mary Matalin, a former Cheney advisor who worked as a consultant on the 2004 campaign.
“He leaves no stone unturned, and it doesn’t matter what the topic is,” she said. “That’s the nature of Scooter, and that’s why he’s such a superior intellect and why Cheney and the president and everybody over there respects him.”
Wilson, reached by telephone while on a speaking tour in California, said Thursday that he was outraged by the extent of the White House effort to track and counter his statements.
“What an abuse of power,” Wilson said. “What the hell are they doing using taxpayer funded employees to root around and find information on me?”
Libby’s intense interest in Wilson may help explain why he has become a focus in the federal investigation into who leaked Valerie Plame’s name.
The case had its origins in early 2002, when Cheney asked the CIA for information on reports that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium yellowcake from the African nation of Niger.
In response to Cheney’s queries, the CIA decided to send Wilson, who had served in the region and was familiar with the uranium trade, to investigate. Wilson’s wife was working undercover for the CIA on weapons issues at the time.
On his trip to Niger, Wilson found little reason to believe the Iraqis had sought the uranium, and on his return reported his findings to CIA officials.
In January 2003, President Bush in his State of the Union address cited Iraq’s interest in African uranium as a sign of President Saddam Hussein’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. In July, Wilson penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times describing his findings and suggesting that the president had distorted intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq.
Within days, administration officials were telling reporters that Wilson had been sent to Niger as a boondoggle arranged by his wife, who worked at the CIA. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak published her name on July 14.
It can be a felony to knowingly leak the identity of a covert agent, and in late 2003 the Justice Department appointed Fitzgerald to investigate. Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his inquiry into the leak and has focused on Rove and Libby, among others.
Rove and Libby have both reportedly testified that they learned about Plame from others, did not know she had covert status and did not reveal her name to reporters. The White House and a lawyer for Libby declined to comment Thursday.
The documents and interviews portray Libby as highly attuned to detail. He dictated the format for internal memos, including that paragraphs be indented.
The documents and interviews show that, when it came to monitoring media coverage of Wilson and other issues affecting the vice president’s reputation, Libby was meticulous. Staffers were instructed to use Nexis and Google to watch even the most obscure publications.
The sensitivity extended in at least one case to the vice president’s daughter, Liz Cheney, who worked as a campaign advisor.
During a time of tension between the New York Times and the campaign over coverage, aides recommended that a reporter from the paper be allowed to fly aboard Cheney’s plane with others in the press corps. Liz Cheney had a different idea.
Writing from her Blackberry, a mobile e-mail device, she noted that her father was upset with a story that appeared in that morning’s newspaper, saying: “vp has totally had it with nytimes. This is really not the right time to ask him to charm a reporter from that paper.”
The reporter was excluded from the vice president’s plane.